Taking the Fork on the Road

Culinary tours of farms and cities are in, cooking workshops in bland urban settings are out, as Israelis seek to get closer to their food sources

On your birthday, would you want to don shorts and gardening gloves and hit the countryside in search of okra, mulukhiya and edible thistle, topped off with authentic, Arab-style eggplant? You might be surprised to learn that Israelis are increasingly answering this question in the affirmative. Meet the culinary tour, the next stage after the cooking workshop. Some focus on farms and outdoor markets, both in Israel and abroad. Then there are the guided foodie shopping tours, the field visits that end with a cooking workshop, preferably in an exotic location, and the outings where participants get to go into restaurant kitchens and lift pot lids. Still others get city slickers into the dirt, picking vegetables and loving every minute of it.

Growing awareness about the benefits of produce that is grown organically and eaten in season has already drawn Tel Aviv yuppies closer to Arab cuisine. Now it's leading them to suppliers of the cognoscenti, says Nuzhat Abbas, chef and co-owner of El Babour restaurant in Nazareth. For three years now he has led tours in the Galilee and around Nazareth for Israelis who want to learn more about, and to purchase, what in the United States would be called heirloom vegetable varieties.

"I know which sellers in the area has the best produce," Abbas explains. "I bring the tour to these places, pointing out where to buy tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, winter squash, okra, mulukhiya (mallow leaves ) and so on. I also bring the tours into the field and explain how to pick wild herbs weeds and which to avoid. The tour ends with a meal at El Babour that includes foods that we bought or picked."

Most of the people who sign up for the tours are from the center of the country, Abbas says: "young people, people in high-tech, in the free professions, people celebrating a birthday." He introduces them to the restaurants in Nazareth, "a big, culturally rich city with ingredients like frika [green wheat] and akub [Gundelia tournefor, tumble thistle] that are hard to find in the center of the country." When the situation improves, he promises, there will be trips to Amman, Jordan as well as to the West Bank city of Nablus, "where I know every centimeter and every store, and which are fascinating." The tour costs NIS 600 for two people, including the meal at El Babour. Tel: (04 ) 611-0691.

Alon Saguy

Corporate cohesion Nazareth

Gil Lahav, too, is knowledgeable about Arab cuisine and conducts food-focused tours of Nazareth. A former marketing manager and confirmed foodie, he began his own gastronomic travels by following food-focused books that he liked ("especially the first edition of the Mapa Guide by Hani Farber, which was an eye-opener," he says ). Lahav wrote restaurant reviews for Internet forums and conducted tours for friends, "and what began as a hobby became a vocation," he explains.

Lahav says he never gets tired of Nazareth: "The markets, restaurants, bars. Sometimes we stay at an inn and cook a meal using what we've bought, and live the city." The period between October and April is the best ("we walk a lot and it's better when it's not hot" ). Much of his business is corporate, "companies doing group cohesion activities," he says.

Among the places he takes the groups to are a venerable tehina and halva factory; a butcher who specializes in lamb; a bakery where bread is baked on a layer of pebbles that imparts a smoky taste; and a "a hole in the wall where the same family has been making excellent knives for 300 years." The cost is NIS 100 per person in a group of 15, meals are extra. Details at www.foodtravel.co.il

Avoiding the tourist traps

Meir Bulka, 43, works in high-tech and both leads and participates in culinary tours in Israel and abroad. His own tours are usually on Friday, because most Israelis aren't working and because Sabbath-observant Jews can take part. Bulka says that he has no hesitations about going into restaurant kitchens - after getting permission - and that he has never been turned down.

Does experienced food tourists in Israel find themselves in the same places over and over?

No, says Bulka. "There are many interesting places. People in the know avoid the traps that those with less experience may fall into, such as a tour of 'Jaffa's Bulgarian restaurants.' After all, there aren't many Bulgarians in Jaffa. Or tours of fish restaurants, which locals know are only for tourists. People who read the Internet food forums can tell the difference between a good tour and one that is less so."

Tailormade tours

Lilach Rubin matches her food tours to her customers' demands. Rubin, who lives in Jerusalem and owns a food and marketing consultancy, leads tours of the Yoav-Yehuda region and in East Jerusalem. She is an expert in the old alleys and the newest innovations in both the east and west of the capital. "I take families with children to candy factories and stores; for adults there's a winery tour, a cheesemakers' tour or a combination," she says. All of her tours, Rubin says, are about more than just food: "Every product has a cultural and social context; no place that has any character can make something out of nothing. There is an explanation for every process." Cost: NIS 800-1200 per group. Tel.: 054-454-5868.

Bread and more with Erez

Chef and restaurateur Erez Komorovsky, founder of the Lechem Erez chain of bread stores and restaurants, moved from Tel Aviv to the Galilee and leads tours that end with a cooking workshop in his home. "I take the group to Acre's wonderful market. We meet at the entrance, pass the fish and produce stalls, go into spice stores, check what's fresh that day and choose the meal accordingly," Komorovsky explains. During the winter months he takes groups to the outdoor market in Kafr Yasif. Cost: NIS 600 per person, including the workshop and meal. Tel: (03 ) 977-2929.

What's next?

The supply, and demand, for culinary tours continues to grow. Ron Biala, owner of Tel Aviv's Biala restaurant, is planning a tour of his own produce and fish suppliers. There are cafe chains that offer tours of their roasting plants and to interesting cafes, while beer beer brewers will show you around their own breweries and those of their competitors.