Schwartzman Dairy – Cheese Made with Love

I am so lucky to live in a small country where I have the opportunity to meet so many interesting people. I especially enjoy meeting people who take pride in their work and make products with love, like Ziv Schwartzman does.

Early in our courtship, Mr. BT invited me to go away on our first weekend trip to the North. He booked a lovely zimmer in a sleepy village, known for its history, called Bat Shlomo, which is not far inland from Zichron Yaakov. Bat Shlomo was founded in 1889 and is one of the earliest Jewish settlements of the modern period. The original village consists of one charming street that contains beautiful stone houses with terracotta tiled roofs; the one above is my dream house.

However, we didn’t  manage to visit Bat Shlomo’s most important attraction during that trip because we were busy visiting other places and friends who lived in the area. It took us eight years before we had a chance to go back during working hours and make up for the missed opportunity.

When you enter the archway to the courtyard of Schwartzman Dairy, you are transported back in time to a period when the early settlers built the country with their hands, and cutting stones and setting them into walls was still backbreaking work.

The family has done a lovely job of decorating the courtyard with old pots, sewing machines, cartwheels, and plows in every nook and cranny.

The store, where you can taste and purchase all of their cheeses on offer, also serves as a museum displaying family photographs from 100 years ago, documents from the Turkish and British era, farm tools, household utensils, and family heirlooms.

The storefront brought a smile to my face and reminded me of the old dry-goods stores that were in most small towns in the United States. Okay, they didn’t sell labane and olives, but still.

Ziv Schwartzman is a third generation cheesemaker, olive grower, and producer of olive oil. He wants you to love his cheese as much as he loves making it, and you can’t help submitting to his enthusiasm, because all of his organic cow and goat cheeses are delicious, have depth of flavour and make you want to take some home, which of course we did.

We left with a bag full of goodies, including delicious labane with herbs, and black raspberry jam.

We also brought home a Tzfatit with herbs, Tomme, and a Chevrotine.  The cheese at the bottom of the picture is an English cheddar with cranberries that we purchased elsewhere.

We also sampled their delicious homegrown olives, olive oil, and jams.

They also sell a variety of spices, pickled vegetables, and bottles of soda pop from days gone by.

You can order a cheese platter and other goodies to eat on the premises and wash it down with their hot cider or if you’re lucky enough you can try their orgasmic malabi with carob and date honey, which Ziv graciously gave us to taste. I have to admit that I am not a huge fan of the watery malabi with fake raspberry syrup, and the even worse parve version with fake chocolate syrup and coconut that you find in restaurants; but as Ziv said, “This is not Tel Aviv malabi!”. This, my friends, is the best damn malabi I have ever had and I am sure he will not part with the recipe. It is milky, silky, and not too sweet; the combination of date honey and carob honey is a perfect marriage and I am going back very soon to have another one.

Israeli Food Bloggers Event at Mazzarine Patisserie Artisanale

This past Thursday, six of the some of the more interesting (okay, I am biased) Israeli food bloggers got together:

Irène of Irène Sharon Hodes
Liz of Cafe Liz
Miriam of Israeli Kitchen
Sarah of Foodbridge
Yael of Apples and Honey

We had fun learning about each other. Some of us talked about whether we should only focus on one genre of food such as raw food, kosher, vegetarian or Middle Eastern/Kurdish, others talked about concentrating on the promotion of their food writing for professional gain, and some of us just enjoy writing and learning about cultures they are not familiar without thinking about whether it will turn into something like a cookbook or freelance articles. The most important thing we all agreed on was that we want to try and meet once a month at a different locations, and also arrange field trips to wineries, shuks, dairies, and other interesting food-related jaunts.

We met at the lovely Mazzarine Cafe on Montefiore 42 in Tel Aviv. When you walk into the cafe, you feel like you have  just walked into a chic Parisian cafe. I love the way they designed the space, with several different rooms to choose from: the front of the cafe with a constant view of the beautiful pastries on offer; the main room with a lovely view to the garden room, which gives you a feeling of sitting in a botanical garden; and the private room, with a beautiful wooden table that reminded me of my cousin’s French farm table in Holland. We had reserved the private room.

The cafe was founded by Chef Pâtissier Alon Goldman who started his culinary career working at the legendary and sorely missed Keren restaurant owned by one of my favorite Israeli chefs, Haim Cohen. There he fine-tuned his pastry skills and after a year he decided to move to France to expand his professional knowledge. He studied at the famous Lenôtre Culinary and Pastry School in Paris. While in France he worked at several Michelin starred restaurants such as the beautiful Burgundian restaurant at the late chef Bernard Loiseau’s Relais Bernard Loiseau and at the famous Ladurée pâtisserie. He also studied Mediterranean pastry at the famous and mouthwatering Karaköy Güllüoğlu (some of the best baklava I have ever had!) in Istanbul, Turkey, and was head pastry chef at Taboon restaurant in New York before fulfilling his dream of opening his own cafe.

