In late February, I went to Israel at the invitation of the Ministry of Tourism. Having studied abroad in Jerusalem between intifadas, I thought I had seen the attractions and sites of the land, but the ministry offered a view a student on a budget never imagined: Gourmet Israel, eight days of cutting-edge kosher restaurants and winery tours. I jumped at the chance. With El Al's help, I actually flew at the chance.
The nightly news, even before the violence became a full-blown war, kept the group small. Only three others joined our merry band of foodies in the Holy Land. With a wonderful tour guide (Judy Goldman, who co-wrote Joan Nathan's first cookbook) and our driver, Nisso, we set a table for six.
We traveled for a taste of what Israel stands to lose most immediately. We sipped excellent local wines at fine restaurants -- quiet, empty restaurants. Everyday life is disappearing from Israel. At every stop, Israelis marveled that we Americans were there at all. How brave we are. No, we told them, we're on a fancy vacation, living better here than at home. Tell a friend, they said. Send more tourists.
In Jerusalem as across the country, strings of shops and restaurants are "closed for remodeling." Many, if not most, will neither remodel nor reopen their doors. Still, there is much to see, even for the veteran Israel tourist. Yes, the holy sites and archeological wonders will still be around (we pray) when the current round of fighting is done. But much of what I saw, the life-affirming and luxurious best of Israel, already is in danger of disappearing.
The treasures of Jerusalem go beyond the Wall and the ancient and holy sites. There is life unique to contemporary Jerusalem. Even more than the Chihuly glass sculpture exhibit last year at the Tower of David, the Davidson Visitor Center, south of the Western Wall, illuminates every cliche about Israel's clash of the most ancient and modern wonders. In a plaza next to the remains, the Davidson center features a UCLA-designed virtual reality tour of the Second Temple's magnificent arches and stairways and plazas.
Of course, we ate. Of many meals in varied, unique (and financially endangered) restaurants in town, my favorite was Eucalyptus, in Safra Square (next to City Hall) on Jaffa Road, walking distance from the Ben Yehuda shops. Chef-owner Moshe Basson's passion for Israeli cuisine makes his small restaurant a must-eat destination for food lovers (see sidebar). Basson serves dishes based on the food of biblical times, made with ingredients so fresh we spent an afternoon watching him pick our meal from the Judean Hills.
A Eucalyptus meal is special; a meal you can't get outside Israel. The tehina and date syrup dessert plate, called dibs, is a goopy-sweet liquid halvah worth a trip to Israel by itself. Eucalyptus also makes and bottles its own liqueurs, including a strong, smoky licorice arak that goes perfectly with the dibs.
You can find Eucalyptus in Israeli travel guides, but for less-traveled roads you'll want a tour guide. Goldman, our gourmet guide, was up to the task of sniffing out the best in Israel. Not just any guide, much less a tour book, can lead you through the winding dirt and gravel roads of the Judean Hills to the extraordinary cheesemaker Shai Zeltzer.
In a cave on a goat farm on a green and boulder-strewn patch of Jerusalem hill, Zeltzer is making an international name for Israeli cheeses. With flowing robes and a long white beard, Zeltzer dresses in a Bedouin style, but his casual warmth and Yiddish-laced sense of humor show him up as a uniquely Israeli sort of hippie. Zeltzer sells his cheeses on Fridays and Saturdays only. As we sat, sipping tea and tasting a dozen of his sharp, pungent cheeses, a steady trickle of in-the-know Jerusalemites parked their cars next to the goat pen and ducked into the cool cave where Zeltzer has his counter.
Our time in Jerusalem, in February, was warm and sunny. At night, we watched the news to see where violence had struck, just as we would at home. Then we called our loved ones to let them know that life goes on in Israel; that we were safe and very well fed.
Taking our fill of cheeses and biblical cuisine, we ruefully decamped from the King David Hotel (after the breakfast buffet, of course) for a stay in the Northern Galilee.
We spent most of the next two days visiting some of Israel's most successful wineries, which felt less like traveling 8,000 miles east, and more like 20 years back in time to the early California wine industry, when grape-loving microclimates first met the will of adventurous vintners and the capital to produce world-class drink. The family owned and operated Tishbi Winery in Binyamina, near the Carmel region, just installed a beautiful picnic-like tasting area. At the Amiad Winery, on Kibbutz Amiad in the Galilee Hills, they add new varieties seasonally to a strong collection of fruit wines and liqueurs. And our hardy group stood for a marathon tasting session at Golan Heights Winery, a massive operation with vinyards all across the country, where they produce the Yarden, Gamla, Golan and Hermon wines.
After a quick stop in Tiberias and dinner at the dramatic tented meat palace Decks, we spent our last few days in Tel Aviv. At trendy Lilit, a restaurant just off Rothschild, we met Janna Gur, editor of the Israeli gourmet magazine Al Ha Shulchan (On the Table). We talked about the Israeli wine expo her magazine would sponsor that weekend, the first ever all-Israeli wine exhibit. Thirty-five wineries would offer their spirits to the discriminating nose and lips of Israel's aesthetes. We talked about Israel's developing wine culture and, as we ordered dessert, Gur explained why even in the midst of rising violence, she would stake her career on gourmet food and drink. "It takes years go from a first planting to a bottle of wine," she said, "To be a winemaker, you have to be an optimist."
The waiters brought dessert, a mascarpone cheesecake. It was sweet. And it did not last long.