Here’s the first thing you notice about Michal Ansky: She’s beautiful. Tall, with long black hair and a strong, lean Israeli build. In the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey, where we meet, people do double takes. She’s not quite famous here yet, though Fox TV selected Ansky from among all the cooking experts in the world to be one of three judges on its hit program, “MasterChef.” Padma Lakshmi, watch your back.
In Israel, however, Ansky is a major food celebrity. She was a judge on the Israeli version of “MasterChef,” one of the country’s most popular shows. She hosts a popular show on Channel 10, “Fresh Cooking.” And most significantly, she, along with Shir Halpern and partner/husband Roee Hemed, founded Israel’s first true farmers markets, giving Israelis direct access to farmers’ fruits, vegetables and products of the land.
I came to talk to Ansky about Israeli food, not the TV show, and about Passover. She is not religious, but she does revel in the tradition of the holiday — it’s part of the land, and it’s part of her roots.
“We live in a cynical age,” she said. “There are no surprises. One day is like the next. But I think it’s very important to have tradition that makes certain times special, and I don’t take it for granted.”
For Ansky, Passover also means the first strawberries, the first greens and herbs, the early peas.
“I love it all,” she said. “But mostly, I love my grandmother’s soup noodles. She’s from the Carpathian Mountains in Czechoslovakia. She makes them with matzah meal flour and eggs; she makes crepes and rolls them and slices them like fettuccine. I can eat them all year, not just Passover. But I also love her charoset and her matzah balls. My grandmother is a great cook.”
Ansky’s family has deep roots in Israel. Her grandfather, Rabbi Haim Gevaryahu, taught Bible to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as well as to Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Gevaryahu created the Bible Quiz, a beloved Israeli institution that for generations has encouraged Israelis to learn Torah. Ansky’s father, Alex, is the country’s leading radio personality, and her mother, Sherry Ansky, has written a food column for Ma’ariv newspaper for 30 years and published 11 cookbooks.
Michal Ansky’s fondest first memories are of picking wild pine mushrooms, oraniot, in the forests surrounding her Jerusalem home, of shopping in the Old City, where Palestinian women spread out their blankets and pile them high with wild greens and cactus fruit for sale.
“I guess everything I’ve done in my life I see through the lens of food,” she said.
After graduating with a degree in literature from Hebrew University, Ansky followed her passion: She enrolled in the masters program in gastronomic sciences at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy.
“It was very intense,” she said. “The first few months was theory and books. Cured meat, cheeses, wine, olive oil, vegetables, production, history, anthropology. The next year we spent traveling Italy and the rest of the world. We studied wine in Burgundy. We went to Crete to learn about goat cheese and honey. We learned about cured ham, so we went to Parma, then to Spain to learn about Catalonia jamon.”
Ansky didn’t become a chef — she said she only likes to feed the people she loves. She became an expert on food, a gastronome. Along the way, she had a realization.
“I became incredibly proud of Israel’s food,” she said. “We ate in three-star Michelin restaurants, three or more meals a day, meeting the biggest chefs and the best food producers in the world. And I kept comparing it to the food we have in restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, we really can be proud of what we have, of what we’ve established.’ ”
So the granddaughter of the man who inculcated a love of Torah throughout Israeli society set about teaching Israelis to love not just the book about the land, but the fruit of the land itself.
Three years ago, she and her partners opened the country’s first farmers market in the refurbished port area of Tel Aviv. Local growers bring their produce to sell, along with producers of artisan breads, cheeses and honey. Eventually they created six such markets in Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva, Herzliya and other Israeli cities.
Ansky also co-founded the Shuk HaNamal, a permanent farmers market with 32 booths. Among them is her mother’s now-famous herring stand. Sherry Ansky guts, fillets and cures her own matjes and shmaltz herring, offering it to shoppers on a sliced homemade baguette with a shmeer of chicken shmaltz and some thin-sliced pepper.
“People go there and eat it and break into tears,” Michal told me, getting more and more excited as she described the herring scene. “I’ve seen 10 people cry in front of her. It brings them back to what they had at their grandparents’ house. Food takes you places immediately. ”
The farmers markets, officially linked to the International Slow Food movement, attract some 20,000 Israelis in a weekend.
You’d think that in a country as small as Israel, every vegetable is “local,” especially compared to American markets, whose produce travels thousands of miles to land on the shelves. But Israel’s famous outdoor shuks, like Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem and Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv, sell the products of more industrialized farms in massive quantities. Israelis, Ansky said, are willing to pay slightly higher prices for more variety and quality, direct from the producers.
And the farmers markets have a value beyond just great quality. They allow Israelis to taste some of the country’s finest produce, which otherwise often goes to higher-priced export markets. People can buy locally, and learn more about the food their land produces from the people who grow and make it.
