A Return to Israel: A Guide

*this post originally appeared on NourishRDs.com, the website of my former nutrition practice. I’ve moved it here, but am still working on getting photos added*

Elie and I got home a few weeks ago from another trip to Israel, which looks like is going to be an annual adventure.  I love it there.  This year, we took my Mom, Carolyn, who also immediately fell in love with the country, the people, the history, the religious significance.  And of course, you can’t help but fall in love with the food.

After last year’s trip to Israel, I gave a cooking class at Ciao Thyme, sharing some of my favorite Israeli recipes.  At the beginning of the class, I asked if anyone had been to Israel.  One gentleman raised his hand and said, “I traveled to Israel this year.  I took the blog post you wrote about your last trip, and I went to all the restaurants you recommended.”

Wow!

So, I thought I’d share a few of the restaurants and sites we discovered on this trip.  Visit here or here for more suggestions.

We spent the first week in Tel Aviv, staying in the Nina Café Suites Hotel, a boutique hotel in my favorite neighborhood, Neve Tzedek.  The quaint, winding streets are lined with small boutiques and cafes, our favorite being Café Dallal, where we went for coffee most mornings.  They happen to have the absolute best ruggelach ever.  And darn good chocolate chip cookies.

None of us could shake the jet lag on this trip, waking between four and five am each morning, the only advantage being we usually got up for an early morning walk on the beach.  I’m sure most people don’t associate Israel with beaches, but Tel Aviv was built from the dessert, on the sands of the Mediterranean Sea.  You can hear all about the fascinating origin of the city at Independence Hall Museum. It only takes about 30 minutes, and can be a good respite from the heat. Make sure to call ahead for times and availability.

The award for best coffee of the trip belongs to Café Sonia Getzel Shapira (also mentioned in my last post for shakshuka—still a good recommendation).

People born in Israel are referred to as sabras, referring to the cactus fruit that is prickly on the outside, but sweet on the inside.  It’s certainly true, especially when they’re driving any sort of motorized vehicles.  Don’t drive unless you have nerves of steel.  But, Israelis exude a spirit of genuine hospitality and warmth under the sometimes brusque exterior.  And they love to share their love for their country.

On a tip from a stranger who overheard us looking for a spot for a light lunch, we found the vegetarian-friendly cafe, Meshek Barzilay.  We liked it so much, we went twice, enjoying simple, fresh salads in the lovely outdoor courtyard.

 

From Tel Aviv, we took a colorful one hour cab ride to Jerusalem, where we stayed in an apartment rental on Agripas.  The living room window, aside from having a beautiful view toward the Old City, also happened to overlook the courtyard of the home Elie’s grandparents lived in, the home where his Mom grew up.  Elie and his family used to visit every other year, and he had grown up playing in the yard.

 

Elie’s saba—grandfather—was a butcher in the town’s market, called a shuk.  No trip to Jerusalem is complete without a visit to the Mahane Yehuda Marketand the restaurant that honors the market, Machneyuda.  Elie and I had such a fun meal on our last trip, we wanted Mom to have the same experience.  We weren’t disappointed.  The food was even better than the first time, and the raucous environment makes it impossible not to dance in your seat.

I had read that Yotam Ottolenghi—one of my favorite cookbook authors, and a native of Jerusalem—recommended the traditional Middle Eastern lunch spot, Azura, in the Iraqi section of the shuk.  Don’t be put off by a long line out front—it moves quickly.  Azura is known for its kubeh—a vegetable stew with dumplings stuffed with ground meat.

 

Of course, some of the best meals you can have in Israel are in people’s homes.  Shabbat dinner with Elie’s family featured his Doda Suzie’s bourekas.  On our next visit to Israel, I’m arriving for dinner earlier, so I can learn the recipe.  Stay tuned.

 

Most of our time in Jerusalem was dedicated to visiting the Christian sites in and around the Old City, including a breathtaking panoramic view from the Mount of Olives and the quiet reverence of the Garden of Gethsemane.

 

 

While in Jerusalem, we took a day trip to scale Masada and then soak in the healing waters of the Dead Sea.

I think Mom’s favorite moment of the trip was reaching the top of Masada, after climbing the snake path in almost 100 degree heat.

 

We visited the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi Spa Beach, although I would take the description of spalightly.  Although the facility does offer massages and fish pedicures, the building resembles more of a water park than a luxury spa.  Don’t be put off, however.  A short train ride down to the beach and you can scoop mud from the banks to coat your body in a mud mask and then float in the salty water.  Definitely a check on the life list.

