Wine and food from the same place tastes better when enjoyed together. A food from a certain region, seems to go best with wines from that same region. In recent years Israeli food and wine have advanced so far, but largely one independent of the other. The have both ploughed separate furrows, but have been no less successful as a result.
It was not so long ago that Israel was a pariah state regarding food. A tourist coming on holiday would eat at the Hilton Grill Room because to eat out would be risky. Bernard Lewin, a wit who wrote for The Times of London, once complained: “Doesn’t anyone in Israel have a Jewish mother?” He despaired of finding a reasonable place to eat.
Up to the 1980’s large companies like Tnuva and Carmel Mizrahi were solely in the business of production and distribution so the people of Israel could eat and make Kiddush. There was no brand marketing in the modern way and no perception of quality sought by producers, or consumers for that matter.
Once there was only a choice of white cheese, yellow cheese or salty cheese in Israeli supermarkets. Quality wines were few and far between. Olive oil was something one bought in a soft drink bottle in local Arab villages. Bread was called Achid, a rather basic version of black bread.
The change for the better began in the 1980’s and crystalized in the 1990’s. We watched the Golan Heights Winery import New World technology to change activity forever in both vineyard and winery. Chef Erez Komarovsky fermented a revolution in the baking of artisan bread. Shay Seltzer, Barkanit and Ein Kammonim started making local, handmade cheeses. Then companies like Zeta, Halutza and Eger headed a revival of Israeli olive oil.
Today there are no lack of specialist dairies, boutique wineries, regional olive presses and artisan bakeries that have sprung up all over Israel. The large producers and major brands have also responded, so production of cheese, wine, bread and olive oil in Israel today, is unrecognizable from even fifteen years ago.
There was also a slow blooming of restaurants here. First there was Moise Peer’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first restaurant to contain a serious wine list. Then who could forget the iconic restaurants Tapuch Zahav and Keren in their prime, and later Mul Yam, Roshfeld and the recently closed Catit? They brought fine dining to Israel. Chefs like Israel Aharoni, Haim Cohen and Eyal Shani educated and brought the Israeli public gratefully into a new world where food was given respect. Shalom Kadosh did the same with Kosher cuisine.
Israelis travelled and sampled the good life abroad. The new Israeli wanted to live to eat rather than eat to live. The next generation of Chefs like Jonathan Roshfeld , Meir Adoni and later Asaf Granit capitalized on the new foodie interest to take things to new levels. Meir Adoni ensured kosher foodies would not miss out by also opening Blue Sky and Lumina in the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv.
In the early 2000’s an Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi started a revolution in London. He opened his first deli in 2002. He introduced a Mediterranean cuisine infused with the spice of the Middle East with a heavy influence of the experimental cooking taking place in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Today he is the most famous Israeli in London with an empire of restaurants and books published and a regular newspaper column.
Three books have helped to bring the message of new Israel. All have won major awards. Firstly was Janna Gur’s ‘The Book of New Israeli Food’. Then Chef Ottolenghi started writing a stream of best seller books. The most famous was called ‘Jerusalem’. One of the most recently published is ‘Zahav: A World of Israeli cooking’ by Michael Solomonov. Today we are in a different place. A recent addition is David Haliva’s beautiful new book ‘Divine Food’ brings together both Israeli and Palestinian food culture and recipes in one cover.
Ottolenghi’s success unleashed a flood as Israeli chefs and Israeli Eastern Mediterranean fusion cuisine invaded the food capitals of the world. In the last couple of years alone, there has been unprecedented recognition for this new wave. Tel Aviv was voted an outstanding culinary destination by the gourmet publication, Saveur. At the James Beard Awards, the food Oscars, Chef Alon Shaya’s restaurant ‘Shaya’ in New Orleans, won the award of ‘Best New Restaurant.’ The book ‘Zahav’ won the category of ‘Best Cookbook’. Moshik Roth’s ‘&Samhoud’ in Amsterdam won two Michelin stars. ‘The Palomar’ opened in London’s West End won the title of ‘Best Restaurant 2015’. ‘Timna’ was awarded best restaurant in New York.