“I walk around the market and I feel it’s a cultural meeting point. It’s not just a shopping experience. That’s the real point,” Ansky said.
Ansky is a TV personality now — a little hesitant to get into controversy. But she is happy — relieved even — when I raise the inevitable questions about how she navigates Israel’s particular intense food politics.
Israeli settlers from Tekoa sell delicious mushrooms in the Tel Aviv markets, but many shoppers boycott their products. On the other hand, Palestinians from the territories have difficulty selling their products inside the Green Line.
“The best tahini in the world — in the world — is made in Nablus,” Ansky said.
Ansky once made a short film in which she played an anarchist who sneaked Nablus’ al-Jamal tahini onto an Israeli supermarket shelf and into a Tel Aviv McDonald’s. In the last scene, she sits naked in a bubble bath, rubbing the sesame paste on her face.
“Food is also political mirror,” she said. Then she stops herself: No controversy.
I ask her if what she means is that food can be a way for two cultures sharing this small bit of land to appreciate their common gift, respect it and, through food, learn to respect each other.
“I agree,” Ansky said, smiling. “Write it down. It’s partly what I’m trying to achieve.”
Ansky wants to see a farmers market in every Israeli town. She especially wants to start them in poorer areas, to prove that healthful, delicious food is not just the birthright of residents of North Tel Aviv. She wants to see great Palestinian products on Israeli shelves, and she wants to see all the people who share the land treating it, and one another, better.
It’s a kind of Zionist dream, perhaps the natural heir to the one her grandparents realized — no less idealistic, no less possible, no less rooted in the land.
As it happens, two weeks after meeting Ansky in Marina del Rey, I have a trip scheduled to Tel Aviv. The farmers market closes at 3 p.m. on Friday, my 14-hour El Al Flight 6 nonstop lands — exactly on time — at 2 p.m. I race through customs, leap into a cab and tell the driver, “The farmers market, please, but fast.” I make it to the port as the vendors begin loading their unsold bounty onto trucks.
The market smells of Passover — peas, artichokes, bundles of fresh herbs, mountains of spring carrots, flats of ripe strawberries.
I make for the herring stand marked “Sherry Herring.” Ansky’s brother Hillel extracts a filet and — as carefully as a sushi chef — slices it. He blends it with fresh local olive oil, lemon, thin-sliced peppers and onion. It is buttery, soft, tasting of the sea, the deli and Israel. It is the best herring I’ve ever had.
The market itself is still quite lively. I sample flawless goat cheeses from Adi Ellis, who with her husband, Tal, runs Tzon-El in Zippori. There are home-cured olives, fresh-roasted nuts, wildflower honeys, fresh fish and meat. This is the land of Israel at its best. I also spot some jars of al-Jamal tahini. It is of politics but beyond politics, a true birthright to those who live off the land, growing, harvesting and eating its fruits. I can think of no better place to begin the Passover season, to get into the spirit of the holiday.
The food and the setting remind me of something Ansky told me earlier, when I asked her about her Passover celebration: how holiness — how we eat, how we treat the land, how we treat one another — is not a God-given right but an act of will.
“I don’t really feel like Eliyahu Hanavi, Elijah the Prophet, will come and enter our table at Passover,” she said.
“But I do feel I can choose to see this feast as a holy one. If I take a shower, and choose carefully what to wear, and sit between my grandmother and my little girl, and continue this beautiful tradition of eating together and remembering something that happened 4,000 years ago — it is holy if I choose it to be.”
For more on Michal Ansky, including a photo slideshow of the farmers market and her Israeli restaurant recommendations, visit this story at jewishjournal.com/foodaism.
FISH FILETS FRIED IN MATZOH MEAL
1 pound thick-sliced strips of fresh grouper, carp or other fish
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon fresh crushed garlic
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups matzah meal
Rinse strips of fish and coat with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon paprika and crushed garlic.
Sprinkle lemon juice over fish strips. Refrigerate until ready to fry.
In a separate bowl, beat eggs, add additional paprika and matzah meal; mix well.
Heat about 1/2 inch oil in frying pan while coating the fish with mixture from bowl.
Fry fish strips until golden.
Serve with mashed tomatoes or hot pepper and vegetable salad.
SMOKED MACKEREL SPREAD
1 smoked mackerel
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 (4-ounce) package cream cheese
2 teaspoons scraped or mashed fresh white horseradish
4 to 6 green onions, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Peel and clean fish of all its bones. Sprinkle lemon zest over it, reserving lemon juice.
Place fish into the bowl of a food
processor and pulse until no large pieces remain.
In a separate bowl, mix cream cheese with horseradish.
Add fish and green onions to bowl; mix together.
Season to taste with salt, pepper and reserved lemon juice as desired.
Serve on top of matzahs, and garnish with sprouts or small radish.
For more Passover recipes visit jewishjournal.com/passover_food.