Organic cheeses from Halav Im HaRuah. Dan Perez

Not by Bread Alone: This Galilee Community Is a Foodie's Heaven

At a new complex of shops and small factories in Yodfat in the Lower Galilee, you can find artisanal breads, amazing cheeses, olive oil and other local delicacies.



Making a good sandwich is an art – one that may not get all the respect it deserves. Combining the flavors and textures of different ingredients involves achieving a delicate balance. In a sandwich, all the elements must come together harmoniously in a single bite. How thickly to slather on the butter; how many pickles to put in and exactly where to place them; the proportions of the main ingredient to the others; what type of bread to use. Each decision could have fateful consequences.

Avital Sadot, popularly known as Tootsie (“Everyone who grew up in Yodfat has a nickname,” she says) is a master of constructing sandwiches that approach true perfection. It could be a gouda sandwich (meticulously carved slices of cheese, fresh avocado, homemade pesto, greens, and a pickled lemon spread); or one made with delicious sausage, a mound of fresh arugula, salt, slivers of Parmesan and a touch of spicy mustard. Any sandwich she makes in Tootsie Kitchen Delicatessan is a treat.

“Everything that’s in the sandwich I sell or make myself,” says Tootsie, whose long reddish locks would put Rapunzel to shame. Except for her grandmother, all the women in the family have long braids that cascade down to the floor and are rolled up into a knot at the nape of the neck during the day.

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“I make things – pickled lemons, jams, sauces and other pickles – solely in accordance with their season. If the basil doesn’t look good, there won’t be pesto.” Through the windows of the refrigerators, cheese wedges and various sausages used in the sandwiches can be seen. On the table are all kinds of sweets she concocts: chocolate-coated caramels with walnuts; meringue puffs; rahat lokum (Turkish delight); brownies (“Not to worry, the brownies with berries are in the fridge,” a small sign next to them says reassuringly); muffins; and a panforte with hazelnuts and dried fruits.

Tootsie was born in Yodfat in 1976. After a period in the center of the country, where she worked as a restaurant cook and apprentice pastry chef, she returned there in 2003. She and a partner opened a catering service, The Giraffe and the Crocodile, that was in business for nearly a decade. The delicatessen, a longtime dream, opened a year ago at Boa’cha Yodfat, a small shopping complex at the entrance to the community. Overlooking the green hills of the Lower Galilee, the complex houses 11 shops and small factories, half of them related to food.

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Everyone takes part

“All the boys and girls of Yodfat are returning home,” says Michal Ezrony-Kassirer, founder and moving spirit of the small shopping center. “And everyone from Yodfat appreciates and understands good food.” The attraction of this place, founded in 1960, has a lot to do with the beautiful landscape and the communal lifestyle that still persists there, despite changes over the years.

“Yodfat was one of the first places where the communal economic system was eliminated. That happened in the early 1990s, and not because of hardship or bankruptcy,” says Ezrony-Kassirer. “The industries of the community became profitable businesses. The community spirit is still very significant, along with a sense of mutual responsibility. We celebrate the holidays together: On Sukkot we build a huge sukkah where everyone eats every evening – and every week is filled with events and activities for everyone to take part in together.”

Yodfat marked its 50th anniversary with a cookbook, published privately for residents, that includes a chapter devoted to the influence of Bedouin and Arab neighbors on the community’s cuisine. “The dish most associated with Yodfat is mansaf [lamb cooked in yogurt],” says Ezrony-Kassirer. “The founders were involved with the Bedouin who lived in the area and learned about local Arab cuisine from them, long before it became popular in recent years,” she says. In addition to mansaf, the chapter also includes recipes for kubbeh, stuffed vegetables, stuffed pastries, roasted green hummus and pickled mini-watermelons. Next to each recipe is the name of the woman who taught it to them, or the story of the culture from which it came – a testament to the unusually close neighborly relations between a Jewish community and its Arab neighbors.

Ezrony-Kassirer, 54, was one of the first children born in the community. She lived in London and Tel Aviv for many years, worked in the food industry and was an organizer of one of the first wine festivals in Israel. When she returned to Yodfat in 2003, she opened a wine shop in her home.

“It started with three or four kinds of wine and we ended up with close to a hundred. The shop gradually grew to include an eclectic range of food products and local arts and crafts. That’s how the idea for the new compound arose.”

The spacious shop, Holech Batel, offers an intriguing selection of imported and local wines, as well as a variety of toys and other items made at the community’s anthroposophic school. The shelves of wine are marked with labels like “tasty neighbor,” “good for the pocket and good for the palate,” among others. Wine is also sold by the glass, and nothing can rival a sandwich from the adjacent deli along with some wine and a view of the gorgeous landscape. Yodfat olive oil is made from two varieties – Cortina and Barnea olives.

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Asa’el Maor, 35, is the community baker. Like the other artisans in the complex, he was born in Yodfat and wanted to stay and earn his living here. “I wanted to find an occupation that would serve the community,” says the bearded baker. “I started thinking about it a few years ago, and then really got into it when I met the baker Rotem Ogen.

“For two years, we met twice a month for long days of mostly theoretical learning, and the rest of the time I built up my own experience with baking. I started selling my stuff to the neighbors and on Fridays bringing a big tray of breads to the local grocery store.”

In time, his selection of products expanded, his accumulated experience and his passion for the craft had their effect, and six months ago, the bakery took up a permanent home in the complex. The bread is handmade, and he has recently added yeast cakes and challah to his repertoire.

One of the highlights of the compound is the cheese shop Halav Im HaRuah, where they make unusually fine goat cheeses. At the nearby but isolated farm, life proceeds as in days of yore: The goats go out to the pasture to graze, the pace of life is dictated by the seasons, and the two farmers, Dalia and Amnon Zeldstein, choose to live quietly, unconnected to the electricity grid.

Previously, their organic cheeses could only be purchased at the farm they started more than two decades ago. Now they can also be found in this new shop.

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“Can I pay with a credit card?” asks a customer on her first visit to Boa’cha. “Sure,” smiles Dalia. “Here everything is modern, except for us.”

In winter, there is generally a shortage of milk; with organic breeding, milk production increases as spring approaches. In all, the dairy produces 12 delicious kinds of cheese, though it’s not always possible to buy all of them, or to catch them at their peak of ripeness. There is also a slightly tangy yogurt sorbet prepared by Amnon – sometimes seasoned with cardamom, sometimes with a little fresh mascarpone added – which makes a perfect dessert.

Boa’cha Yodfat, at the entry to Yodfat (open seven days a week); Tootsie Kitchen Delicatessan – (04) 822-5740; Holech Batel – (04) 822-6221; Asa’el Artisanal Bread – 050-679-6803, 054-808-8378; Halav Im HaRuah – 050-532-7387, (04) 532-7387

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