Benny Briga, sporting a trim mustache and goatee, grinds a few juniper berries and allspice berries in a large clear glass. Looking like a modern-day D’Artagnan, he adds green grape leaves, lemon grass and sprigs of basil, with their purple flowers. Then he puts in some melon that was soaked in prune juice the night before, along with some crimson fig halves, and fills the glass to the brim with soda water. The result is a gorgeous drink, calling to mind the botanical drawings long-ago explorers used to sketch in their notebooks. Benny serves this beautiful refreshment, with a spoon and a straw, at his kiosk in south Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Market. But the best way to experience the drink is to set aside the straw and imbibe this refreshing and complex-flavored beverage as aromas of the dried seasonings and fresh fruit fill your nostrils and wash over your palate.
Each drink skillfully produced by Benny is a world unto itself of aesthetics, fragrances and flavors, and the variety is practically endless. There are no set recipes. Benny improvises the make-up of each glass, depending on the season and on the wishes and inclinations of the customer and of the gazoz man himself. He once fixed me an unforgettable soda made with slices of pink peaches, litchi, almond essence, rosewater and green herbs. I’ve been trying ever since to replicate the exact flavors of that heavenly nectar, to no avail.
The building blocks of these wonderful drinks are found in rows of jugs and vases filled with herbs including sage, mint and hyssop, and dozens of beautifully illuminated jars containing natural syrups made from seasonal fruits – figs, watermelon,apples, Nashi pears, limes, guava, apricots and more – and a large array of spices, including juniper, star anise, vanilla and Persian lemon. Some of the fruits and seasonings are preserved and fermented briefly, usually with sugar, honey, stevia or other fruit juices. Others are kept on the shelves for months or even years.
Benny Briga was born in Or Yehuda, not far from Tel Aviv, in 1975, “in a house with a lot of pots always cooking,” he says. Meeting him now, however, you’d think he was born and raised right here in the Levinsky Market. “Life was good in Or Yehuda in the ‘80s. There was just one bus line that came into town, like it was some remote border area, and we spent our childhood in the surrounding orchards.” After military service, he traveled to South America for two years, and when he returned to Tel Aviv he found odd jobs to support himself.
“A friend who taught cooking, chef Ariel Cohen, told me about a new restaurant on the beach called Manta Ray. I had worked in restaurants in Or Yehuda before the army, and when I went to Manta Ray for the first time on a Friday morning, it was a giant madhouse. I knew that it was perfect for me and that I’d found a home.” He worked in the restaurant’s kitchen for six years, eventually becoming the sous-chef to Golan Gurfinkel, then left in 2006 to be the chef at a new fish restaurant on the Herzliya beach (“There was still a sea and there were still fish back then”). When that restaurant closed, he moved back to Tel Aviv's Neve Tzedek neighborhood, worked a little at Dalal restaurant, and later, in a space opposite the old Eden Cinema, opened his own place, Casserole. There Briga served a changing daily selection of Iraqi and Tripolitan dishes. His affinity for botanics and for the processes of marinating and fermentation was already apparent. “I had almost 200 different kinds of arak going there. This was 2008, but it must have been a little ahead of its time, or it just didn’t fit the neighborhood. When that chapter was over, it was tough. Your restaurant is your ego and your heart. It’s very hard to let go. I could see the disaster coming a year ahead of time, but I still couldn’t bring myself to close the place. When it ended, my life became a nightmare.” He went to work as an ordinary cook in a Tel Aviv restaurant, “and that was my rehab,” he says.
The soda trade
Moshe Prizmant, a businessman, was a regular customer at Casserole, and he and Briga got to talking about opening a little café together. “I had moved to Nahalat Binyamin then, and since I lived by the Levinsky Market, I knew the time had come for it to be rejuvenated and wake up,” says Briga. “We searched for a while for the right space, and then we spotted a small kiosk on the corner of Levinsky and Merhavia. The hefty guy who ran it, who was drunk by 10 in the morning, was always looking to pick a fight in the neighborhood. One day, I went down and saw the kiosk was closed. Within an hour we’d signed a contract with the landlord. This was in 2012, and the spice shop merchants nearby told us, with a mixture of affection and pity, that they had their own electric coffeepots and no one would buy coffee from us.”
Briga and Prizmant began renovating the tiny kiosk – just 4 x 6 square meters – themselves. They started out with a vintage1964 La Favorita espresso machine. A 1975 Susita pickup truck became their trademark and good luck charm. “The city gave us some trouble about having chairs on the sidewalk, so we bought the Susita and people would sit on the seats we set up in the open back part,” Briga explains. The old vehicle has been spruced up with plants and flowers, but every few days it’s taken for a drive in the neighborhood, to avoid parking fines, making a fine spectacle for local merchants and passersby.
In addition to the good coffee that was always served here along with soda, Briga added fresh baked goods, sandwiches and a marvelous marzipan in pistachio, coffee, beet and carrot flavors. The market started coming back to life and Levinsky Street became a magnet for tour groups visiting one of Tel Aviv’s first outdoor markets, the one that best preserved the tradition of different Jewish communities from around the world. The demand for “old-fashioned” soda drinks also surged.
In 1930, Haaretz reported: “The soda trade has flourished in Israel, and has really gained a name in Tel Aviv. Initially, the drink was sold out of small peddlers’ carts; later on, the itinerant peddlers became soda sellers who sat in kiosks.” The first soda factories opened in Jaffa in the 19th century, and by the early 20th century, there were dozens of kiosks around Tel Aviv that sold gazoz – soda water sweetened with different kinds of colorful artificial syrups that quenched the thirst of children and adults alike in the sweltering city.
Now Briga is bringing the carbonated water tradition back to the city streets, but his syrups and the other ingredients are all natural. “From the start, I knew I wanted to do something related to sweets and liqueurs and jams because the whole market is full of pickles,” says Briga. “And suddenly it all came together – my childhood in the orchards, my interest in organic and sustainable agriculture and in the processes of fermentation and preservation.” The fruits and herbs come from urban gardens and trees. Briga is active in Florentin’s community garden and tours the city’s green spaces picking edible plants, some of which he planted himself. He also acquires produce from exceptional orchards around the country; friends and customers bring him fruit; and a plant nursery in Kfar Vitkin supplies him with fresh herbs twice a week. The tiny business’s license does not permit the sale of alcoholic beverages – count on city hall to take the fun out of what could have been the best cocktails kiosk in the city. But if you add some locally made gin or other alcoholic drink to Benny’s gazoz, you’ll be amazed at the remarkable flavors, ones that are hard to match even at local cocktail bars run by professional mixologists. The key is the connection to local ingredients and to the area’s cultural history. This sublime pleasure, replete with clinking ice cubes, will set you back only 16-20 shekels.
Café Levinsky 41, 41 Levinsky Street, Tel Aviv, 058-448-8480