The staff at the Montefiore location were very nice and excited about the food bloggers visiting their cafe. They all understand the items that they are selling, which is very refreshing for an Israeli cafe. But, really, how could you not be enthusiastic about selling beautiful looking cakes and pastries.

The menu has an array of sandwiches, salads, pasta, and main dishes to choose from. Most of us ordered from the specials on offer:

I choose a delicious soup made from a mushroom and vegetable base with perfectly pink-centered salmon and pasta designed with flat-leaf parsley.

Yael chose a vegetable quiche and salad.

Sarah and Irène chose a grilled tuna with Chinese pancakes, jasmine rice and a soy reduction. The tuna was also medium rare as I like it. My only issue with it is that the soy reduction was a little too salty, but I would definitely order it.

I didn’t get a chance to take a picture of Liz’s Caesar salad and Miriam’s gnocchi with artichokes and roasted cherry tomatoes, but I did taste Miriam’s and the gnocchi were light as they should be and the sauce was very nice. Another dish I will have to order.

Mazzarine’s very charming chef, Sharon Artzi, who only joined the restaurant a week ago, came to greet us with one of his new and very interesting dishes, gnocchi stuffed with prunes and served with roasted eggplant and a tehina-portabello mushroom sauce.

I know that it sounds quite strange and maybe too many flavours, but it worked and I thought it was delicious. He explained that he is going to change the entire menu in the coming weeks. I think there is great promise from this chef and I look forward to dining there again.

Of course we couldn’t leave without trying some of Chef Alon’s lovely pastries:

Sarah and I chose Zen – a tart filled with chocolate crème brûlée and covered in dark chocolate, which is perfect for a chocolate lover.

Miriam chose the eclair with cream and strawberries.

Irène chose Ebony, which is topped with 70% chocolate mousse,  filled with chocolate crème brûlée and covered in dark chocolate with an almond macaroon on the side.

The truth is that although the tarts and cakes were, or looked, wonderful, I would have liked to see more of them based on fruit, which is certainly not lacking in Israel during the winter. For that matter, I would have liked to see more Middle Eastern influence in the traditional French and Austrian pastries in the confectionery cabinet, which would have been a good marriage to the new chef’s main dishes. I highly recommend a visit to Mazzarine: where you will not be disappointed.

If anyone would like to come to our next event in March, please send me an email on my Contact page above and I will add you to the list.

Home Away from Home – The Final Day

On the last day of our vacation, we had a leisurely breakfast at the treehouse and then drove to Kibbutz Yechiam to go to the annual Renaissance Festival at  Yechiam Castle.

Probably built by the Templars in the late 12th century, Yechiam was destroyed by the Mamluke Sultan Baybars of Egypt and Syria in the late 1200s. Its ruins were rebuilt in the 18th century by the local Bedouin warlord, Sheik Dahr El-Omar.  Today, the castle is open for visitors and is used for private events, concerts and festivals.

The kibbutz is famous for Deli – Yehiam, a kosher meat factory specializing in deli meats. Today, Deli – Yehiam has 20 percent of the local Israeli sausage and deli meats market, and exports their products to the US and Europe.

We went to the Renaissance Festival to hear our friend Myrna Herzog’s ensemble, Phoenix, perform songs from the Portuguese Crypto-Jews and from the Sephardic tradition;  Spanish music by Diego Ortiz, Francisco de la Torre, Luiz Narváez, Juan del Encina and Diego Pisador, and music from the Colombina song-book. Phoenix is always a joy to hear and see; the audience was moving and swaying to the early music with a South American beat.

We stayed to listen to a performance of madrigal singers, which normally we would have enjoyed had it not been for the unbelievably rude people sitting all around us. They talked loudly throughout the entire performance and the ones behind us did not shut up until I asked them why they were there. The rest of the Renaissance Festival was rather disappointing, but maybe it is unfair of me to try and compare it to the Georgia Renaissance Festival that I used to attend when I lived in Atlanta.

After the two performances, we decided to stop somewhere for a late lunch and head back home.

We decided to stop in Kfar Rama to try a highly recommended restaurant called Ezba, which is run by Chef Habib Daoud and his wife Minerba. I have to tell you that when we saw the faded sign in the middle of a grotty industrial area next to the highway, and no cars in the narrow and quite steep driveway, I did not have high hopes that the restaurant was still in operation. The building looked abandoned, but Mr BT insisted that we stop and he went to the front door to see if anyone was there. He waved to me to park the car and come inside.

