Showing posts with label Food and Restaurants. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Food and Restaurants. Show all posts

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ra'anana Wine Festival - June 27th/28th, 2012

This picturesque location will be the scene for Ra'anana's 2nd Annual Wine Festival, which will be held on June 27th and 28th, 2012 from 6:30 to 11:00 p.m. According to organizers, the event will feature dozens of Israeli wineries as well as gourmet food vendors (offering a variety of products including olive oil, chocolate and cheese). Here is the Hebrew link for the event Ra'anana Wine Festival 2012

As with most other Israeli wine festivals, there is a set admission price (60 N.I.S. - about $16) (Only 55 N.I.S. for Ra'anana residents). You are given a wine glass which you can keep at the end of the evening. You can wander around the festival and sample wines throughout the evening. After that, you can stumble home if you live in Ra'anana or grab a bus running right along Ahuza Street.

The Israeli wine industry has been growing tremendously over the past few years. There are now close to 300 wineries in Israel producing somewhere between 58 and 60 million bottles of wine annually. Many of these wines have been recognized in international wine competitions.

I have written about a number of different Israeli wineries elsewhere on this blog - including Binyamina Binyamina Winery, Recanati Recanati Winery and Dalton Dalton and Adir Wineries - to name a few. I have also blogged about the Kosher wine festival that was held in Jerusalem in January, 2012 Jerusalem Kosher Wine Festival 2012. Israeli wines have improved greatly over recent years and production levels have increased steadily. There has also been a growth in consumer interest in Israel, sparked by a number of wine store chains that have been trying to educate the Israeli public and grow a broader "wine culture." Of course a great deal of this delicious Israeli wine is also exported.

There are many different annual wine festivals in Israel each year, some of which have been taking place for quite a number of years. The festival at the Israeli Museum in August is usually one of the highlights of the wine calendar. But Park Ra'anana is a great location for a wine festival and this will only be the 2nd year for this event. I'm sure this evening will be lots of fun and the festival will probably continue to grow in size from year to year.

Addendum:  The website "Baligam" -Baligam Coupon Site Baligm Coupon Site has added a coupon for the 2012 Ra'anana Wine Festival - but it is only available on the site until Tuesday June 26, 2012 at 7:00 a.m. (Israel Time).  The coupon is for 36 N.I.S. per person - instead of 60 N.I.S. at the door.  So if you are planning to attend, this is a worthwhile deal.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Israeli Kosher Wine Festival - Jerusalem - Jan 30 and 31, 2012

I attended a Kosher Israeli wine festival in Jerusalem on January 30, 2012. It was touted as the first entirely Kosher wine festival in Israel. Although there are more than 250 wineries in Israel, many are not certified as Kosher. As a result, most Israeli wine festivals feature a mixture of Kosher certified and non-Kosher certified wines. There are very high quality Israeli wineries in both categories, though all of Israel’s largest wineries have Kosher certification. Often it is seen as too expensive for the smaller wineries to make arrangements to get official certification.

The festival was held at Binyanei Ha-umah – the Jerusalem International Convention Centre. Running from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. for two days, the exhibition featured booths from more than 30 wineries, all Israeli. With a relatively modest admission fee of approximately $20 (or $10 in advance) guests were given a Spiegelau red wine glass (that they could keep afterwards). We are able to wander around tasting 2 to 5 wines from each of the different represented wineries. It is of course crucial to either take public transit to this kind of event or spit out most of the wine. We opted for the former, since the location was right next to the Central Jerusalem bus station and I would hate to have to spit out all of that tasty wine.

Most of the wineries were not hesitant to provide tasting samples of some of their best wines. For example, Recanati was offering tastes of its award winning “Special Reserve” that sells for approximately $50 a bottle. Golan, Dalton, Carmel and others were also pouring some very nice wines.

I particularly enjoyed visiting with the folks from Ben Haim and Sagol wineries and sampling some of the delicious wines while chatting with the friendly vintners. Ben Haim was pouring a 2003 reserve Merlot…which was quite enjoyable.

One winery, Rimon, was offering sweet dessert and port style pomegranate wines. I have had Rimon’s dry pomegranate wine and quite enjoyed it. These dessert wines were a bit too sweet for my general consumption.

Wines were available for purchase at a discount, with a larger discount being offered for much larger purchases. There were also some food booths outside the exhibition centre including sushi, bread and cheese plates, and some other offerings.

The crowd was interesting. Since this was a Kosher festival, it drew a wide range of guests from the secular to the religious and even ultra-religious, all of whom were able to enjoy the same wine.

I won’t write extensively now about the real differences between Kosher certified and non-Kosher certified wine but we did witness an incident at one of the booths. An observant Orthodox woman reached over to pick up and look at a bottle of wine. The Mashgiach at the booth announced that since she had touched the bottle, he had to declare it “traif” and could no longer serve at. I won’t get into all the details of this now, though there actually were some women at some of the booths serving wine.

Overall, the facility was very nicely arranged and the booths were quite attractive. We enjoyed it quite a bit, though to quote one of my favourite cousins, I was probably somewhat “overserved.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ali Karavan (Abu Hassan) Humus - Old Jaffa, Israel

I ate lunch at Abu Hassan (Ali Karavan) today in Old Jaffa, Israel. The restaurant is known for serving some of the best humus in Tel-Aviv but it is certainly not known for its ambience. This restaurant gives "fast food" a whole new definition. Or maybe it might be called "speed eating."

