24 Hours in the Nitzana Dunes

A day of blossoming flowers that begins with tomato sauce and continues with honey, cheese and lunar landscapes.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
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Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Even long-time Negev residents can't remember such a tremendous profusion of spring blossoms like the ones they've been witnessing during the past few weeks in the dunes of Shivta and Nitzana. Stretching out on either side of the empty road that leads across the border to Egypt are purple carpets of stock (mantur), yellow carpets of Negev groundsels and soft, undulating expanses of verdant vegetation. But the main attraction in this excursion is desert agriculture. The green agricultural areas and large hothouses are not something you necessarily expect to see in a region that receives an average of just 50-100 millimeters of rainfall per year.

In the early centuries C.E., the descendants of the Nabateans grew olives and grapes here by using the rainwater and floodwaters that collected on the loess soil, via a complex system of terraces, small dams and drainage ditches. Today the agricultural areas are irrigated by deep underground reservoirs of salty water millions of years old, running at a depth of a kilometer and a half underground.

Also hiding under the ground are truffles. The local truffle season falls in March and April, but the chances of an ordinary layperson identifying the signs for locating these super-expensive mushrooms under the parched ground, on the roots of the plant known as Shimshon Yoshev, are almost nil.

Because tourism to this region is still sparse, it's best to phone ahead to schedule a visit to the sites there. During the intermediate days of Passover, the area will host a gourmet wine festival, and most of the sites will be open to the general public.

Tomato-picking in KemehinIn the summer months, the fruit-picking craze in this country really gets going. Entire families head up North, baskets in hand, as if they were setting out to pick wild berries in dense European forests. In the South, too, they've realized the potential, and offer visitors the local alternative of picking cherry tomatoes. The tomatoes here are a hybrid of local species and a South American variety that grows well in a highly saline environment. For 10 months a year, they enjoy the combination of arid air, the sun's hot rays and the salty water, and find their way to the European market. In the hothouse, you can hear an explanation about tomato-growing and pick some for home or for a picnic. Tomato-picking in Kemehin, 08-655-1524, 052-8450201

Tomato jam in Kadesh BarneaInside enormous vats, cherry tomatoes destined for jam are bubbling, strips of onion are swirling in red wine and sumac, and the pot of Thai-style sauce gives off a pungent aroma of ginger, hot peppers and cilantro. Oksana and Hemi Tzemah's jam, sauce and spread business was inspired by the abundance of tomatoes that grow in the area. Four years after its modest beginning in their home kitchen, a small factory now sits at the entrance to their community, but the production methods are still home-style. They make 27 different products here, all of them Oksana's creations, and for the holidays they add special products like haroset, and apples or dates prepared with Silan date honey and Balsamic vinegar. Hemi, the guiding force behind the festivities, conducts group tours that must be scheduled beforehand. You can also make advance reservations for wonderful picnics. Kesem Hamidbar, Kadesh Barnea, 052-2756225

Honey from desert flowersWhen Eduard Filipo gets a backache, he places three or four bees on the painful spot, and lets the numbing power of the stingers do the job. Filipo used to roam with his beehives over the Russian steppes. When he immigrated and settled in Kemehin, he caught a wild swarm that had turned an abandoned sofa into its home and began building his apiaries. It's not easy to maintain beehives in an arid desert region, but the large eucalyptus groves planted near Kadesh Barnea and the desert flowers provide enough nectar for the whole year.

From the rosemary and the desert broom plants, he collects a brown honey; from the yellow broom, he produces a light honey; and in the fall he collects honey produced by the blossoms of the tamarisk, and another variety that comes from the eucalyptus. Beit Hadvash Vehadvora, Kadesh Barnea, 052-899-1807

The solar park in NitzanaThe giant exhibits at the new solar park protrude from the desert like colorful amusement-park rides. Here you'll find a classroom covered with wing-like panels that convert the solar energy into electricity; nets that collect the night dew; an enormous installation that focuses the intensity of the sun's rays; and other structures that demonstrate to children and adults the ecological and economical use of the main resource with which this area is blessed in abundance: sunlight. The visit also includes a guided tour of a garbage-collection center for recycling, and a small archaeological museum. Nitzana Youth Village, 08-6561468/35, http://www.nitzana.org.il

Organic cheesesThe assortment of junk on view at Mitzpeh Azuz - trailers and buses that were turned into homes, the carcasses of old tractors and a rickety-looking water tower - is reminiscent of the scenery in old Westerns. The few times we stayed here, we saw that, unfortunately, the "law of small communities" holds true here as well: The smaller the place, the more numerous the disputes - regardless of the beautiful wilderness of sandy dunes all around.

