A Foodie's Jaunt in the Galilee

After sampling fresh organic produce at a bustling farmer’s market, it's on to Tiberias for chebureki and some of the best kebab in the country.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Early morning at the Kolot Ha’adama organic vegetable garden in the Lower Galilee. So close to the main highway from Afula to the Golani Junction, and yet birdsong is the only thing that breaks the silence here. Tzipi Kleiner, who was born on a large farm in Argentina and lives on neighboring Kibbutz Beit Keshet, comes to the field once a week to work the land as a volunteer.

“If you work the land you don’t need a psychologist. It soothes me,” the dark-haired woman explains with a sweet smile as she kneels to weed the radish furrows. A falcon scouting for prey patiently hovers above a massive compost mound nearby. At the edge of the garden, housing for owls and falcons has been built, and the birds return the favor by performing aerial acrobatics as the farmers gather for breakfast.

On the table outside is a pitcher of fresh pink grapefruit juice; a bowl of fresh sweet snow peas picked in the field just moments ago; cauliflower florets with goat’s milk yogurt; a celery-and-fennel salad; pickled radishes; spinach fried in olive oil with strips of fried onion and labaneh; a salad of sorrel and tomatoes; a host of other salads and dips; and hearty country-style breads.

Twelve years ago, Sa’ar Sela, a fourth-generation descendant of Kfar Tavor farmers and vintners, started a herb and spice farm on this site. At first he followed the conventional agricultural path of his forbears, but two and a half years ago he started converting the property ? 30 dunams (7.5 acres) that are due to expand to 100, including a fruit orchard to be planted on the coming Tu Bishvat holiday ? into the Kolot Ha’adama organic vegetable garden.

“Everything came together: A huge hyssop field died as a result of chemical pesticides; I needed a fundamental change in life; and a good friend gave me the book ‘Gan Eden Bepetah Habayit’ as a gift. The next stage was a course in permaculture (sustainable agriculture) and from that point on things changed dramatically. I saw that land wasn’t just an inert platform for growing things, as I’d been taught as a child, but rather one brimming with life that has to be developed and nurtured.”

Today Sela and a small group that he has assembled are responsible for a beautiful, self-sustainable, ecological garden. It is based on cultivation of the land via environmentally friendly methods; produces compost (from, among other things, grape stems, fungi and other agricultural waste from local farms) and compost tea (a liquid extracted from compost mixed with water, used for watering and spraying plants); preserves numerous varieties of local seeds and grows them in a hothouse; and provides food for local residents.

The wonderful produce grown there ? tomato plants that continue to yield fruit even after the season, okra pods that grow to the size of Jack’s legendary magic beans, and the extraordinarily sweet potatoes ? may be ordered through the garden’s website (“We decided upon a radius of an hour’s drive from the field. ” says Sela).

About a month and a half ago, Sela and a group of like-minded folks, some originally from the north and others who moved here to get away from city life, also began operating a local farmers’ market that sells produce from Kolot Ha’adama and other northern farms. The market operates on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons in an industrial hangar not far from the Kadoorie Agricultural School. Locals and tourists will find a splendid sight: kale, beet greens and arugula; clusters of fresh garlic and mounds of root vegetables and citrus fruit piled in straw baskets. Alongside the fruits and vegetables you’ll find other local products like goat’s milk cheeses from the Ez-Iz Farm in Merhavia; organic tahini from Kibbutz Parod; olive oil from Kfar Tavor; honey from Sharona Beekeepers; and breads baked by Yohanan Arnon, one of the staff at Kolot Ha’adama.

Though it hasn’t been around that long, the market has already been adopted by locals not just for shopping, but as a lively social and cultural gathering place.

Kolot Ha’adama; http://www.saarsela.com

Farmers’ Market: Galila hangar next to the Kadoorie School, open Wednesdays (4 P.M. - 8 P.M.) and Thursdays (1 P.M. - 8 P.M.)