And when we entered, the decorations looked like someone’s house, but this time we were actually eating in a restaurant.

The restaurant specializes in dishes of the Arab cuisine from the Galilee. Chef Daoud uses herbs and spices from the area and offers a unique opportunity to taste the simple and mouth-watering delicacies that are traditionally served in the homes of local Arab families. The dishes vary according to the season and to what nature has to offer in the immediate surroundings.

After our warm greeting, we were served a cabbage salad like I have never had before. It did not have a sour pickled flavour which I really dislike, but tasted more like sauteed cabbage. It was delicious, as were the local olives.

As we studied the menu, I saw a dish that I had always wanted to try, Akoub, which is cardoons. Cardoons are sold at the shuk, but they are very expensive because they are difficult to harvest. You also have to be very careful when trying to prepare them because each stalk is covered with small, nearly invisible, spines that can cause enormous pain if they are lodged in the skin. Mr. BT and I decided to share an order as an appetizer. They were delicious,  tasted like a cross between an artichoke and broccoli, and were served in a flavourful broth over a rice and toasted vermicelli mixture.

After a few minutes of being the only ones in the restaurant, one car after another started arriving until the restaurant was completely full with excited guests anticipating a good meal.

For my main course, I ordered kubbeh siniyeh, which is made from the same mixture of bulgur and minced meat as in the normal torpedo-shaped kubbeh, but baked in a ceramic dish.

Mr BT ordered Beef with Freekeh, toasted young wheat which when cooked looks like green bulgar and has a distinct smokey flavour. According to legend more than 2000 years ago, before leaving in retreat, soldiers who had attacked a village in Lebanon set the fields on fire in order to destroy the wheat, condemning the local people to ruin. Instead, trying to save whatever they could, the locals collected the burnt grain from the fields and after cleaning it, they discovered a toasted grain that was green and very nutritious. Because it is harvested while it’s still young, Freekeh contains more protein, vitamins, and minerals than mature wheat and most other grains. It is also low in starch and high in fibre–up to four times the fibre of brown rice.

The main dishes were accompanied by a nice fresh Arab salad with pomegranate seeds.

We washed the meal down with fresh lemonade with pomegranate seeds.

As we were finishing our meal, three women in their early 60s entered the restaurant a bit unsure if they should stay. They discussed it in a huddle for a minute and proceeded to sit at the table behind Mr BT. One of them sat opposite the other two for a few seconds and then decided to move to the other side of the table. They were now all sitting on the same side of the table. One of the other women asked why she had move, that now it would be more difficult to carry on a conversation. The woman said, “I don’t want to face the wall!” With that, and please do not send me any hate mail for saying this because you have to live in Israel to understand this, I knew one or more of them were of Polish origin. They all three started examining the glasses, silverware, and plates to make sure they were clean. Two of them started to wipe the glasses, silverware and plates. I thought I was going to burst out laughing, but I composed myself. I couldn’t tell Mr BT what I was witnessing because they were directly behind him. I was afraid they would understand what I said if I spoke to him in German. Then, they started looking at the menu, one of them, I will call her Miss Adventurous, was excited about the menu and decided she wanted to order Akoub. The other two asked why they didn’t have schnitzel on the menu and hoped that they at least had some chips. At that point I wanted to walk over and tell them to get out, that they didn’t deserve to try this wonderful food, and they should just go to Burger Ranch for lunch, but we got up, very happy from the lovely meal we had just had and headed home with wonderful memories of an unforgettable three day getaway.

I am so lucky to have Mr BT as my life partner and travel companion. I can’t think of anyone else I would like to go with on a travel adventure.

Home Away from Home – Day Two

After the lovely experience in Shtula we had lovely dreams and awoke to birds singing in the little tree house in the North. The sun was shining and the view from the zimmer was the valley below.

The members of my family have a tradition of taking pictures of whatever view they happen to have from their hotel room. This was our spectacular view. The air was clean and fresh, with a wonderful atmosphere of peace, even though the rather unpeaceful Lebanese border was only a few hundred yards away.

Northern Israel always relaxes me and I feel like I can breathe when I am there. Don’t get me wrong, I live in a quiet little village, but I really feel like I have flown out of the country when I travel to the North. It is a different way of life up there.

