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Chefs Emphasize Tradition and Sustainability in Carmel

Keeping It Real: Restaurants in the Carmel region of Israel are making their mark with a culture of sustainability and respect for tradition. At the Amphorae winery, grapes are picked by hand.
courtesy of amphorae winery
Keeping It Real: Restaurants in the Carmel region of Israel are making their mark with a culture of sustainability and respect for tradition. At the Amphorae winery, grapes are picked by hand.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published December 11, 2011, issue of December 16, 2011.
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As well as visiting and tasting at these wineries, tourists can explore the very latest trend in Israeli wine: boutique wineries, which have sprung up across the country over the past decade. Boasting almost a dozen, the Carmel region is leading the way.

“The difference [from larger wineries] is that we don’t have to receive huge amounts, so we can be more selective in our grapes,” said Alon Domboya, winemaker at the Mankura-based Amphorae boutique winery, which is located in a beautiful valley in a Provence-inspired stone building. There, grapes are picked by hand, not by machine. They are packed into 40-pound boxes that are transported in temperature-controlled vehicles; this is done instead of placing them in the back of a large truck, a practice that can cause the grapes at the bottom to get squashed and their juice to begin premature fermentation.

The boutique winery business model has an added advantage in Israel. Large wineries here need to cater to mainstream demand, which means being kosher, as the region’s three big wineries are. According to the Israeli rabbinate’s strict interpretation of Jewish law, only Orthodox Jews may touch wine or its barrels before bottling, so the average winemaker is constrained, constantly needing to use an Orthodox worker to act as his or her arms. Like other boutique wineries, Amphorae can afford to be nonkosher.

But it’s not only wine — food here is boutique, too. The Israeli food market is heavily oriented toward centralized food processing and distribution, a result of the small number of large conglomerates that control supply. There is nothing here akin to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaign, but in the Carmel region, the idea is catching on.

On a picturesque hill a few miles from Mankura, Yoel Blumenberg prepares weekly orders for hundreds of locals who shun the supermarket and buy their produce from him. As on a handful of other local community-supported farms nearby, they take whatever vegetables are in season, along with milk and homemade cheese from his herd of goats. “People just want to know more about what they are putting in their mouths,” he said.

What I found surprising when speaking to customers of community-supported farms was how their reasons for buying there are uniquely Israeli. Some say that the summer’s cost-of-living protests that began with a campaign against the price of cottage cheese and continued with campaigns against large Israeli conglomerates made them rethink how they source their food.

Others see an ideological significance. “I moved to Israel from America to feel a connection to the Land of Israel, but the country has moved so far from the era of the pioneers that it’s easy to live here and have a completely urban life,” 36-year-old Haifa resident Gila Kerny said. “Keeping a connection with a farm is my way of keeping a connection to the land, of linking to that slightly romantic Zionist past.”

Nathan Jeffay is the Forward’s Israel correspondent.


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