Ukraine yummies

The Tiberias authorities have tried to find an interim solution to enable merchants in the city’s market to keep operating during renovations there, but long months of living amid clouds of dust and the noise of heavy machinery has rattled the nerves of vendors and buyers alike.

“It’s been seven months so far and there’s still a whole year ahead,” grumbles Nikolai. He made aliyah from Ukraine in the early 1990s.

His handsome face with its prominent cheekbones and somewhat slanted eyes attest to his Central Asian background (“My father was Korean, my mother was Jewish, and they both fled to Uzbekistan during World War II”).

He spent five years in Tashkent studying for his bachelor’s degree in law, and went on to earn another degree in food engineering in Lvov, the city of his birth. Now he has opened an eatery near the northern end of the market.

Patiently pouring a perfect beer from a Goldstar tap, he comments, “I was waiting for you to come, so the foam wouldn’t go down.” Along with the beer, he serves a dish of olives and baked salt sticks, and chebureki (fried dough pockets filled with ground meat and spices) that have an addictive crispiness.

His wife, Natalia Mudrakov Halmar, is in charge of the kitchen. She prepares the food on offer: delicate steamed manti (dumplings), filled with beef and served with a salad of tomato, fennel and mayonnaise; piroshki (rolls or buns) filled with liver or cherries; balsha, a baked delicacy like a doughnut, made with a yeast dough and filled with veal; or flat, deep-fried chebureki.

On certain days, the main item on the menu is plov, a dish of rice, lamb and carrots. Other times, people come to savor soup along with their beer or vodka.

Most of the clientele are from the former Soviet Union, but many others have also discovered this charming restaurant, hidden amid the sand and dust. Prices are low: chebureki, for example, cost only NIS 7.

Chiburchenia, the old Tiberias market; 04-6791263

Simply kebab

Haviv Eliahu immigrated from Iraq in 1951 and in the 1960s opened a coffee shop in the shopping center of the Shikun Gimmel neighborhood of Tiberias. In those days, the center was a bustling place filled with stores and small workshops, and locals came and paid a grush to watch broadcasts on the city’s first television set.

Over the years, the wholesale shops surrendered to the power of the big chain stores. Many of the spaces in the old shopping center now stand empty and neglected, their rusting iron doors tightly shut. Haviv had 14 children and when he passed away in 1999, Ilan, one of his 12 sons, opened a billiards hall on the site of the old coffee shop. But local rabbis didn’t look kindly upon the enterprise being open on the weekends, and eventually it was replaced by a restaurant with a large charcoal grill.

The son also commissioned a nice big billboard that was supposed to read “Ilan’s Iraqi Kebab.” But the sign painter got a little mixed up and ended up writing “Ilan the Iraqi’s Kebab.” And so the name has stuck ever since.

People from all over the country now come to sample the grilled meats. Emil, another of the 12 sons and a devoted fan of the Hapoel Tiberias soccer team (“He’s consumed by it. He’s still nostalgic for the glory days when the team was in the National League.” whisper people who know him) is in charge of the grill. Although the place’s success has led to the opening of a larger and spiffier branch in the lower city, Tiberians and others from the area still prefer to come to the original, modest kebab grill. The juicy beef kebab there is fantastic ? and fantastically simple ? made from fresh meat, testicle fat (“that’s the secret”), onion, parsley, salt and pepper. The pullet, liver and organ meat skewers are also excellent.

Nothing more to it, but definitely some of the best kebab in the land. Another feature is a salad bar, placed under pictures of the rabbis who gave their blessing to the business.

Hakebab Shel Ilan Ha’iraqi, Barak Street, Shikun Gimmel, Tiberias; 04-6744555

The farmers' market.Credit: Dan Peretz
Part of the Kolot Ha’adama garden.Credit: Dan Peretz
Sa’ar Sela. Land isn’t 'just an inert platform for growing things,' he says.Credit: Dan Peretz

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