Culinary trip through Israel begins in Galilee

When Israel was founded in 1948, the first inhabitants were primarily Ashenazi Jews. They came from Eastern European stock and their cuisine was heavy on meat and potatoes.

In the 1980s we began seeing more Sephardic Jews from such places as Spain, Northern Africa and other Middle Eastern countries emigrating to Israel, bringing with them the cuisine of the Mediterranean, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, grains and olive oil.

Mass immigration from Russia in the 1990s brought with it such dishes as pelmeni, cabbage and smoked and dried fish items.

In fact, Israel has become a culinary melting pot, with a cuisine that has expanded well beyond the hummus, tabouleh and falafel standbys of yesteryear. Likewise, sweet red wines, except at Passover seders, are rarely consumed anymore, and Israel now has a flourishing wine trade, particularly in the Upper Galilee, the Golan Heights and the Judean Hills. Many wineries now produce zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, which grow in the country’s sub-tropical climate.

Our culinary adventure, starting today and continuing in two future columns, will take us from the Galilee and Golan in Northern Israel to the modern bustling city of Tel Aviv and then to the ancient city and surroundings of Jerusalem.

From Ben Gurion Airport, we headed north to the Upper Galilee, a few miles south of the Lebanon border to our first destination, the Pausa Inn owned by Einat and Avigdor

Rothen. Their restaurant has been designated a Slow Food stop, so we knew we were in for an intriguing meal. Five winemakers from the Galilee and Golan, representing Chataeau Golan, Pelter Winery, Assaf Winery, Stern Winery and Galileo, were invited to pour their wines and discuss the state of Israel’s winemaking. The meal was extensive and included parmesan rosemary puffs and bresaola (a cured beef) and curried apples as starters, followed by carpaccio with beet roots, mango, basil, nuts and a Bulgarian cheese in a raspberry vinaigrette, and Israeli “escargot,” which are actually mushrooms. The main dish was barbecued lamb with red cabbage and smashed potatoes. We finished up with fresh black cherries marinated in Assaf cabernet and white chocolate with persimmons from the owner’s garden. Kosher wine was discussed (it must be flash-pasteurized at 80 degrees centigrade) and then blessed by designated rabbis.

The next morning we were introduced to the typical Israeli buffet breakfast: Israeli cheese, eggplant (with pesto), two types of herring, marinated golden peppers, cucumber in yogurt sauce, salamis, sliced vegetables, beef sausage, jams and jellies, dried fruit, pomegranate seeds, olives and tuna salad with pineapple.

We went on to visit two wineries of the Upper Galilee: Ramot Naftaly and Dalton Winery, and then checked in to the beautiful Mitzpe Hayamim Hotel & Spa which overlooks the Sea of Galilee. The resort is located in the beautiful town of Rosh Pina, where we had dinner that evening at Shiri Bistro at Pina Barosh. Here we sampled a wide array of dishes including mini kebabs of veal and lamb in sesame paste; chicken livers in balsamic vinegar; sweet potato and onion fritters; smoked goose breast; sea bream with a yogurt and herb sauce; and entrecote in ginger sauce with fried spinach leaves. Dining is al fresco and tiny lights dot the interior along with a wall of light to provide quite a romantic ambiance.

One of the highlights of the entire trip was a visit to the home of Erez Komarovsky, often called the father of modern Israeli cuisine. Originally a baker, he proceeded to open a number of cafes in and around Tel Aviv. Eventually, he got tired of the traffic and crowds and moved up to the Upper Galilee, where he now offers cooking classes and films his own TV show.

Here, amongst small Arab villages, his cooking inspiration is drawn from olive oils, hand crafted goat cheese, couscous and other grains. His futurist cooking school attempts to break all conventions and be as provocative as possible. He uses free range chicken and goat and toasted green wheat in many of his dishes, and enjoys providing new takes on traditional dishes such as chopped liver made with olive oil; tabouleh made with cauliflower; and white bean hummus.

His organic garden is outstanding and our tour included nibbling on such products as hyacinth bulbs, squash blossoms, quince, Jerusalem artichokes and wild sage. His breads, made in a stone wood burning oven, are outstanding. Erez sums up his philosophy very nicely by stating, “Cooking is not about recipes, but rather the journey to preparation.”

Another memorable visit was to the Levona Grove orchard, where we sampled numerous exotic fruits including passion fruit, carob, pitaya, sapofa, sapotilla, with its chocolately date flavor and a hint of caramel), nopalitos and melisse. They grow more than 150 different kinds of fruit along the Sea of Galilee. I also viewed the Sabra cactus.

Lunch was at Ktsy Hanahal, in the same vicinity, a Lebanese restaurant owned by an Israeli and a Lebanese. Unlike at any Lebanese restaurant in the United States, you are bombarded here by more than 10 mezzes (little appetizers) that include hummus, goat cheese, Arab salad, peeled tomato salad, Madjadara made of bulghur and lentils, and fried kibbeh (meat, pinenuts and tahini), followed by a myriad of kebabs includingshishbarak (dough balls stuffed with meat served in goat’s milk, madfune (fish stuffed with red onion and special seasonings) and dolme (squash, eggplant and red peppers stuffed with rice, hummus, tomato and mint. What a feast!

It was back to Hotel Mizpe Hayamim, after a visit to the Golan Heights Winery, for dinner at the Muscat Restaurant. We sampled a delicious lamb tongue in spinach bouillion, homemade goat sausage, an organic duck tart with zucchini and goat cheese, and duck liver tortellini as starters. These were followed by such delectible entrees as veal chop with marrow bone sauce, grilled young goat with a lentil ragu, and organic duck in a pomegranate caramel sauce and five spices. Simply beautifully rendered food with unusual twists and a killer view.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the hotel’s mostly vegetarian breakfast extravaganza, with a bevy of organic vegetables from their wonderful gardens (which seem to stretch on endlessly), incorporated into countless salads; a whole table of pastries, herring in various guises, bureks (cheese-filled crepes), tuna salad, a spicy egg and tomato dish and assorted omelettes. It took me two mornings to sample the entire array of dishes! Full and content, we headed to Tel Aviv.

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