We spent our last few days in Israel in the Galilee.  On the way north from Jerusalem, we took a detour toward Moshav Yodfat to visit Goats with the Winds Farm, an organic goat farm that serves a beautiful lunch featuring well-crafted yogurt and fresh and aged cheeses, homemade wine and other foods from the farm.  It was an adventure getting there.  After a dozen u-turns over washed out roads and as many phone calls to the owner, Daliah, we finally found the farm.  Hint:  it’s through the WE ARE FREE sign featuring the Jamaican flag colors.

It was worth the hassle.

Lunch at Goats with the Winds rivals any fine dining restaurant—except you’re seated on Turkish carpets under a canopy of trees overlooking the valley below.  Spectacular.   And delicious.

Be sure to call in advance and make reservations.  I noticed they updated their website with directions since our visit.

In the Galilee, we stayed at the charming, old world hotel and spa, Mizpe Hayamim.  Perched near Rosh Pina, high in the hills overlooking a spectacular view of the Sea of Galilee, the hotel has an organic farm and gardens, perfect for quietly wandering before parking yourself in a deck chair on the balcony for a nap.

 

I’ve never met a buffet I liked—until Mizpe Hayamim.  The breakfast and dinner buffets are nothing short of amazing, featuring products grown and produced on the farm.  The cows on the farm are milked first thing in the morning, providing milk for breakfast.  All the cheeses—probably a dozen varieties—are made from their own cow and goat milk.  It’s quite remarkable.

Only a short drive from Rosh Pina, the Mount of Beatitudes is one of my favorite places in Israel.  While many sites from the New Testament have been ornately enshrined over the centuries, the Mount of Beatitudes remains tranquil, a place where you can hear the wind.  Mom and I sat in the garden, and read Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, one of my favorite moments of the trip.  We walked through the grounds, singing old hymns and reflecting.

We also walked a piece of the Jesus Trail, a 65 kilometer trail from Capernaum to Nazareth, tracing important sites from the life of Jesus.  We hiked an extension of the trail, winding north from Capernaum and hugging the banks of the Sea of Galilee.

 

On our last day in the Galilee, I met with a Druze woman in her home in the village of Magharto learn to cook authentic foods of the Galilee.  Pnina did not speak English, but her warmth and humor needed no translation, as we cooked for over three hours in her kitchen, making traditional dishes she serves to her own family.

Mom and Elie dropped me off at Pnina’s house, and I cooked while they went to explore the village of Safed (Sfat).  They returned to have lunch with us, a feast of kebabs cooked in tahini, lentils, stuffed grape leaves and stuffed courgettes (a type of zucchini) cooked in goat yogurt, tomato salad and Elie’s favorite—little yeasted pancakes filled with sweet cheese or walnuts and cinnamon that are fried and then dipped in a simple syrup scented with rose water and lemon.  It’s one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.

 

The most amazing part of cooking with Pnina was to experience how she lives, close to her land and in close community with the people in her village.  We cooked with olive oil pressed from pungent green olives from trees she inherited from her parents. The chicken in the kebabs came from her backyard.  She made the goat yogurt and cheese with milk from a neighbor’s goat.  In her cellar, Pnina had shelves of ingredients she had bottled or prepared—za’atar from herbs she had grown and dried, freekeh from wheat she had dried on her roof, bottles of olive oil from her own grove.  We brought home olive oil—secured in plastic Fanta bottles—along with large containers of olives and the fragrant za’atar.

 

I found the experience with Pnina through Galileat, a company that sets up culinary experiences in the Galilee.  Paul Nirens, the owner, met me at Pnina’s and was available to translate.

It was amazing.  Perhaps if everyone cooked together like that–sharing stories and meals together, despite differences in language, religion and culture–we might achieve peace through food.

The whole trip was amazing, actually, exploring, eating and walking under endless sunny blue skies.  For Mom and me, connecting to our faith.  For Elie, connecting to his mother’s country.  For all of us, spending time with people we love.

About

I am married to my best friend, Elie, and we are the proud parents of a little boy, Theo, born February 11, 2016. Until Theo was born, I was a practicing registered dietitian nutritionist, but I am secretly a homemaker at heart, as I am happiest at home, cooking, organizing and making our home a comfortable place for our family and friends to gather. Elie and I are also travel lovers, and I share our travels here. Since Theo was born, this blog has morphed into a parenting blog as well, and those are actually my favorite posts to write and share.

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