Chef Moshe Basson cuts a striking yet down-to-earth figure with his long, thin salt-and-pepper braid and chiseled face.
I find him on a lush hillside near the entrance to Jerusalem, stripping olives from a tree. Plunking the olives into an old plastic grape juice bottle, he explains that in March, the tail end of olive season, you can make a great tapenade from the late-blooming fruit, so soft and juicy and overripe that you don’t have to cure it. He squeezes an olive with fingers stained purple to illustrate his point.
Dubbed “Israel’s biblical chef,” Basson has been exploring and learning about the wild edible delights of the biblical landscape of Jerusalem since he was a child, developing an encyclopedic knowledge of local edible plants and seeds. That appreciation of the natural culinary treasures of his city has been a key ingredient in his success as a restaurateur. His restaurant, Eucalyptus, has been a fixture on the Jerusalem food scene for 25 years.
But as his beloved pastime of foraging for wild edibles to be used in restaurant dishes becomes more popular, he is no longer simply a local celebrity. Basson has traveled internationally, teaching his philosophy of foraging.
Check out Moshe Basson’s Passover recipes on the Jew and the Carrot blog.
Despite his busy schedule, he graciously agreed to squeeze me in for a walk in the wild.
Stepping away from the olive tree he leans down and begins clipping the leaves from a plant close to the ground. The large leaves look vaguely like rhubarb to my untrained eyes. A woman passing on her morning walk, slows down and asks, him “What are you going to do with that? Is that for food?” He smiles and tells her with a sly grin, “Actually, this plant is poison. Delicious poison.” I look at him in shock. He quickly explains, that if you prepare the leaves, which he calls “loof,” by boiling them several times with lemons, the way that he learned to do from “Kurdish grandmothers,” the plant’s toxins can be eliminated.
He rapidly moves ahead, pointing out plant after plant. With every new species, Basson provides a full briefing on origin, place in Jewish tradition, use in the kitchen, and use in healing.
Kneeling down, Basson neatly cuts and piles a large stack of wide Jerusalem sage leaves. “Look how velvety the leaves are,” he says, stroking them affectionately. “They can be stuffed with rice and herbs just like grape leaves. When I serve it in the restaurant, 90% of the customers will think they are grape leaves and enjoy them. But 10% will notice the taste and the texture is different and ask, ‘What are those?’”