|The International Israeli Table|
Photo: Yoav Loeff
by Daniel Rogov*
It is an interesting fact that the people who lived in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago probably dined better than those – who lived there just half a century ago, when the State of Israel was I founded. In ancient Jerusalem, excellent markets were filled with fresh vegetables, fruits, poultry, lamb and fish; the narrow streets of the city were lined with numerous stalls where vendors sold fried fish, pickled cucumbers and freshly grilled meats and the roads from Jerusalem to Jericho and Hebron were peppered with stands where grilled lamb, pickled watermelon rind and cakes made from chickpeas were readily available. Whether for at-home dining or while traveling, hungry men and women had no problem in finding good things to eat.
Alas, the founders of the modem state had no such good fortune, and even though fresh fruits and vegetables of high quality remained readily available, the quality of many of the other culinary basics of the Mediterranean way of life had either vanished or deteriorated in the intervening millennia. Visitors to Israel in the 1950s rarely returned to their homes abroad to boast about the fine meals they had eaten in modern-day Israel.
Restaurants, mostly serving the foods of North Africa and the Mediterranean, were available, but dining out was rarely a positive experience. Worse, large companies dominated the comestibles market, producing products that lacked excitement or originality. In 1948, for example, there were only two cheeses available, one referred to rather vaguely as white cheese and the other as yellow cheese, both of which had neither charm nor appeal.
Thankfully for those who enjoy fine food, the intervening half century has seen four separate but related culinary revolutions within the country. Interestingly, it was not until the mid- 1970s that any of these revolutions started. But today, twenty years later, one can enjoy a wide variety of fine foods in Israel.
The Goats’ Cheese Revolution
In mountainous and stony areas, and wherever pasture is poor and the land is dry, goats are easy to raise, and their milk and cheese are highly valued. All around the Mediterranean, in Greece, the southern Balkans, parts of Italy, Spain and much of France, such cheeses are made in abundance; many have attained international acclaim for their fine rich flavor. In North Africa and the Middle East, such cheeses are especially popular among Bedouins, nearly all of whom keep goats, and farmers whose land is too poor to raise cows.
Until about six years ago, unless you were on friendly terms with a Bedouin family, it was exceedingly difficult to find well-made goats’ and sheeps’ milk cheeses in Israel. The large dairies that dominated the local market had decided, without consulting the consumer, that such cheeses would not be popular, and made very few goats’ milk cheeses. Frankly, most of the cheeses they produced, whether from cows’, goats’ or sheep’s milk, were so bland and unexciting that they had little to do with the Mediterranean cheese-making tradition.
As if to demonstrate that consumers are more important than large corporations, sixteen different small dairies are now producing goats’ and sheep’s milk cheeses, many of which are of a quality to rival the best cheeses of the Pyrenees, Provence, Spain and Italy. Depending on the season, the part of the country in which the cheeses are made, and the style of individual cheese-makers, there are now so many good goats’ and sheep’s milk cheeses available that no list could hope to be complete. Although feta, brinza, kashkeval, labane and several Bulgarian varieties remain the best known, they are only the tip of an iceberg of cheeses waiting to be tasted. Ranging in style from soft and sweet to firm and salty; from hard and pungent to gently herbed cream-style cheeses; and from ridiculously low to marvelously high fat content, such cheeses are now readily available, if not at supermarkets, at delicatessen shops that have become a major source of supply for cheese lovers.
As to Olive Oil
“It is easier,” the Talmud says, “to raise a legion of olive trees in Galilee than to bring up one child in the Land of Israel.” Precisely what this says about the difficulties of raising children in ancient or modern Israel is hard to say, but it is clear that the olive has been an inescapable fact of life in the Mediterranean region for thousands of years.
From ancient times, one of the most lasting symbols of the Mediterranean Basin and the Holy Land has been the olive tree. The source of the wealth of many regional peoples, these delectable fruits are frequently mentioned in the Bible, the New Testament and the Koran, and one of the most universal emblems of peace is the olive branch.
Because olives grew so easily in the rocky, sandy lands of the Mediterranean Basin, olive oil became to the region what butter is to northern Europe. In ancient Israel, where nearly every kitchen was equipped with a small press for extracting oil, the olive provided food and lighting fuel as well as cooking oil. Even the hard wood of the olive trees was valued and often used in construction. By the time of the Roman conquest (first century BCE), the olive had become one of the most basic dietary items, and the meals of the poor consisted primarily of olives, beans, figs and cheese eaten with a porridge made from millet.
The olive never fell out of favor as a regional staple; until a very few years ago, however, finding a bottle of olive oil that had been made by the cold press method or was categorized as either Extra Virgin or Virgin was cause for celebration. Even though olive oil has been made in the region since Biblical times, most local consumers remained so naive that they willingly purchased oils so high in acid content that they were categorized as “candle oil.” Even worse, much of the oil that was available was bitter and harsh and left a distinctly greasy feeling in the mouth.
Here again, change did not come from large companies but from adventurous souls who decided that there was no reason that Israeli oil could not compete in quality with the best of Europe. Today, thanks to a handful of small companies, Israeli olive oil has attained a quality so high that it can now be found in the most prestigious gourmet shops of New York, London and Paris.
