“I was born happy. I’m always happy – that’s my problem in life,” says Sami Subah to the customers entering his shop. Whistling to himself, the cheerful butcher dons a brown apron and goes into the walk-in refrigerator to bring back fresh cuts of meat. At the counter, longtime customers patiently wait their turn. Anyone who’s bought meat from this rural butcher shop in the northern Golan Heights knows that shopping at Sami’s is a lengthy ritual.
You don’t just pop into Sami’s place – in the Druze village of Buq’ata – to grab some meat and go. Instead, you spend a long time debating which cut to get, or what kind of seasoning to get for the shawarma and chicken you will roast at home. You drink coffee, chat with the butcher and neighbors and acquaintances about the matters of the day (“Our apples used to go to Damascus. Now, the border is closed and people don’t have a livelihood. They’re selling the apples at a loss,” sighs one of the patrons, as the talk shifts to the difficulties of farming in the area).
“In ’67, Buq’ata was a small village and my father had seven Damascus cattle – a great treasure in those days,” recalls Subah. The charismatic butcher with mesmerizing blue eyes grows wistful as he talks about the lost taste of the cows, which were renowned throughout the Levant. “They didn’t have a lot of meat, but the little they had – what flavor!” he says. “When I was a kid, we also had chickens at home. When the chicks hatched, it took a whole year for them to get to 2 kilograms [4.4 pounds]. Today, in just two months a chicken weighs 3 kilos. There are no miracles in nature and there is nothing natural about chickens that are fattened with growth hormones. The same goes for the lamb and the cow.”
Deep and complex flavors
Subah, 47, the second of 12 siblings, became a cattle herder like his father before him. His father’s herd numbered just those seven cattle. Today, Subah and his siblings have hundreds of cattle, as well as sheep that are bred for meat. Eight years ago, Sami opened his butcher shop in Buq’ata, the village where he grew up. All the meat sold there comes from the family herd.
“It’s an old-fashioned butcher shop – and not just because it’s a social hub,” says chef Boaz Peled, my shopping companion and now a regular customer. “Sami works using the traditional local method: All the meat is from his own cattle breeding, the slaughtering is only done when the animal reaches the right weight – 500 kilograms for cattle and 50 for lamb – and their feed is as close as possible to the natural way. The animals spend most of their lives grazing naturally, except for a very brief time. The meat is usually sold when it’s very fresh – unlike how it’s usually done now in the markets. But it’s so tasty and tender that it doesn’t need prolonged aging to develop deep and complex flavors.”
Until recently, Peled worked in some of Tel Aviv’s top restaurants, including Night Kitchen (Mitbach Lilah). But he and his family moved to Kibbutz Ein Zivan, in the northern Golan Heights, a few months ago. “It’s something I was thinking about for many years – ever since I was a kid and we used to spend summer vacations in the Golan with family and the grazing cattle,” recounts the chef, who doesn’t waste words but dedicates a lot of thought to the local food scene.
“When Tamar and I got married,” he continues, “we knew that at some point we were going to leave the city and move to the country. And the real dream was to have an isolated, sustainable farm where we could meet all our own needs.”
Peled travels to Tel Aviv once a week – mainly to go to Pimpinella, the wonderful bar-restaurant near Levinsky Market where he’s a partner and head chef. The rest of the time, he’s exploring the fascinating food scene that has developed in the northern Golan’s Druze villages, and tasting ingredients there.
“I wouldn’t pretend to really understand anything after such a short time,” he says, “but even a stranger can easily see what the four villages in the northern Golan have in common and what sets them apart. It’s a traditional society living in a war-battered border area, which is used to providing for all its own needs, and still does so.
Connected to the land
Peled says he can find nearly everything he needs on the streets of Buq’ata: “Locally grown meat, vegetables and fruit, or cheeses that are still made at home by the local women. With the vast differences in altitude between the south and north, the Golan Heights is a very rich area in terms of climate and vegetation. From a certain point northward, the altitude changes every few dozen meters, and with it the wild vegetation and agriculture – and each village has its own microclimate,” he explains. “Ein Qinya, where the people are still very connected to the land, sits at a lower altitude. Other crops are grown there, like olive trees, whose fruit was used as barter.”
Since Peled moved to the Golan, he has focused on doing private events and special meals, including some where you collect the ingredients around the Golan and cook them in the field.
Sami’s butcher shop was not our first stop that day. It was preceded by picking the last Wishniak cherries of the season at the Ein Zivan orchard and a visit to Zidan Salman’s wonderful produce shop in Buq’ata. We left the butcher with an incredible rack of lamb, beef patties seasoned with sheep fat and a special spice mixture, and two types of salad – eggplant and hot peppers – prepared by local women. The next stop was the Hermon flour mill in Majdal Shams. It’s one of those rare places where you can buy flour and other wheat products made from locally grown wheat.
Until relatively recently, the Druze villagers used to buy their entire year’s supply of wheat during the harvest season. They would take it to the local miller, have it ground down and then store it away, to be prepared for whatever might come. “It’s only been changing in the last few years,” says Ibrahim Said, a dedicated miller. “The young folks don’t do it anymore, but the older folks still maintain the tradition.”
At Ibrahim’s lovely flour mill, you can find all manner of products created to preserve the grains out of season. The Galil variety of wheat is darker, while the Harel variety is ground into different types of flour (to check the dough’s gluten level and elasticity, Said asks his wife to use the freshly ground flour to make several balls of dough; Peled says he used the softer flour to make an unforgettable French sourdough bread); the Zahir grains are boiled, dried and ground into three types of bulgur, and used to make kibbeh.
From the flour mill, we go to a beautiful spot near the Odem Forest. With the accompanying sound of falling shells – the soundtrack of the war in neighboring Syria startles visitors, but the locals have grown accustomed to it – we head out to gather a few more things. Capers, pine nuts, wild raspberries and pears are just part of the seasonal haul.
Boaz lights a campfire and surrounds it with basalt rocks. During these outdoor cooking sessions, the young and talented chef places the emphasis on cooking and working with fire, and we sit around the fire for hours, happily eating and drinking together.
Sami’s fantastic rack of lamb is roasted directly over the coals, along with eggplant, onion and a pot of sweet apricots from Ein Qinya that turns into a bubbling confiture; a metal sheet placed on the coals is used to grill the beef patties; and soft and airy pitas – made from an unusually wet dough – are baked on an iron skillet.
Sometimes, Peled uses the campfire to cook skewers of meat, or the meat is buried in a pit of embers; or different ingredients are toasted atop hot basalt stones. “The techniques are for outdoor cooking,” he says, “but what’s most important is the quality of the food. Picking your own food and sustainability are great, but I don’t ignore the benefits of modern agriculture when it provides fine ingredients. The ingredients and techniques are a means to a goal – great food that transcends both of them.”
Al-Majd Butcher Shop (Sami’s butcher shop), Buq’ata, 050-240-0715; Hermon Flour Mill, Majdal Shams, 050-549-4953. For private events/outdoor cooking sessions with Boaz Peled in the Golan Heights, call 052-422-7027 (250-400 shekels per person).