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“The Land of Milk and Honey”

By Miriam Marcus and Will Blunt from www.srarchefs.com

Food, and fresh produce specifically, is so ingrained in the national culture of Israel that a native-born Israeli is affectionately referred to as a “ sabra ,” derived from the Hebrew word tzabar , the name of the prickly pear or cactus pear. The thick-skinned thorny desert fruit when seen from the inside reveals a sweet and soft flesh – an analogy often associated with the national character of Israelis.

Despite being a predominantly Jewish nation, Israel is diverse and multicultural. Jews both Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Arabs both Christian and Muslim, the Druze, North Africans, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, Bedouins and Palestinians – all provide for a varying landscape of ethnicities, cultural traditions, and not suprisingly, cuisines.

The chefs of Israel reflect this diversity, establishing Israel as one of the world's most interesting destinations for the food-savvy individual or the curious culinary professional. Even France 's highly influential Gault-Millau restaurant guide, which features very few countries outside of France , published its first Israeli edition in the late ‘90s.

Hummus (a dip of mashed, seasoned chickpeas and sesame paste eaten with pita bread), falafel (fried ball or patty of spiced chickpeas or fava beans, typically eaten with hummus and tahini in a pita bread), and chicken schnitzel , though still symbolic of Israel's culinary identity, are increasingly taking a back seat to more progressive, wide-ranging styles of cooking. Some have taken to calling it “ Med-Rim Cuisine .” Since the mid-1980s, regional specialties from around the Mediterranean , as well as California , France and Italy , have contributed to this revolution of food in the biblically prescribed “land of milk and honey.” A direct result of Israeli people's love of travel, cuisines of the Far East, India and South America have also infiltrated Israeli menus, and receive a warm welcome.

Wine:

Growing and enjoying wine has been essential to Israel since biblical times, with references dating as far back as the book of Genesis. Modern plantings began in the 1870s by Eastern European Jews who immigrated to Palestine , before Israel was an autonomous state.

For many years, the reputation of Israeli wine suffered from its association with the cloyingly sweet American Manischewitz. However, its direct correlation with Israel lies only in the fact that Manischewitz is one of the largest producers of kosher wines in the world. The real challenge of Israeli wines has been the strict laws of producing kosher wines, which dampened the quality and creativity of Israeli winemakers. As such, Israeli winemakers had a long road to hoe in achieving the respectability that Israel 's fine wines now enjoy .

The Carmel region in the north of Israel has a climate and terroir similar to that of Northern California 's Napa Valley , providing incentive for a series of well-to-do Silicon Valley investors putting money into the makeover of Israeli vineyards and wineries in the early ‘90s.

Other boutique wineries are making their mark elsewhere in the country: the regions of Shomron, the Judean Hills, and the Upper Galilee all produce fine wines. Further attention (and money) has been paid to Israeli vineyards in correlation with its people's increasingly more sophisticated palates. And the investments are paying off; Israeli wines are continuously getting better and they're even beginning to catch on with wine connoisseurs beyond Israeli borders.

Background:

Israel is a young nation with millennia of history, culture and agricultural practices. Political sovereignty, after less than 60 years, remains a novel experience to the Israeli people; the degree to which they appreciate their very small land (roughly the size of the state of New Jersey ) is profound.

David Ben-Gurion, elected Israel 's first prime minister in 1949, challenged the Jewish people to “make the deserts bloom,” to ensure a prolific future and establish their strength as a nation. The Israeli people have done more than that. What began as an agricultural society in desert and swampy lands has – through cultivation, engineering, and the invention of drip irrigation – evolved to consistently generate an extreme abundance of high quality produce, meats and dairy.

Contrary to common belief, the Israel we experienced does not appear to be paralyzed by the on-going Arab-Israeli conflict. There is a visible reality to the situation – there are security guards and soldiers in all public places, and bags and parcels often get searched upon entry to public venues, such as bus stations and malls, but the people remain resilient; they go on living life, performing daily routines – and enjoying fine cuisine.

The landscape of Israel is as diverse as its cultures, politics and cuisines; the small area of land is a “degustation” of the world's topographies—the mountains of the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon, the lush greenery of the north, the rocky hills of Jerusalem and surrounding savannas, the beaches of the Mediterranean and Red Seas, the infertile but mineral-rich Dead Sea, the ever-humbling Negev desert of the south, and the bustling metropolitan cities such as Tel Aviv. The cliche that “there is something for everyone” rings true.

Getting Around:

Renting a car is a great way to get around Israel , particularly if you have culinary pursuits in mind. Nearly all road signs are printed in Hebrew, English and Arabic. The best spots are not always in the cities, so driving is often easier than taking multiple buses or trains to arrive at your destination. Use caution when mapping out your route. Pick roads wisely, paying attention to the news for information on safe and unsafe areas to travel . Read more…

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