Consider the lobster business
Gourmet farming has gained momentum in Israel as niche growers have found oranges and tomatoes don't have to be the only fruits of their labor.
Ran Margolin's crayfish farm lies in a secluded green area in Kfar Monash in the Emek Hefer region, in the midst of a dense growth of shrubs, on a spot where a chicken coop once stood.
Margolin, who owns an ornamental pool and fish concern, as well as a plant nursery that exports palm trees, declares that crayfish, which resemble and are related to lobsters, are a "personal obsession."
"When I could have retired from my businesses, instead of enjoying the fruits [of my labor] and resting, my wife and I began to raise blue crayfish," he says. "It was like diving into the deep, in every sense."
Six years ago Poni and Ran Margolin began their start-up company Aquology with an investment of a million dollars.
The Margolins' company is one of a series of local gourmet growers of the unexpected: garden snails, sturgeon and caviar, sea asparagus, juicy gourmet dates and Jujube fruits, among others.
The market has been spurred by a number of factors: more and more fancy restaurants are opening up, Israelis have become familiar with different foods abroad, and cooking shows are ubiquitous on television. Farmers are becoming increasingly interested in catering to the market and growing these unique products here to sell abroad.
The Margolins' farm is based on ecological principles. The coddled crustaceans enjoy pools of cleaned and recycled water heated with gas; they splash around at their pleasure among thickets of water plants.
Margolin raises females for spawning and males to fertilize them, checking their progress every day. The red-claw crayfish, known by the distinctive red mark on the males' claws, require warm water. In Kfar Monash they are born in rubber containers that look like inflatable pools.
When they are still quite small, a few millimeters long, the crayfish are flown at a temperature of 17 degrees Celsius to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) for three months, where they mature and are then exported around the world.
Some of them return to Emek Hefer, in order to reproduce hundreds of new crayfish, and also to be sold to an assortment of Israeli restaurants.
The red-claw crayfish isn't as large as its cousin the Maine lobster; it is sold at a weight of 200 grams.
According to chef Avi Conforti, who is currently conducting a blue crayfish festival (serving the Margolins' crustaceans) at his Tel Aviv restaurant Zepra, "I'm always in the lookout for local raw materials. The crayfish is a 'green' commodity, and this speaks to us; the consumption of pool-grown crayfish may reduce the hunt for sea crayfish. It's an excellent product which we cook to order. Its flesh is sweet, very tasty and not stringy. We make nine dishes with it."
Snail pails and fish tales
Arik Manheim, a flight engineer from Kiryat Ono, can only envy the crustaceans' prestige among Israelis. His garden snails, which star in escargot dishes, still meet with suspicious glances from some gourmands.
Manheim raises snails in a swarming hothouse in a rural area in the center of the country.
He doesn't want to give out the exact location, fearing sabotage or theft.
Manheim's life might have been limited to flight engineering and affection for gourmet restaurants if he hadn't left a pail filled with the waste from an olive oil press in his yard one day.
"A few months later I needed to use the bucket," he says. "I approached and what did I see? A snail colony."
There were a thousand snails in the bucket. He took them to a screened hothouse, scattered special dry snail food (chicken feed, millet and seeds) and four years later found himself with a farm for particularly large gray garden snails of the genus helix aspersa.
"In France the snails are smaller, mostly due to demand. There isn't time to let them grow. But for some reason, Israeli snails are more delicious," he says.
The snails are cooked for seven minutes in chicken broth, returned to their shells and served with garlic butter.
They may be sampled this month at the Bastille Festival underway at the NG restaurant in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv, where Manheim is giving talks on his snails.
For the last ten years, sturgeons have been raised on Kibbutz Dan. When the females reach the age of seven, they are made to sleep; their eggs are removed, rinsed and mixed with salt to make caviar.
The kibbutz exports most of its caviar; locals who manage to get their hands on it are usually the chefs of exclusive restaurants, for example, Meir Adoni of Catit in Tel Aviv.
Female sturgeons are valued at $3,000 each; about 40,000 are splashing around in Kibbutz Dan's pools. It is the only fish farm with fish from the Caspian Sea - which suffers a continual shortage of sturgeon.
French love affair
Israeli caviar exports join a series of agricultural products that most Israelis will never lay eyes on, because they are either too strange or too expensive for the local market.
Take for example, salicornia, known locally as sea asparagus. Salicornia is grown in Har Hanegev and around the entire south of Israel.
It is essentially a cultivated sea weed, which Europeans like to use in fish dishes and cold and hot salads. Farmer Anna Miller raised salicornia on Kibbutz Mitzpeh Shalem.
"It's a difficult crop," she says of growing it, "a plant which needs a sack of salt with each watering."
Itzik Keren from the farming community of Tzur Moshe near Kadima raises the jujube fruit, also known as the Chinese date, under tightly woven screens and without pesticides. The jujube is of the doum or palm family: small, sweet and rich in vitamins.
"Twenty times more vitamin C than citrus fruit and four times as much as a kiwi," Keren notes. "Some French tourists came to my plots to see how passion fruit is raised, and then they saw the experimental section. They were very enthusiastic about the jujube and I started to export to France and England. A kilo sells for dozens of Euros abroad. Here I'm starting to sell to selected greengrocers and I'll also be at farmers' markets in Ra'anana and at Fureidis junction. The price will be NIS 10 for a package weighing a quarter kilo."
And if we're talking about refined packaging, it is hard to resist the boxes of majhoul dates raised by Yehiel Ekoa of the Petzael farm community in the Jordan Valley.
"This is a date which is picked long before it starts to ripen," he says. "You have to know when to pick, down to the day. It is served fresh, about twice as juicy as the ordinary, moist date. The French love it and I supplied them with nearly 100 tons this year. I sell it in elegant packages for the Rungis market in France, which supplies many restaurants and independent buyers. Also this year I'll be offering it throughout Israel in what are known as boutique greengrocers. It's a relatively expensive fruit. I call it candy-box fruit, because I sell it in packages of two to four kilo. And just because I write 'made in Israel' on the boxes, it's in very high demand."