The zimmer did not include breakfast, but they gave us a beautiful loaf of homemade bread, six eggs, two different kinds of homemade jam (mango and fig), butter, milk, fresh lemonade with fresh mint, a jug of water, coffee, and a selection of teas. They also had a beautiful pot of fresh sage to use for your morning omelet, to say nothing of lots of other fresh herbs growing right outside our cabin, such as za’atar, thyme and mint.

The zimmer is beautifully decorated . This lovely door leads to the loo: the inside view is even better.

There is a nice sitting area in the living room which contains a wood-burning fireplace and the kitchen nook. It was too warm to try out the fireplace, so we will have to find an excuse to come back in the winter.

They had several interesting items in corners of the living room and bedroom. One corner contained a cute lamp with a basket of various teas and another contained a slanted shelf with a covered bowl full of candy. In a nook near the jacuzzi there was a “genie” bottle filled with homemade ‘cherry sherry’ and two glasses. The sherry was delicious and was a perfect close after we got back from our Kurdish dinner.

After breakfast we headed to the ancient city of Tzfat, but about 4 kilometers from there we saw a sign for a winery in the village of Or HaGanuz. This spiritual-Kabbalistic settlement was founded in 1989. The name of the village means Hidden Light, and is derived from the kabbalah which refers to the original light described in the Bible that was the first act of creation (see Genesis 1:2). We had never heard of this winery, but we find it hard to pass up a chance to have a taste of wine. There are several signs that guide you directly to the winery and you can’t miss the large replica of an ancient amphora (an earthenware jug for oil or wine) at the front of the building.

We were greeted by a friendly face whose accent immediately gave away that he was a French speaker. It turned out he was originally from Tunisia, but his family is originally from Livorno, Italy. I joked that we could be related since I have some relatives who lived in Livorno. Giovanni Affricano, the winemaker of this winery, studied wine-making in France and Italy.  He originally worked in education and decided to move to the North after he became religious and fulfill his dream of making wine.

After the tour of the winery, Giovanni let us sample five different wines, Sahar (Cabernet Sauvignon Premium), Glilee (Merlot), Torr (Sangiovese Cabernet), Nadiv (Cabernet Sauvignon) and a sweet dessert wine. All of the wines have a Mehadrin kashrut certification. Different types of Mehadrin certification for wine and food basically means that they are checked even more carefully for any non-kosher contaminants. In the case of Mehadrin slaughterhouses, the animals are checked more carefully than in normal kosher slaughterhouses for blemishes, especially of the lungs, that could make them unfit.

As for our wine tasting, we very much liked the Torr and Nadiv and bought a bottle of each. We thought the Glilee had too much tannin and the dessert wine was little too sweet for our taste. We are going to wait six months to a year before we open the wines we bought.

Tzfat  is considered to be one of Judaism’s four holiest cities. It is known as the center of Jewish mysticism or kabbalah, not Madonna’s kabbalah, but the real thing, which is far from the commercialized version she adopted.

It is a poor city that is full of hippies, artists, followers of kabbalah (some who are sane and some who have lost their way), the deeply religious, and a smattering of secular people. It is a place which,  if I stay too long,  gives me an eerie feeling; a feeling of ancient ghosts who have yet to find their resting place. For others, it is a place of spiritual awakening.

We didn’t come to Tzfat this time to walk along its ancient streets, but rather to visit a museum that we just discovered in a guidebook; a museum that is near and dear to my husband, the Memorial Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry. I am constantly teasing Mr BT about how crazy the Hungarians are and I was afraid if I entered the museum that the crazy dust would begin to cover him and make him crazier than he already is ;-).

The museum, which is in a side building of the old Ottoman saraya, or police station, was established by two of the many Hungarian Jews who ended up in Tzfat after the Holocaust and is managed by Ron Lustig, their son. What is unusual about the Hungarian Jews is that the community has been there since the days of the Roman colony of Pannonia, centuries before the Magyars under Attila the Hun swept in from Central Asia. That made the Jews feel more Hungarian than the Hungarians, which resulted in their tremendous contribution to the country’s economic and cultural life from the mid-19th century until the Holocaust; but it also meant that they mistakenly didn’t feel threatened by the growth of Fascism from the 1920s and Admiral Horthy’s eventual alliance with Hitler. In fact, Horthy protected the Jews until 1944: even though they were forced into a ghetto, the Jews of Budapest continued a very active cultural life there, including theatre, a symphony orchestra and an opera house, in which my mother-in-law was one of the leading soloists. It was only after Horthy decided in early 1944 to switch sides because he foresaw Hitlers impending defeat that the Germans invaded the country and started deporting the Jews en masse,  both to labor camps and to Auschwitz.