When we arrived this time, Celia and Dror Farida were standing next to the wooden stakes of the goat pen, mixing cement and building their new cheese shop all by themselves. Life in the wilderness requires people to gain a certain expertise in every sort of craft. This year, because of the paucity of milk, due to a spate of thefts of goats, there are only softer items for sale. It is a small but marvelous selection: a yogurt of goat's milk and sage that melts in your mouth; smooth labaneh with olive oil; and a splendid soft cheese seasoned with garlic and parsley. Tzon Be'erotayim Banegev, Ezuz, 08-655-5889

Hamukei NitzanaThousands of years of flowing flood waters that eroded the ground have exposed the chalk hills underneath and left behind a wonderful sight: lunar-looking boulders, craters and soft white curving landscapes. For kids, it's an all-natural and exciting amusement park; adults will stand here in awe. Not far away, say birdwatchers, is an area where rare birds break out in a mating dance this time of year. We'd forgotten our binoculars at home, but maybe it's better that way. Because though we're great nature lovers, and firmly opposed to illegal hunting, the sight of certain plump and juicy fowl can't help but inspire visions of a spit turning over a small bonfire ...

A night at the Shivta FarmIn the past, when we've stayed at the Shivta Farm, we ordered ahead from Ayala the matfuna meal - a huge tray of tender, juicy chicken that's been cooked in the Bedouin style - buried in the ground for hours over whispering coals, saturated with the flavor of tomatoes, rosemary, thyme, lemon grass and zaatar (wild hyssop). This time, we neglected to call ahead and settled for a meal of the cheeses we'd bought at the Naot and Kornmehl Farms along the way, and we spread it out on the giant table in the yard.

Ayala and Ami Och spent years renovating the building that once housed groups of archaeologists and was paid for in the 1930s by the American arms manufacturer Colt. Today it contains three simple and ascetic guest rooms where visitors also get a terrific breakfast of fresh pita seasoned with zaatar and sesame, fresh salads that include samples from the nearby spice terrace, home-cured olives and golden omelets.

It's a good idea to schedule an architectural tour of the ruins with Ami, the national park ranger, who will point out to you the "Nabatean refrigerator" - a special indentation hollowed out in the thick stone walls, to keep jugs of water cool. The large amounts of bones that were found in the excavations of the area's Nabatean towns indicate that an average Nabatean family ate plenty of meat: camels, pigs, partridges, deer, but mainly sheep and goats. The numerous tabouns and other ovens attest to the large quantities of bread that was baked and eaten, particularly that made of barley, since wheat was prohibitively expensive. Dessert aficionados will be sorry to hear that sweets were extremely rare in this society. Shivta Farm, Shivta National Park, 050-738-3802

The best way to roast elephant meat Peter Lund Simmonds, who lived in the 19th century, was apparently the first person to author a serious research study of foods eaten around the world. In 1859, Simmonds, who was also involved in the writing of such classic page-turners as "The Farmers' Encyclopedia" and "The Commercial Products of the Vegetable Kingdom," published a book with this impressive title: "Curiosities of Food: Or the Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained From the Animal Kingdom." The public didn't come rushing to the bookshops to get hold of a copy, and missed out on its wonderfully British combination of dry scholarship, droll humor and an eye for detail.

This slim and enjoyable colonialist volume is divided into very specific categories: reptiles, sea mammals, birds, etc. In the chapter devoted to four-legged creatures, one can find a report regarding the export of pickled rats from India to China, information about fried wombats in Australia and a charming anecdote about a dog-meat banquet in Canada. The chapter on thick-skinned animals opens with a meticulous description of the perfect recipe for roasted elephant legs (the secret is in the proper slicing of the meat and also involves two strong and athletic African men, who can keep turning the giant spit so the meat will get well roasted all around).

Tomato talesThe tomato, the latter-day star of Middle Eastern cuisine, was not so warmly received when it arrived in Europe in the 15th century from South America and was perceived as a salacious fruit dripping with passion juices. The forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, Pomma amoris, the apple of love. Its perfect suitability for sauces, an asset that's taken for granted in the modern kitchen, somehow clashed with Christian asceticism.

"Man, by nature, does not eat sauces," St. Clement of Alexandria had declared authoritatively as early as the third century C.E. And when Yehiel Pines, the Hovevei Zion representative in Palestine coined the Hebrew word agvaniya, from the root of ayin-gimmel-bet, (agav - connoting love or lust), the choice was ridiculed. Joseph Chaim Brenner insisted that it was in no way lustful, and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda would only consent to eat badurot, after the word bandura in Arabic. Other suggestions were made, but the name stuck anyway.

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