At nine in the morning on a recent Thursday at Moshav Ilaniya, a tour group stood by the stone well that supplied water to the village of Sejara back in the early 20th century. A few minutes after the guide started talking, Anna Tizzani's attention wandered to the wild asparagus growing behind the jujube tree, and the short, fiery redhead slipped away from the group to pick some of it. With all due respect to history, how can 110 years of Hebrew settlement compete with the thought of wild asparagus risotto? The mouth waters in anticipation of the velvety, buttery rice dish flavored with the wild greens.
After it rains, says the tour guide, the Beit Keshet forest fills with Israelis of Russian background methodically combing the ground in search of mushrooms. Now a trio of Italian women is looking for wild asparagus. Anna Tizzani and two friends, Carolina and Anna Martina, enchanted by the carpets of anemones and cyclamens, smile happily at the sight of the vast sea of green without letting the intensity of the asparagus hunt wane for a moment. Attention is also directed at the wild herbs and edible plants that grow by the trees. You could practically read Anna's thoughts as she inhaled their fragrance.
Leaves of wild fennel ("Hmmm ... a fish soup perhaps?" ), aromatic mint ("Bring me a leg of lamb" ), a flock of sheep grazing on the green hills ("time to go back to the kitchen" ).
Anna Tizzani is the owner and chef of La Conca del Sogno (Bay of Dreams ) in the Campania region of Italy. The family restaurant, founded by her father in the 1960s, sits at the foot of a magnificent cliff that tumbles steeply to the sea and overlooks the Island of Capri. The restaurant may be reached by land, but it's easier by sea, and in recent years the place has become an obligatory stop for the yachts that ply the gorgeous blue waters of the Tyrrhenian sea. The menu features vongole (clams ), tartufi di mare (Warty venus clams ), oysters, scampi, along with fish and traditional local recipes that Anna's forbears have been preparing for centuries. This beautiful part of the country is the birthplace of mozzarella cheese as well as unforgettable pasta dishes, and the steep slopes are home to olive groves from which the world's best olive oils are produced.
Anna came to Israel to cook at the Yehuda VeRosa Restaurant in Ilaniya, which belongs to her friend, Dr. Amir Arav, and his family. She met Arav, an Israeli researcher in the field of genetics and fertility, through her ex-husband, who worked in the same field, and they became good friends. Six months ago, Amir and his brother Amos Arav, who breeds sheep for meat, opened a restaurant in the stone house that once belonged to their grandparents, Yehuda and Rosa, who were among Ilaniya's founders. They spent an entire year refurbishing the old house and turning the area around the restaurant into a beautiful organic garden to supply its needs.
Thanks to the friendship, Anna and her friends were invited to spend a week helping to introduce dishes inspired by traditional Italian cooking and allow the restaurant owners to learn from her experience in running a simple kitchen based on local raw ingredients.
The Italian women take over the kitchen. Anna orders Amir to find some real risotto rice with which to cook the asparagus. For this he must go all the way to Tiberias, and even then it's not certain that he'll find original Arborio rice to satisfy the chef. Meanwhile, the ladies prepare eggplant Parmesan, one of the dishes most closely identified with the region where they grew up. The skillet is layered with very thin slices of eggplant that were fried the day before. These are covered with slices of flavorful pale yellow mozzarella that they brought with them, tomato sauce, basil leaves and Parmesan. Later they try to make the dish using local mozzarella cheese - no easy task.
Now is the time to make the famous zucchini pasta, a specialty of the restaurant of dreams. The zucchini slices were fried the day before so they could exude the liquids that color the olive oil a gorgeous rich green; now they were stirred in a pot with generous dabs of butter. Meanwhile, linguine is cooking in another pot, and a discussion (in Italian ) erupts, concerning the exact moment to remove the noodles from the boiling water.
"In the restaurant in Italy there's a person whose sole job is to take the pasta out at the right moment," whispers Anna Martina. The deep, almost meaty taste of the zucchini can only be ascribed to the cook's marvelous touch. Until the coveted risotto arrives, there's wine and the fresh organ meats of the Merino lambs from the family flock, roasted on the grill that's right on the table.
Yehuda VeRosa, Moshav Ilaniya, (04) 676-9159; www.yehudaverosa.com
1. Where to stay: In the early 20th century, the first inhabitants of Ilaniya lived an incredibly green life. In front of the long, narrow plots was the hakura, the garden where vegetables were grown and geese bred for food. The houses were built in back, at a distance from the convoys of camels and traders passing by on the ancient road from Acre port to the Horan, which passed through the colony. Today, Ilaniya's new residents - returning children and new families - are reviving the founders' model, with organic methods, gray water systems and manure that comes straight from the sheep pens or the mobile chicken coops.
Six years ago, Atalya and Eli Terua, who moved from Afula to Ilaniya 14 years ago, bought one of the houses built here in the 1920s. In front they planted wine grapes and an organic vegetable garden, and they turned the farm buildings into a compound that includes five guest rooms of rare beauty, restored using local materials. All around are fruit trees, pools that use recycled water and sitting areas. You could spend a week in this paradise and never wish to leave.
Guests are invited to join in seasonal work on the farm, and breakfast is served in the central building, which in the past served as the family home. On the table are a wide array of dishes of incomparable beauty and flavor: a slightly sour salad of greens from the garden; a salad of tomatoes grown in the hothouses of nearby Sharona that have the real taste of tomatoes from days gone by (in the winter of course there are no tomatoes in the family vegetable garden ); homemade rolls; goat cheese and cheese casseroles with a golden brown crust; orange marmalade and a host of other jams, salads, pastries and delicacies.
Hemdatya, Moshav Ilaniya, (054) 533-1033; www.hemdatya.co.il
2. Goat cheese and more. Hadar and Shahar Barkai came back to their parents' homestead two years ago. They had two dreams: to build an inn and to revive the goat farm, which was once the family's main source of income. Joan Baa-ez and her lamb Yael were the first goats the couple bought, and they started to produce Tzfatit cheese, Circassian cheese and an aged Camembert-style cheese. At the dairy shop one can also buy olive oil, liqueurs and baked goods, all made by small local manufacturers from the Lower Galilee region. The next stage will be the construction of two handsome geodesic domes to offer modest accommodations for small groups, and a wood cabin for couples.
Havat Yarok Az, Moshav Ilaniya, (054) 225-8791; www.yarokaz.co.il
3. Guided tours: Mickey Haiman is in love with Ilaniya and the landscapes that surround it. Over time he has become extremely knowledgeable about all the hidden paths and the history of the area, and in recent years has been offering guided tours. You set out on mules or all-terrain vehicles, and make your way to ancient caves, and oil and wine presses, the Beit Keshet forest; or to Sejara's historic sites. The tours are adapted to the seasons of the year and to guests' interests. There are challenging off-road trips, hikes to get acquainted with the local flora and edible herbs, and family-oriented tours.
T-Mule, Moshav Ilaniya, (052) 462-5589; www.tmule.co.il
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