The museum includes artifacts from 18th century Jewish life onwards up to the time of the Holocaust, most of them the gifts of Hungarian Jews living all over the world. The most touching of all is a braid of blond hair cut from the head of a young girl a few days before she and her mother were sent to Auschwitz to be murdered there. Ron told us and some other visitors that he received the braid, together with a few other keepsakes of the girl and her mother, from the father who had survived the Holocaust, with a letter saying “this is the whole of my life.” Ron wrote back to thank the donor, but received a reply from someone else saying that the donor had died only two days after sending the letter, perhaps knowing that he had only enough time left to leave his memories of his beloved wife and child to the museum.

Mr BT was happy to discover that the museum’s extensive computer system included an entry for his grandfather, who was a distinguished pedagogue in Hungary, and that the museum also had a copy of his semi-autobiographical novel The Five Books of Aaron. There was also a photograph from 1939 of a class at the Jewish high school in Budapest, in which Mr BT thinks he identified his grandmother, who was one of the teachers there.

After the very moving and sometimes tearful visit to the museum, we decided to have a light snack in the Druze village of Hurfeish before heading back to the zimmer to rest before heading out for dinner.

Hurfeish, pronounced Khurfeish, is situated in the heart of the Galilee just to the north of Mount Meron. The site is from the Byzantine era and the current village has existed for about 500 years. The origin of the town’s name is unknown, but it is assumed that it is derived from the family of Al-Khrafsha that settled there. It is a lovely village with a popular stand called Sambusak HaArazim. They take dough and roll it out in a thin circle, fill it with lamb or tuna, or labane and za’atar, fold it half and bake it in a large gas-fired oven. They are delicious and I highly recommend making a stop here. You may not be able to stop at one: I had to stop Mr BT from ordering another one. I was so hungry at that point, I forgot to take a picture of the stand and of the sambusak.

After a couple of hours of rest, we drove back to Hurfeish for dinner (this time taking the main road instead of the gravel track between the hills from the back of Hurfeish to Matat). We thought we were going to a Druze restaurant, but just like the previous night, we discovered that the restaurant was actually our host’s living room. This time our host was Nimr Nimr, a retired Druze teacher, who now works as a tour guide. Nimr Nimr, by the way, is Arabic for Leopard Leopard: names like this are quite common among the Druze, another one being Assad Assad, which means Lion Lion.

The Druze are ethnic Arabs who broke away from Islam to form their own religion at the beginning of the 11th century and are regarded by Muslims as heretics. They live mainly in Lebanon, Syria and Israel, although there are emigre communities in the United States and South America. In Israel, the Druze do national service in the Army, some rising to very high ranks.

Dinner was delicious, the usual combination of meze, salads, and grilled meat. But what was special was the hospitality, something for which the Druze are rightly famous. It wasn’t just the warm welcome that we received from Nimr and his wife Samiha, but the amazing tennis match of conversation that I thoroughly enjoyed watching between him and Mr BT, which ranged from Druze history to modern Middle Eastern politics to literature to Israel’s social problems. Although pretending to just be an ordinary man, Nimr is obviously educated way beyond the average for Israelis of any background or religion: he was quoting from Shai Agnon, the first Israeli to win a Nobel Prize (for literature), and in Aramaic from the Mishnah, and from time-to-time would jump up to pull a book from his very well stocked library to illustrate a point. I could have stayed on for hours just to gorge on the fresh figs and homemade maamoul filled with walnuts that Samiha brought to the table; Mr BT could have easily stayed on all night talking to Nimr. It is an evening I will never forget.

Home Away From Home – Day One

Everyone needs a break, a vacation, an opportunity to charge one’s batteries. Mr BT and I decided that Sukkot was the best time for us to recharge ourselves. As a former meeting organizer, I love to plan our trips. I like to find interesting places to stay, see, and eat; and I am forever looking for those interesting out-of-the-way places. Israel is a small country, but it is full of nooks and crannies that most people do not look for in a vacation. The unplanned theme for our three-day vacation was “home away from home”. No, we didn’t stay with relatives, we just found places with a homey feel in more ways than one.

Baron de Rothschild coat of arms

We began our three-day weekend by driving to Zichron Yaacov to visit a friend  and also to see the beautiful Ramat Hanadiv Gardens, Heights of the Benefactor gardens. The benefactors of these gardens were the Baron and Baroness Edmond James and Adelaide de Rothschild.

Cascade Garden

One of the must sees is the Cascade Garden, with its terraces that face the Mediterranean Sea, lined with dragon trees and large cypresses.