Israeli Wine On The International Agenda
Wine has been made in Israel since pre-Biblical times but, if the truth be told, until about fifteen years ago, there was no mason to be proud of those wines. The wines shipped to ancient Egypt were so bad that they had to be seasoned with honey, pepper and juniper berries to make them palatable, and those sent to Rome and England during the height of Roman civilization were so thick and syrupy sweet that no modern consumer could possibly approve of them. So bad were most of these wines that it was probably a good thing that the Moslem conquest in 636 CE imposed a twelve-hundred-year halt to the local wine industry.
The production of wine in the Land of Israel only started again in 1870, when the Mikveh Israel Agricultural School, near Jaffa, began experimenting with vines that had been imported from Europe. The nascent industry got an enormous boost in 1882, when Baron Edmond de Rothschild donated large sums of money to be invested in the development of local vineyards.
The Baron, who hoped to make wine one of the main economic staples of the newly-established Jewish settlements, financed the construction of two wineries, one in Rishon Lezion and the second in Zichron Ya’akov; both were completed during the last decade of the 19th century. Both of those wineries still exist and are now part of Carmel Mizrachi, the largest producer of wines in modern-day Israel. Even with the continued financial support of the Rothschild family, all did not run smoothly. By the turn of the century, vineyards covered more than half of the total Jewish land under cultivation. Before long there was such a surplus of grapes that the Baron paid farmers to convert their fields from grapes to olives, citrus fruits and almonds, and nearly thirty percent of the vines were uprooted. Nor did the Baron’s idea of providing kosher wines to Jews the world over prove profitable for very long. The lucrative Russian and American markets were both lost, the first to the excesses of revolutionary zeal and the second because of prohibition. By 1948, only 4,250 acres were planted in grapes and Carmel Mizrachi was the new nation’s only large winery.
Most of the wines produced in the country at the time remained of low quality and held little interest for those concerned with the consumption of fine wine. Even though Jews have many traditional religious, communal and family activities that include wine, wine consumption was very low and what was drunk was usually sweet, red and often fortified, certainly not the kinds of wines to interest connoisseurs. This is despite the fact that there is no contradiction whatsoever between the laws of kashrut and the ability to produce truly fine wines.
In 1983 the Golan Heights Winery opened, heralding a local wine revolution. Not limited by either outdated winemaking traditions or an unwieldy corporate structure, the young winery imported good vine stock from California, built a state-of-the-art kosher winery, and added to this the enthusiasm and knowledge of young American winemakers who had been trained at the University of California at Davis.
Equally important, the Golan winery began to encourage vineyard owners to improve the quality of their grapes and, in the American tradition, paid bonuses for grapes with high sugar and acid content and rejected those grapes they perceived as substandard. The winery was also the first to realize that wines made from Grenache, Semillon, Petite Sirah and Carignan grapes would not put them on the world wine map and focused on planting and making wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, white Riesling, Merlot, and Gewurztraminer.
The Golan wines were a success from the beginning. The winery, which is owned by the kibbutzim and other cooperative farms that supply it with grapes, now produces over three million bottles annually, and is currently increasing its output by about 20% each year. Since 1991, 30% of the wines produced at the winery has been designated for export, primarily to the United States and England.
Carmel Mizrachi remains the nation’s largest wine producer, producing about 13 million bottles of wine annually and still controlling about 50% of the local wine market. Partly in reaction to the success of the Golan Heights Winery, and partly because of changes in upperlevel management, Carmel has stirred from its long period of non-progress. Today, the winery produces a line of up-market dry wines, although about 20% of their production is still devoted to sweet wines.
The medium-sized, family-owned Baron Winery and Segal Brothers both produce respectable white and red wines, both varietal and blends. Two other privately owned large wineries, Barkan and Binyamina, have decided to upgrade their images and are now releasing wines that are being well-received on the local market. Even the long-established Ephrat winery, which for many years catered to that segment of the religious population that sought out sweet, sticky wines, has begun to produce better wines.
Among other interesting developments in recent years has been the opening of a number of boutique wineries, each of which produces between eight and twenty thousand bottles of wine annually. Since it opened eight years ago, Meron Wineries has consistently given the market excellent Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons; the kibbutz-owned Tzora Winery is now producing noteworthy Cabernet Sauvignons and Sauvignon Blancs; the winery of Ya’ir Margalit has produced what many consider the most individual and among the very best Cabernet Sauvignon wines of the nation; and Eli Ben Zaken is now producing world-class Cabernet Sauvignons.
Between the establishment of the State of Israel and the early 1990s, wine consumption in the country remained steady at about 3.9 liters per person annually. Recently, however, the figure has risen to almost 5.5 liters; while this remains low (compared to 7.5 liters in England, 11 in the US and 60 in France), it seems that more and more Israelis share a growing appreciation of high-quality wine, and there has been a marked shift to dry wines.
While not even the most optimistic among Israelis would claim that the nation is producing wines at the level of those of the great Chateaux of Bordeaux or the finest estates of Burgundy, many respected wine critics in Israel and abroad concur that the best Israeli wines now compete easily with the wines of California, Chile, Australia and other New World wineproducing nations.
Photo: Nitan Shorer