The jingling of bells on the flock of goats can be heard clearly in the narrow, elongated space of the Rutenberg Restaurant, which was once an enclosure for quarantining animals at the border crossing of the Valley Train into Jordan. The bullet-proof glass windows cannot be opened – a legacy from the days when the situation on the border was tense – so we go outside to watch the Jordanian goats making their way down the slope of the hills toward the Jordan River and the border fence, just a few meters from the restaurant. “There are also families of wild boars here; it’s not clear whether they’re Israeli or Jordanian,” says Yizhar Sahar, the chef at the Rutenberg Restaurant, named for Pinhas Rutenberg, founder of Israel’s electric company.
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“In recent years there has been pleasant coexistence in this quiet enclave, even if it’s due to force of circumstance,” adds Hila Ronen Sahar, his partner, who is a wine expert. “When a fire broke out a few months ago and threatened to destroy the railroad bridge, behind which is an ancient Roman bridge and a khan from the Mameluke period, Israeli and Jordanian firefighters worked together to stop the spread of the fire.”
We continue to hike in the pastoral area where the isolated restaurant is situated. The small, attractive house of the British veterinarian who was in charge of the quarantined animals stands abandoned and neglected today. In front of the old water tower, not far from the fruit orchard planted in 2008 in memory of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the olive and lemon trees that have been there for ages, there is a vegetable garden planted by Hila and Yizhar. During this season they are growing winter vegetables and fresh herbs. The absolute silence is disturbed only by the explosions of an air blower meant to chase birds away from the nearby fish pond.
This part of Route 90, which runs the length of the country, has not been a central artery for a long time. At the turn to the side road leading to the old bridge and the restaurant, there is not even a sign with its name. “We tried for half a year and put up a sign,” says Yizhar, “but it didn’t change a thing.” He says the location is both a curse and a blessing. There are almost no incidental passersby, “but anyone who wants to come is coming specifically to us. In this area, far from the center of the country, what’s important is your reputation, and I think that in the past three years we’ve managed to build one among the locals.”
Wandering the world
Hila Ronen was born in 1977 on Kibbutz Tzora in the Jerusalem hills. “I grew up in the nursery together with Gal, the daughter of Ronnie James, the founder of the Tzora Vineyards,” she says. “I’m the ‘daughter’ who went into wine. His biological daughter is today an outstanding international opera singer.”
Yizhar Sahar was born in the same year on Kibbutz Afikim in the Jordan Valley. (“I started cooking after the army, when the money ran out during a four-year trip around the world. In Melbourne I entered the kitchen of a Greek restaurant that was a local institution, I started out as a dishwasher and worked my way up. I discovered that it’s a wonderful way to wander around the world. Cooks are always needed everywhere, and I cooked my way through Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Holland.”)
The couple, who met during a year of voluntary service and got married in 2006, first lived in Jerusalem and then in Tel Aviv. Hila became the professional director of the Wine Route and the Shaked wine importers; Yizhar worked in restaurant kitchens and with chefs Paul Assenheim and Ran Shmueli. In 2012 they decided to return to Sahar’s kibbutz and move to the Jordan Valley. They say they realized “we were chasing our tails instead of chasing children on the lawn.”
They became partners in the Rutenberg Restaurant, which was opened by chef Ran Sagi, also from Kibbutz Afikim, and was purchased in 2010 by Yizhar’s brother. In the past year, they slowly and cautiously began to introduce changes in the menu and the character of the place.
“It started with thoughts about rural inns in France and Italy,” says Hila. “Places that I visited during my wine travels, and our quiet corner is no less beautiful than they are. We submitted a request to build two to three guest rooms adjacent to the restaurant. I don’t know if they’ll ever approve the plan, but at the same time we began to think about the menu served in those places, a menu that reflects the culture, history and ingredients of the local cuisine. We wanted to understand what there used to be here, in the Beit She’an Valley. What they grew here and what people who lived here ate, and through the past to understand the right things to grow and eat today.”
The library established by Dr. Uri Meir-Chizik, a nutritionexpert, in neighboring Neve Eitan, was the first stop. Using lists of travelers in previous generations, books on botany and folk medicine, and collections of ancient recipes, Hila, with Meir-Chizik’s guidance, began to collect information about historical local cuisine. “The foundations are the seven species – olives and olive oil, pomegranates, wheat and barley,” says Meir-Chizik. “In addition there are jujubes; herbs such as thyme, rue and hyssop; lamb and goat meat; fish from Lake Kinneret; and herbs and other plants that are gathered seasonally. This region was once an important junction of commercial roads spreading from China to Spain, and in the modern period too, thanks to the Hejaz Railroad, travelers and ingredients passed through here.”
“Every week we play around with ingredients from local suppliers, with traditional recipes and a variety of ideas,” says Hila. “We have no far-reaching pretensions, nor any desire to recreate all the historical recipes, but rather to give them a modern interpretation.”
On the new menu, in addition to typical bistro-Mediterranean dishes like home-made pasta and an autumn vegetable salad, there are dishes based on local ingredients, not necessarily traditional, such as fresh shrimps from the ponds of Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin, with pink grapefruit and herbal liqueur from the Julius Distillery; grilled pond fish; or a platter of cheeses from the Barkanit Dairy, served with home-made jam, honey and roasted almonds.
There are still only a few dishes based on local products and inspired by historical recipes, but each of them is an entire world. Freekeh, roasted green wheat that comes from the villages around Nazareth, is served with a fermented cashew yogurt. There is quail (fowl such as pigeons, partridges, pheasants, quail and migratory birds were consumed by residents of the region for thousands of years) in wine vinegar, onions and coriander. The crowning glory is sikbaj, one of the most prestigious foods in the Middle East from the eighth to the 13th century.
Sikbaj is a term originating in Farsi, evidence of the tremendous influence of Persian cuisine on Arab cooking and via that, on Western cuisine. It is a dish prepared with vinegar (sik=vinegar, baj=dish). Scholars believe that the origin of the word “escabeche” (meat, fish or poultry prepared in an acidic marinade) is the ancient Farsi word sikbaj, and some also claim that the portions of sikbaj that were served cold and therefore contained gelatin, also lent their name to the term “aspic.”
In ancient cookbooks can be found dozens of recipes of sikbaj dishes made with lamb, goat or fish and cooked with vinegar and its complement in the ancient world – honey or fruit honey (the sweet-and-sour taste was especially popular in medieval Arab cuisine) Yizhar’s version includes goat and other classic ingredients, such as citrus fruits and figs. The food menu is accompanied by a captivating wine menu curated by Hila.