The Rose Garden is a formal garden with a variety of roses that includes six pools with fountains, representing the Rothschild family. The large pool represents the founder of the family, Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) while the five small pools represent his five sons, whom he sent to major European cities in order to found the branches of the family business. It isn’t really rose season at the moment, but I am sure this garden is beautiful when all of the roses are in bloom.

The Palm Garden, located on the eastern side of the park, includes a small selection of the world’s 2800 palms.

The Fragrance Garden was designed for the visually impaired and is one of my favourite areas of the gardens.

It includes fragrant sweet smelling plants and herbs such as rosemary, thyme, za’atar, basil, cardamom, lavender . The fragrances are intoxicating. Visitors are encouraged to touch the plants in this section, where plants are clearly labeled in Braille, Latin, Hebrew and Arabic. It was the first time I had ever seen a cardamom plant.

We left Zichron and headed straight for the zimmer we booked in a moshav on the border of Lebanon called Matat. The word “zimmer”, which means “room” in German, was adopted into Hebrew to mean little cabins that have sprung up all over moshavim and kibbutzim, especially in the Galilee for townies to spend a few days in nature and get away from it all.

The moshav was founded in 1980, and currently 35 families are living there. One of them is the famous baker and chef, at least here in Israel, Erez Komarovsky, former owner of the Lehem Erez bakery. He sold his bakery and moved to the northern Galil. Now he conducts cooking classes on everything from bread making to fish to beef. I would love to take a bread-making class from him. Unfortunately, he had just returned from a trip abroad on the day we left. So, I didn’t get to “accidentally on purpose” run into him.

By the time we arrived to Matat, it was already dark, so we couldn’t see much of the moshav. However, the drive up to Matat was breathtakingly beautiful and Mr. Moon greeted us full, big, shiny, and bright. The surrounding area will remind you of Provence. We stayed at the beautiful and romantic zimmer called Eretz Bereshit, which means the Land of Genesis.

Because Matat is built at the top of a steep hill and the land allocated to each householder basically starts at the top of the hill and goes all the way down to the valley at the bottom, the houses are nearly all at or just below the brow of the hill and the zimmers that some of the owners built, including the one where we stayed, are about half-way down and can only be reached by a long flight of steep steps. Fortunately, we knew about this ahead of time and the steps were also lit at night to ensure that we didn’t break our necks.

We hadn’t made any firm plans for dinner before arriving, but I had a list of interesting possibilities to choose from. One of them turned to be an emotional  and frankly speechless experience that I hadn’t had in a long, long time. On my list, I had found a Kurdish restaurant in a moshav called Shtula that is a 15 minute drive from Matat. We both love Kurdish food and assumed that a restaurant on a predominately Kurdish moshav can’t be bad, so we called to make sure they were open. A pleasant voice answered the phone and said sure, come on over. We called when we arrived at the entrance and the woman instructed us where to go. We parked in front of a large home and realized that we would be dining in someone’s home, not at a restaurant. We knew this was going to be interesting.

Ora Hatan greeted us at the door and told us to sit down at the dining room table. There were already some lovely meze waiting for us on the table to enjoy

with Kurdish flatbread made on a saj, which is like an upside down wok heated over charcoal. It is very thin and crispy.

She then brought us kubbeh soup. Kubbeh, in different regional variations across Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Kurdistan, is made by taking a ball of moistened semolina mixed with water, sticking your finger into the middle to hollow it out and filling it with a meat mixture: some types are made with a mixture of bulgar and minced meat that is then filled with meat. This was some of the best kubbeh I have ever had. The soup was tomato-based and quite flavourful.

The meal continued with aubergines, onions, and courgettes stuffed with a rice and meat mixture.

Then, she brought out hand-minced lamb kebabs. These were seasoned with herbs and were absolutely delicious. She served them over softened Kurdish flatbread.

As we sat down to eat, an elderly lady with bright eyes and lovely smile came out from the back of the house, said good evening to us, and went to sit down in the living room to watch TV. As she came out, I thought to myself that she looked familiar, but then said “naaah, that can’t be her”. When Ora came back from the kitchen we told her that we had seen a very interesting documentary about a Kurdish moshav on Israel Channel One and we didn’t remember which moshav they were filming. It featured a wonderful lady who was herding her goats on the Lebanese border and she told of her life there. Ora got a big grin on her face and said, “It is about our moshav and the woman is my mother, Sarah.” She called for Sarah to come to the table and thus began the most interesting part of our meal.

Sarah reminded me of my great-grandmother, Ina Nathan; they had similar smiles. She told us that she was from Koya, Kurdistan and emigrated to Israel in 1951, almost 9 months pregnant, with her husband and the first two of what would eventually be fourteen children. She said that it was very difficult when she first came here; for the first few years, they lived in absorption camps that were unfortunately the fate of many new immigrants in the 1950s, there was very little food and they had to build everything from scratch.

