Silver-haired and mustachioed Rahamim Kahalani, also known as Abu Kasis, warms himself in the golden winter sun. On nice days, his white plastic chair sits at the roadside next to a white truck packed with various herbs, across from the family stand in the plaza next to the Talpiot Market. The stand, now run by his grandson, was built around the thick trunk of a tall eucalyptus tree.
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“He’s the lord of the shuk,” the proprietor of a neighboring stall says affectionately. Abu Kasis began working in the market with his mother in 1955, and then, as now, the herbs came from the family’s fields in Moshav Eliakim.
The tribal elder doesn’t say much, even when two young men, Aran Brender and Assa Bigger, suddenly show up nearby. They flip over a few brightly colored plastic vegetable crates to use as a workspace, pull a portable camp burner out of their packs, and start cooking for passersby in the market. Brender, the chef, pours olive oil into a skillet and sautés green beans, zucchini, chestnuts and hyssop. Bigger, an artist who lived in New York for many years, slices bread and pours cups of beer to offer passersby. At 10 in the morning, there aren’t many takers, even in Haifa, a city with a tradition of pubs and seamen oblivious to clocks and time zones. (Israelis’ stingy drinking habits never cease to disappoint.)
“What are you giving out here?” an old woman leaning on a cane warily asks the two friends. Their natural good cheer, fueled by a little beer and a drop of ouzo, is initially met with some suspicion, despite their serious explanations and optimistic New Age messages: “It’s a spontaneous urban picnic. Health and love, friends. It’s such a beautiful day today. Come eat with us and let’s celebrate life together.”
But before too long, a happy little crowd has gathered around the makeshift stand. Maybe because things are being offered for free – though some people did leave a small contribution in return for the food and drink. Or maybe it was only natural for that initial wariness to dissipate, especially when good food, which has the power to bring people together, is on offer. Rahamim, who is still keeping mum, moves off until the hubbub passes. The gentrification of the area – and for better or worse, the spontaneous, well-intentioned urban picnic is part of that – won’t disappear anytime soon.
Library of colorful produce
Brender and Bigger grew up together in Ra’anana in the 1970s; for the past two years they have been doing boutique catering and are involved in projects that seek to combine food and art. Their urban picnics began as purely social events and later developed a commercial side. The first one took place in Tel Aviv; news of them spread by word of mouth, and at the appointed time, friends and friends of friends would show up at the designated location for the picnic. Brender has since moved to Haifa, and so the Talpiot Market has become the favored picnic site.
The friends began collecting ingredients for the picnic early in the morning in the Haifa market. They went to the original branch of the Ariel Bakery, now a nationwide chain, to buy fresh bread. Behind the spacious shop there is an impressive maze of rooms where dozens of people work. The highlight of the bakery is the flatbread oven, which resembles a huge Victorian-era locomotive engine.
From the bakery, they head over to Waseem Uthman’s produce stand, which looks like a colorful library of fruits and vegetables. Neatly arranged on the tall shelves are pomegranates, chestnuts, kiwi and pineapple – as if the seasons of the year are beside the point. There is also locally grown chicory and mallow and potatoes, and pears imported from South Africa. “My father worked in the market for 30 years, and I’ve been here for 15,” says Waseem, who brings vegetables from his family’s land in I’billin. The large barrels next to the stand hold pickled cabbage, cucumbers and turnips made by the family.
The next stop is the fish shop of the Ouda family, also from I’billin. Then Brender and Bigger head down to the covered underground space – part of the beautiful market that was built in the 1940s. It’s now somewhat neglected, though still home to vendors selling eggs, produce and meat.
Here you can also find eternal summer grapes alongside winter strawberries, but at this time of year, the market is mostly brimming with citrus fruit: tangerines and mandarin oranges, the last blood oranges of the season, and a whole yellow spectrum of grapefruit, pomela and pomelit.
This part of the old market is beautiful, despite the rundown infrastructure. It grew organically, and contains a rich and varied culture that continues to serve its (mostly elderly) regular customers. Its walls hold so many glorious memories that it makes you wonder why new markets are popping up all the time, trying to resemble some imaginary ideal, while this wonderful old market still hasn’t been renovated.
The market’s main building, designed by architect Moshe Gerstel and one of the most impressive structures in the country, has stood practically deserted for years, aside from a little eatery with Formica tables and a couple of tiny stalls selling gloves, pots and assorted junk. The Haifa Municipality says that in the coming six months, bids will be taken for an operator to run the market for the next 20 years. The vendors are skeptical: “We’ve been hearing this same promise for years,” says one. “All the money and investment are going to Lower Haifa and not to the Hadar neighborhood,” says another.
Cities, lands and adventures
We finish off the day at the Talpiot Market’s modern tavern, Hamara Talpiot, which opened in early 2015. Owner Ilan Ferron was one of the first to spot the hidden potential of this lovely multicultural site. Following his pioneering initiative of opening a restaurant, there is also a new brewery and a bakery offering healthy baked goods. On the wall of his charming eatery hangs a picture of his father, Ian, who together with Benny Amdursky opened the Hatzerot Yafo restaurant in the 1960s. Ferron oversees the hospitality, the alcohol and the aesthetics. His half-brother, Haim Revivo Paul, oversees the kitchen. “We come from a complex family that passed through many cities, lands and adventures, but what we all have in common is a love of cooking and of food that comes from home,” says Ferron.
Like Rahamim, Revivo Paul is not a big talker, but he excels at what he does. The menu changes daily, depending on the daily catch of fish and the best ingredients to be found in the surrounding market. Among the terrific dishes offered here are shrimp with butter and oranges; fresh mussels and mullet with white wine and tomatoes; a variety of dumplings inspired by the neighboring Russian eateries; and some wonderfully creative salads.
Talpiot Market, Haifa. Open Sunday to Friday. More information about Brender and Bigger at ab2studio.wordpress.com Hamara Talpiot restaurant, 28 Sirkin St., Haifa (04) 699-2296