All this is almost unbelievable but it points to a trend. Chef Eyal Shani has taken his Hamiznon gourmet pita concept to Paris and Vienna. Chef Meir Adoni will shortly spread his wings too, by opening a new restaurant in New York called Nur. An Israel revolution that has nothing to do with politics or hi tec!
I have recently eaten at The Palomar in London and Einat Admony’s Balaboosta and Bar Bolonat Restaurants in New York. They have something in common. There is an unmistakable Israeli atmosphere. Noisy, tables crowded, a controlled balagan, with service on small plates but wildly innovative, unpretentious exciting food which has one saying ‘wow’ again and again. Culinary Chutzpah.
In the next 12 months there are going to be two films released lauding the new Israel food and wine. American filmmaker Roger Sherman has made a documentary outlining Israel’s best kept secret: its exciting food scene. Also Snowdrum Audio Visual is in the final stages of producing a film about Israeli wine. I eagerly look forward to both.
For the first time in 2,000 years Israeli food and wine is in. Think what a fantastic ambassador Israeli food and wine is for our country. Israeli chefs like Eyal Shani, Meir Adoni and Assaf Granit have become ambassadors for the positive side of Israel.
We also have our winemaking superstars. Think of Dr. Yair Margalit, producer of Israel’s first cult wine. Or Eli Ben Zaken whose Domaine du Castel set the standards for style and quality in the country. We should not forget the Golan Heights Winery and Victor Schoenfeld , who ushered in the quality revolution and maintained high standards for so long. More recently there is Eran Pick, winemaker of Tzora Vineyards, Israel’s first ever Master of Wine, and Dr. Shibi Drori of Gvaot Winery who in undertaking groundbreaking research on the indigenous varieties here.
However in the midst of this success, I have one beef. I can’t for the life of me understand how a restaurant selling Israeli, Eastern Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cuisine could do so without a wine list to match the direction of the food. It is like visiting an Italian restaurant with no Italian wines, or a Greek restaurant without Greek wines. It is inconceivable to me.
I have for years campaigned that Israel should be considered as part of the Eastern Mediterranean wine region and that Israeli wines should appear on wine lists alongside those of Cyprus, Greece, Lebanon and Turkey. If restaurants list North African wines, (usually from Morocco) or a Middle Eastern wine too, (specifically there is one particularly high quality Syrian wine), then they should appear with the Eastern Mediterranean wines too. This ancient wine region gave wine culture to the world. Now its revival makes it one of the most exciting, dynamic of all wine regions.
However Palomar, magnificent restaurant that it is, lists a paltry three Israeli wines, with only one in every category, red, white and rosé. Ottlolenghi also usually prefers not to list Israeli wines. Yet Israeli wines are a broad church to cover every political view.
There are exceptions. In the excellent wine list in Shaya Restaurant in New Orleans, there are wines from Israel, Lebanon, Morocco and Greece. The regionality of the food is matched by the choice on the wine list. That is exactly as it should be. Michael Solomonv’s Zahav Restaurant in Philadelphia makes it even clearer. Their list is divided into ‘Wines of The World’, ‘Wines of Israel & Palestine’ and ‘Wines of Lebanon & Turkey’. I see with my own eyes how Israel is becoming part of its region on the plate, which fulfils my vision of Israel’s rightful place in the glass.
Those who support Israeli food and wine may do so with their heads held a little higher than before. Be inspired by the creative energy surrounding Israeli cuisine but please ensure when you visit these restaurants that you support Israeli wine. The ‘new’ Israeli cuisine produced by an Israeli chef undoubtedly tastes more authentic with a glass of Israeli wine!
Adam Montefiore has been advancing Israeli wines for over 30 years. He is known as ‘the ambassador of Israeli wine’ and the ‘English voice of Israeli wine’.