She then told us that she traveled alone to Kurdistan 12 years ago on a mission to bring back a Torah scroll that belonged to her family for generations. They had left the Torah scroll with a family anticipating that they would come back to get it someday. She flew to southeastern Turkey and then hitched a ride across the border all the way to Koya. By chance, she was given a ride by the local mayor who asked her where she was from: when she said she was from Israel, he welcomed her and did everything in his power to help her in her mission. With his assistance, she discovered that the Torah scroll was being held by a local qadi (Muslim religious judge). She told the qadi that she had come specially from Israel to retrieve the scroll and asked for it back. When he refused, she offered him money, and then more money, but he continued to refuse explaining that he and his fellow Muslims believed that the scroll gave them divine protection and that he wasn’t willing to give it up. Eventually, she discovered that the qadi and his family had moved to Sweden, taking the scroll with them.

We were then served cinnamon tea and extraordinary figs that had been poached and served in their juice. This was truly the food of the gods. She also served us homemade date cake and some biscuits.

After dessert, Ora took us out to the balcony which overlooks the Lebanese border, a couple of hundred meters away and showed us a couple villages on the other side of the fence that had become Hizbollah strongholds.

When we staggered, stuffed with wonderful Kurdish food, back to the car, I was just in tears, not just from meeting such lovely people but from Sarah’s story of her life and especially her first trip back to Kurdistan. Weren’t you afraid of being in Kurdistan while Sadaam Hussein was still in power in Iraq, Mr BT had asked Sarah. “No, I just had faith in G-d.”

Winery Hopping on the Judean Wine Trail

Last Friday, Mr. Baroness Tapuzina and I drove to the Judean Wine Trail with our good friend Mimi from Israeli Kitchen. Mimi and I decided to both write about the trip, as a kind of joint venture, and you can read her colorful aspect of the trip on her blog which is linked in the previous sentence. We are planning to do these joint blogging adventures from time-to-time.

Mimi is a great person to bring on wine hopping adventures because she is an amateur winemaker herself and I can attest that she produces some very nice and in some cases some very interesting wines. We just opened her delicious Tomato wine, which is a nice crispy wine that is excellent with fish and chicken. We are also great fans of her fruit wines, made from apricots, peaches, strawberries and other fruits. These are not dessert wines, they are fruity white wines that are a compliment to any meal.

The Judean Hills has become home  to one of Israel’s most important wine producing regions, stretching from the coastal plain to the Jerusalem Hills. Over the years, more than 25 wineries have consistently proved that they produce wines that are able to compete with the best in the industry world-wide, winning awards both locally and internationally.

I love driving along the winding roads with their lovely forests and vineyards. The wide curves and narrow turns carry you into deep valleys and along steep hillsides, as panoramic vistas spread out all around you. It really reminds me of our trip to Provence, except that a lot of the hills are planted mainly with pines, instead of the original mixture of trees (for example, oak, pine and chestnut) that were mainly deforested up to the 19th century.

Our first stop was to Tzora Vineyards Winery, founded in 1993 by Ronnie James, which is located in Kibbutz Tzora. This winery, which produces about 60,000 bottles of wine a year, was the first boutique winery in Israel to use all the grapes from their own vineyards, instead of buying grapes from elsewhere.

We tried several of their wines:

  • Giv’at Hachalukim Rose 2007
  • Judean Hills 2006
  • Single Vineyard Shoresh 2005
  • Dessert Wine – Or 2006

Giv’at Hachalukim means “Pebble Hill” and is named for the alluvial pebbles that have been washed down by the seasonal rains over thousands of years and which capture the suns heat during the day and release it to the soil at night, adding quality to the grapes.

I really enjoyed their fruity & floral Giv’at Hachalukim Rose, and the fruity & spicy Single Vineyard Shoresh, which is made with Merlot grapes.

Kibbutz Tzora was founded in 1948 by former Palmach members. Its name was taken from the Biblical Book of Judges (13:25); “And the spirit of the Lord began to move him at times in the camp of Dan between Tzorah and Eshtaol.” One of the mainstays of the kibbutz economy is Tzora Furniture Ltd., which began in 1957 as a metal factory.

The kibbutz is beautifully landscaped.

The next winery we visited was Mony Winery, which is  located on the grounds of the Dir-Rif’at Monastery at the top of the hill above Tzora, and is owned by the Artoul family, an Arab-Christian family originally from the Galilee town of Mghar. The monastery’s church, is famous for having  “peace”  written on the structure’s ceiling in 340 languages.

