When Guy Rilov lights his Hanukkah menorah, he will literally be carrying a torch for tradition.
The trees from which he harvests olives for their oil are more than a millennium old and, he believes, powered the menorahs of generations past. “There isn’t another crop in Israel where the same trees are being harvested today as 1,000 years ago,” he said recently, standing among his trees.
Rilov runs the Makura Farm, just south of Haifa, where he cold presses 13,000 gallons of oil from his crop each year — and he welcomes visitors. He used to be an intensive farmer before “repenting” 25 years ago and going organic. Today he is as close to self-sufficient as a viable business can be: An underground spring provides much of the water for the olive trees, and in an experimental area of the farm, he is utilizing a wetlands system that uses plants and reeds to purify dirty water and even sewage. Helpful flies, not pesticides, keep away destructive insects.
And any electricity that is needed is generated by his solar panels.
“I feel a connection with history all the time,” Rilov said. “Within a five-minute walk of my farm there are ancient olive presses where people were doing the same as I am today. That’s remarkable.”
Here in the Carmel region, foodies are developing a unique culture that emphasizes this tradition, along with a strong connection to the land. Tourists who want to taste Israel are flocking here in growing numbers to see where some of the finest items on their plates and in their glasses are coming from, and to learn about new trends in Israeli food.
Rilov’s Makura Farm is one of dozens of stops you can make in this region if you want to throw together a foodie trail during a day trip or extended vacation. “People are tired of the same old trips around Israel; they like to do something different, and there are always exciting finds to be enjoyed going after food and wine here,” said wine writer Adam Montefiore, senior manager at the Carmel Winery.
For wine lovers, the Carmel region offers the history of Israeli wine and a glimpse of its bright future. Montefiore’s winery is thriving, as are the Binyamina and Tishbi wineries. The three were established in the 1880s, 1950s and 1980s, respectively. Montefiore likes to say that the region offers the chance to see the whole history of Israeli wine in a day. The wineries map the re-establishment of the wine industry after two millennia; the boom after Israeli statehood, in 1948, and the start of the so-called Israeli wine revolution of the 1980s, when wines radically increased in quality.
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.
This story "Back to Basics of Israeli Food" was written by Nathan Jeffay.