The birthday party for Joe Marciano, owner of Tel Aviv restaurant Cantina, was just an excuse for a 10-course feast of lamb. Tomer Tzuk, sheep breeder and owner of Havat Tzuk in Emek Ha'ela, and Yair Yosefi, an Israeli chef and cookbook publisher who recently returned to Israel after a decade in Paris, presided over the event. Friends and family were invited, along with a group of enthusiastic foodies ready to sell their souls for a banquet of organ meats and other tasty morsels. The relaxed meal, which featured familiar, classic dishes as well as more experimental ones, turned into an experience: All the edible parts of the animal were consumed, as long as they were tasty - for the sheer pleasure of it, without letting any prior prejudice or discomfort get in the way.
First course: Lamb pancetta with a plate of green herbs and fresh radish salad. Pancetta - which translates freely and affectionately as "pig's paunch" - is a bacon-like Italian sausage made from cuts of meat taken from the pig's stomach and ribs. Tzuk and Yosefi made the lamb pancetta from falda (the wall of the stomach ) and the breast or brisket, brushing the meat with a mixture of herbs from Emek Ha'ela, olive oil and hot pepper. The pieces of meat were rolled up, tied with the fatty, silky tissue that protects the stomach (called metamra by local chefs ) - then heat-smoked and vacuum-cooked for six hours. The result is a gorgeous sculpture that is cut into slices that combine pale pink meat, white fat and green herbs. The metamra itself, which was seared into the meat and coated it with a layer of fat, was no longer recognizable. But those lucky enough to taste it will revel in a sweetness that melts in the mouth and reveals the essence of lamb flavor. A rare pleasure indeed, because lamb usually arrives from the slaughterhouse with most of the internal organs removed.
Second course: Focaccia stuffed with meat ragu, sweet potato and endive. The focaccia, based on goat's milk yogurt from the farm, is cut in half and filled with a ragu made of neck, head and tail meat that has simmered for many hours.
Third course: Lamb kidneys and heart in puff pastry - burekas, if you wish. Joe Marciano has a divine touch when it comes to dough. His puff pastry, so buttery it is somewhat reminiscent of a croissant, was born to wrap whole truffles, black pudding sausages and organ meats. The kidneys, coated with a layer of fat that gives them the appearance of florets, were planted inside crescents of perfect puff pastry dough, while the hearts, fried in lamb fat, were buried in dough rectangles. Pure pleasure.
Fourth course: Lamb and thyme sausages that melt in the mouth. So rich and hearty was the flavor of these sausages that there were rumors of cheese being hidden inside them, but this was not the case. They were made from ground lamb - a combination of flanken, lungs and leg meat.
Fifth course: Tartare of saddle of lamb with asphodel flowers. The chopped raw meat - lamb sirloin and fillet - was seasoned only with olive oil, salt and pepper, which is all that very fresh meat really needs. But if you are making a steak tartare with beef, you could add a little yogurt sauce made with mustard, brandy, chopped onion and capers. Our lamb tartare was served on crisp cabbage leaves, but the biggest pleasure was consuming the meat inside them.
Sixth course: Skewered grilled vegetables. A whole artichoke, zucchini, tomatoes, onions and fennel bulbs strung on big metal skewers and grilled over the fire. A modest gesture toward any vegetarians in the group and an elegant, juicy palate cleanser for the rest.
Seventh course: Lamb brains and sweetbreads roasted in a skillet with butter, lamb fat and hot pepper. The 19th-century French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin devoted an entire chapter of his monumental book, "The Physiology of Taste," to "gastronomic tests" and dishes that can serve to differentiate real food lovers from impostors. The test dishes are those that make the true gastronome beam with joy, while in others they bring out an indifferent or disgusted expression. Lamb brains is certainly one of those dishes. Organ meats are a matter of taste, and lamb brains are one of the animal's fattiest, richest parts. But it's also a question of texture. The brain, sweetbreads and spinal cord all have a soft, and creamy texture that caresses the tongue and palate with an unforgettable sensation. Gastronomes who came to the great lamb feast were at first a bit concerned about quantity. You didn't have to be a genius to compare the number of lambs and diners, but as soon as the sizzling hot skillets arrived from the kitchen, all minds were set at ease. Most politely declined this generous offering and left the brains to the more serious.
Eighth course: Roasted crown of lamb ribs brushed with olive oil. Sometimes words are unnecessary.
Ninth course: Lamb shoulder stuffed with organ meats. The meat was removed from the bones, filled with a mixture of spleen, liver, testicles and fat and roasted in the oven. "This isn't a good table. Too many gastronomes," Dalia Penn Lerner, one of Israel's first food writers, said sadly, referring to the multitude of hands reaching for the dark, crispy skin. It was a little hard to discern the unique flavors of the spleen, liver and testicles after the long roasting, but this is about the only nit we have to pick with this most delightful meal.
Tenth course: A pleasant moment of tart sweetness. Thick, dense, achingly sweet tamarisk honey placed in saucers with piquant olive oil, coarsely ground black pepper and hyssop leaves, and served with pieces of bread. Honey and olive oil - so simple and brilliant, but something one wouldn't easily think of. This surprising combination, together with spicy chili and aromatic black pepper, is a beautiful example of the way opposites complement each other and of the adage that the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. Tomer Tzuk learned to make this wonderful wintry sweet from farmers in a village near Hebron.
Shop and eat
In ancient times, Etruscan priests divined the future by examining the internal organs of sacrificed animals. Tomer Tzuk, a devotee of lamb meat and organs, just knows how to define good food. He and his staff frequently create meals like the one described here. The Havat Tzuk delicatessen is situated in a small, old-fashioned, sleepy-looking shopping center in Ramat Aviv, where shoppers will find a relaxed atmosphere. The display windows of the delicatessen are divided in two: on one side, an impressive red forest of fresh lamb and slabs of beef that are cut and aged on the premises; on the other, pale yellow and white wedges of cheese from Tzuk's farm and other dairies. There are also wines and a selection of other liquors, fresh bunches of herbs from the Judean hills, breads and pasta, prepared salads and, above all, the unique spirit of the staff - Tomer, his partner Hadar Haklai, and chefs Yohai Nevo and Dror Creveld.
The team also offers workshops on how to cut up a lamb. Even experienced professional chefs don't always get to see how all the parts of the animal come together; at these workshops, accompanied by great food and plenty of alcohol, participants learn about all parts of the animal, familiar and less so. Catering is also available for events where whole lambs are roasted on a spit, or their various parts roasted on the grill.
Havat Tzuk Delicatessen, 4 Zaritsky Street, Tel Aviv, (077) 515-5905
In the evening, the limited afternoon offerings at La Maison give way to an evening menu brimming with small, pleasing dishes of charcouterie, fish, seafood and meat. In recent weeks, owners and chefs Ben Tidhar and Ilan Duvshani have been featuring specials based on organ meats. Among them: soft, creamy spinal cord in brown butter or parsley and lemon, grilled veal sweetbreads with arugula, radishes and toasted almonds, stuffed lamb spleen, lamb brains in white wine and parsley, and more. You can't go wrong placing yourselves in this pair's skilled hands and enjoying the flavor and texture of unfamiliar cuts of meat, which, thanks to the relatively low demand for them, are also quite inexpensive.
La Maison, 1 Tchernichovsky Street, Tel Aviv, (03) 620-6022
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