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Israel’s culinary heartland

Israel’s food and flavours are a well-regarded part of the

nation’s identity, but the gastronomic evolution taking place

north of Tel Aviv is elevating things to a whole new level.

BY

ALYSSA SCHWARTZ

JOURNEYS

WINTER 2017

B O N V I VA N T T R AV E L . C A

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B O N V I VA N T T R AV E L . C A

WINTER 2017

O

F ALL THE TIMES OF DAY, IT STRIKES

me on my second evening in Akko, the

moments around sunset here are the best.

Now, sunset anywhere is a pleasure; but from

the rooftop of the Efendi, a boutique hotel set

inside a restored 19th-century Ottoman

palace and atop the bones of sixth-century

Byzantine ruins and 12th-century Crusader

cellars, it’s especially so. Salt-tinged wind

whipping my hair into a frenzy, I take photo

after photo of the sun dipping into the

Mediterranean. Around me, the handful of

other guests who made the climb to also enjoy the sun’s

descent from the best perch in town set down their wine

glasses and clamber for the ideal shooting position.

There’s a moment of appreciative silence when the orb

finally disappears into the sea, but it’s immediately lost to the

shouts of local children kicking around a soccer ball in one of

the ancient courtyards several storeys down. Seconds later,

the Muslim call to prayer blasts from one of the teal minarets

that jut above the rooftops of the town and I become aware

that my stomach is just starting to rumble. It’s time to get

ready for dinner.

A walled city that has been in continuous existence for

more than 4,000 years, Akko (also known as Acre) was once

the largest and richest city in the Crusader kingdom, settled

for its natural port and easy access to the Asiatic spice trade.

Back then, the city was filled with so many merchants from

Genoa, Venice and Marseille that they had their own quarter.

But today, another nearby transport route – this one, a toll

highway – is reshaping Israel’s culinary scene; and while

Akko and the bucolic countryside and hills which splay out to

the north and east might not have the same instant name

recognition for foodies as Tel Aviv, the region is emerging as

Israel’s gastronomic heartland.

A day earlier, I arrived in the north from Jerusalem via

Route 6, a 200-kilometre highway that begins in Israel’s

southern desert and runs north to just outside Zikhron

Yaakov, a quaint town in the foothills of the Carmel

Mountains that’s home to Israel’s first commercial winery.

Though the road seemed unremarkable to me as a visitor, the

highway circumnavigates some of the densest traffic in the

country (in and around Tel Aviv), dramatically improving

access to the north. The result has been a brain drain of sorts,

particularly from Tel Aviv’s restaurant industry, which, with

its never-ending pace – even at midnight on a random

Monday, the city’s cafés are typically packed – means high

burnout for chefs.

The guide on my food crawl through the north, Boaz

Peled, is one such example: an alum of Israeli celebrity chef

Eyal Shani’s North Abraxas (in addition to his buzzy Tel

Aviv restaurants, Shani has outposts in Paris and Vienna),

Peled and his wife moved to a kibbutz in the region in

2016. Today he works with Travel Composer, which hooks

up visitors with niche, insider guides, and leads foraging

excursions that culminate in outdoor dinners. But he also

commutes back to Tel Aviv – where he’s head chef and

co-owner of Pimpinella, a seafood and arak bar in hip

Levinsky Market – once or twice a week.

“In the ‘80s, in the ‘90s, even 10 years ago, there was

nothing here (culinary-wise),” Peled said as we near the

northernmost end of the highway. “Now there are a lot

more chefs that are exactly like me; people [who] had

enough of the Tel Aviv experience and want to have a nice

quiet life, so they’re moving to the north and starting

artisanal businesses. Route 6 changed how we eat and

drink in Israel.”

Our first stop at Elhanan Bread Culture is a case in

point. Owned by yet another Shani disciple, it’s a casual

roadside bakery that turns out chewy sourdough (loaves

get trucked back down Route 6, destined for some of Tel

Aviv’s hottest restaurants); croissants filled with goat

cheese that comes from a nearby Arab village; and

chocolate cinnamon babka that tastes like a love child of

the traditional Eastern European Jewish pastry and

buttery, carmelized kouign amann (Elhanan’s owner and

baker, Eldad Shmueli studied bread- and pastry-making in

France).

We spend the next two days criss-crossing the north,

from the centre of the country up to Lebanon, the

Mediterranean in to almost the Syrian border, sampling

and savouring as we go. We stop at the side of the road so

Peled can pick figs and apples, and taste our way through

all of the flavours on offer at Buza, an ice cream shop that’s

a partnership between Arab and Israeli owners in

Ma’alot-Tarshiha, a joint municipality (pistachio sorbet,

made with nuts grown in the region, is my favourite). For

lunch we stop at a butcher shop behind a gas station and

eat succulent, flavourful steaks from cattle that graze in

the hills of the Golan. Later, as we sample nuanced,

oak-free Chardonnay and a deeply aromatic Gewürztra-

miner at Pelter, a winery on Peled’s kibutz, we laugh at the

seeming absurdity of calling a country with a viticultural

history that dates back to the Bible “new world.”

“Listen, there was a 2,000-year stop in producing

things our country has been so naturally blessed with,”

Peled said. “When I taste what’s happening here now,

I’m just so proud.”

Like Israel’s more visited destinations, the

north has rich archaeological and religious

attractions. Here are three must visits:

BAHA’I GARDENS, HAIFA:

Home to a shrine marking the final resting

place of the Báb, a central Baha’i spiritual

figure, the Baha’i religion’s holiest site

features spectacular gardens that are

open to the public.

TEMPLARS’ TUNNEL, AKKO: 

This 350-metre-long tunnel dates back

800 years and once connected the

Templars’ – a monastic order – fortress

to Akko’s port.

BEIT SHEAN:

First settled about 6,000

years ago, the ruins at Beit Shean feature

more than 20 layers of remains from

ancient civilizations.

SAVOUR THE EXPERIENCE

Left: Tourists enjoy the Akko sea walls Right: street in old town of Akko

Gil Yarom/Go Israel

The Knights' Halls in Templars’ Tunnel