Visitors can taste and purchase the vineyard’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, as well as its olive oil, olives, honey, and goat cheese. We tried their kosher and non-kosher Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines. We preferred the non-kosher wine.

The winery is named for Dr. Mony Artoul who tragically died of a heart condition in 1995.

The winery is located in tunnels dug 120 years ago by clergy from the church. One tunnel stores the wooden casks and the second tunnel houses an enormous table around which festive events for up to 50 people can be held.

We had planned to visit the Katlav and Seahorse wineries, which are in neighboring moshavim in the hills further towards Jerusalem, but they were both closed. Both of these wineries produce excellent wines.

After our unsuccessful trip to Seahorse winery, we decided it was time to stop for a picnic at a little picnic ground laid out at the entrance to Moshav Bar Giora (the whole of Israel is dotted with picnic areas like this with picnic tables rough-hewn from the local trees). Our picnic consisted of Mimi’s delicious vegetable soup, basil bread sandwiches with natural peanut butter and apple & pear jam, potato chips, olives and cucumbers.

We didn’t get to go this trip, but one of Mr. Baroness Tapuzina’s and my favourite wineries in this area is Flam winery. It is set back from the road among olive groves, in an ochre-stuccoed building that could have been lifted straight from Provence or Tuscany, apart from its modern architecture.

Golan Flam, one of the two brothers who runs the place, was born in Stellenbosch, South Africa, while his father Yisrael, who was the wine-maker of Carmel, was studying there, and wine has flowed in his veins ever since: he did his first degree at the Hebrew University’s agriculture faculty in Rehovot, went on to a second degree in oenology at the University of Piacenza in Italy, carried on learning on the job at Greve in Chianti (poor chap), worked for a couple of years at Hardy’s in South Australia, and went on from there.

Okay, don’t tell Mr. Baroness Tapuzina, but another reason I love this winery is because Gilad is a good example of a handsome Israeli man.

Golan and Gilad founded the winery in 1998 at Moshav Ginaton, a few miles from Ben-Gurion airport: then, like now, they bought their grapes mainly from farmers in the villages of Kerem Ben-Zimra and Dishon in the central Galilee; they also buy from farmers at Karmei Yosef and other vineyards in the plain west of Jerusalem.

We like most of their wines, but our favourite is Flam Classico, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes.

Now all we need is a pretext to go on another trip.

Cherry Heaven

I was so excited when I purchased my new computer because I new it would make blogging so much better. However, a few days after I hooked everything up, my monitor blew up, literally! I was sitting a my desk, reading my email and all of a sudden I heard a pop, the monitor turned black and a puff of smoke came out the top of it! So, I have been monitorless for a while. Now, I am up and running again and I have a few things to tell you about while I was monitorless.

Just picked Queen Anne cherries, Bulgarian cheese, sheep cheese, Gouda cheese

I went to a cherry picking festival at Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim with my husband and a colleague from Germany. We drove 45 minutes to the beautiful Judean Hills which always reminds me of the rugged terrain in Provence. The festival had booths with people selling kosher charcuterie, local wine and pottery. They also offered a free tractor ride around the kibbutz.

It was very hot, but there was a large crowd eager to pick big juicy red and Queen Anne cherries. We picked cherries, or rather my husband had a great time climbing trees picking the cherries, and my colleague and I had fun eating them! Don’t worry, we kept plenty to bring home with us. The Queen Anne cherries were tastier than the red ones. I was really impressed that my husband could still climb trees considering he hasn’t climbed one in over 40 years!

The trees were covered with netting so the birds couldn’t eat the cherries. This kibbutz packs and sells its cherries for the shuk (open market) and the local supermarkets. The cherries that were available for picking at the cherry festival were the last of the crop. They were juicy and sweet, especially the ones my husband picked from the top of the tree. Unlike the older trees that grew as nature intended, the new ones were espaliered, like apple trees, to make the fruit easier to pick.

We packed a nice picnic lunch consisting of:

Baby greens, dried apricots, cranberries and walnuts with a mustard vinaigrette
Stuffed grape leaves
Roasted eggplant slices
French bread
Bulgarian cheese
Sheep cheese
Smoked Gouda cheese
Olive oil potato crisps
Pomegranate iced tea
Just picked Queen Anne cherries
Dried fruits and nuts
Chocolate-hazelnut cookies

Other people at the festival came up to us and complimented us on our beautiful picnic. One woman even took a picture of it with her mobile phone. We though this was a rather ordinary picnic and had a laugh about it.

We had a very nice time and will definitely go back next year.

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