The place is quite small with seating for 25 or 30 guests. The tables are crammed together and they seat you wherever they can find a chair. You may be at a table with 4 or 5 other strangers but after all - you are all eating some great humus.

There can be quite a line-up to get in. As people get closer to the restaurant, waiting for a chance to sit down, they are literally standing over the patrons, waiting for them to finish so that they can find a place to sit down.

Once seated, the menu is quite simple - a bowl of humus and some pita breads. You can add "masbacha" (mediterranean spices) or some warm fava beans to the bowl and you get a side order of some raw (yes, raw) onions and a lemon-pepper-oil mixture. You also get a fork and you can order a drink but you won't get any napkins. Fortunately there is a sink with running water.

The wait staff scream at each other to bring out the orders. The food is thrown (or slapped) onto the table in front of you seconds after you are seated.

There is no take-out no matter how long the line gets. Rumour has it that when there was take out, people would congregate in front of the restaurant eating and would block traffic.

The place is quite loud (between the diners and the yelling staff), not particularly clean and has a very rushed feel. On the other hand, the humus is quite creamy, fresh and tasty and it is not very expensive. I'm not sure I would call it the best humus I've ever had. Raanana has a "Humus Bar" which serves humus that is every bit as good - and has a much more civilized feel (and Humus Bar is kosher...)

Overall, this was certainly a real middle eastern experience and one worth trying out, though probably not one that I'd like to have too often.

Abu Hassan is located at 1 Dolphin Street in Old Jaffa, Israel.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Coffee In Israel

The first few times I visited Israel in the 1980s, it was a struggle to find a decent cup of coffee. At the time, many Israelis drank "botz" ("mud"), which meant a cup of finely ground coffee prepared Arabic style in a small cup. Others drank "nescafe," used as a generic Hebrew word for any instant coffee. I wasn't a fan of either. There were a number of places where you could find a decent "cafe hafuch" (a latte) but it was a challenge.

The Starbucks chain thought this was a huge opportunity. They opened a number of cafes in Israel in 2001 but they were not successful. Israelis didn't particularly like Starbucks' burnt taste and found the coffee to be way overpriced. Starbucks wasn't interested in tailoring its menu to Israeli sensibilities and was not interested in investing heavily in marketing. It closed its six outlets in 2003.

But since the mid 90s, there has been an explosion in the growth of Israeli coffee chains and many of them offer fantastic coffee. It seems to me that these chains can also offer a good lesson to North Americans since they often offer high quality food to go along with the coffee.

Aroma Cafe is the largest chain in Israel with more than 120 cafes. Many, though not all of them are Kosher. They offer a range of European style coffees - lattes, capuccinos, espressos as well as some cold beverages. Aroma's real attraction is the excellent quality of the food that it offers to go along with the coffee. It has a range of salads and sandwiches on its menu which are mostly made up of fresh ingredients, breads baked on the premises and full nutritional information supplied at all of the restaurants. Each coffee comes with a signature chocolate, though the chocolates are all milk chocolates. I've always thought that Aroma would do better to offer the option of a piece of high quality bittersweet chocolate. The milk chocolates just aren't that tasty.

Aroma now has franchised locations in other countries as well. There are 7 in the Greater Toronto area and more are apparently planned. Picture something like a Second Cup or a Starbucks with slightly lower prices and a range of fresh, healthy food items. For now, the major Canadian and American upscale coffee chains have resisted providing a wide ranging, fresh, healthy food selection. Tim Hortons, at the other end of the spectrum has provided some great food but an entirely different type of coffee that is not in the same class. Chains like Aroma will give Canadian and American chains quite a bit of competition or will at least force them to consider adding decent food.

Another big chain in Israel is Arcaffe, with locations across the country. Arcaffe emphasizes the high end, Italian style quality of its coffee. It carries a range of espresso based beverages. The premises are usually a bit more upscale than Aroma and some have really nice outdoor seating areas. The Arcaffe breakfasts are great with fresh cheeses, warm toasted breads, a variety of spreads and eggs, made to order.

One of my favourite chains is Ilan's, which also does a brisk business selling pre-packaged whole beans and ground coffee. Like the other chains, Ilan's uses dark roasted Italian-style coffee but its coffee is slighly milder in taste than some of the other chains, though it is still quite full-bodied. The food menu is not as wide ranging though some of the Ilan's locations have a broader selection.

Other coffee chains in Israel include Cup O'Joe, Cafe Hillel, Cafe Neto, Cafe Cafe and a few others. These are all cafes with multiple locations in different cities. There are also many smaller establishments, modelled on European cafes that offer terrific coffee.

Overall, Israel has seen a huge growth in coffee culture and the proliferation of cafes across the country. The quality of the coffee is great and the days of having to settle for botz or *gasp* "nescafe" are long gone. The weather can also be quite conducive. Much of the year, the cafes are filled with Israelis sitting outside enjoying the coffee, the view, the weather and the bustle of the location, especially at the centrally located cafes.

Of course, sometimes its also nice to bring the fresh beans home and turn on the Gaggia...Inspired by a Toronto colleague, I'm trying to be a high quality barrista as well as barrister...My work is at the top of the article. The beans...from Ilan's.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Barbecuing in Israel: Charcoal or Gas?

When people invite someone for a barbecue in Israel, it is often a big ordeal. Referred to as “al-ha-aish,” a barbecue evening is often more a drawn out social event than simply a meal. For many Israelis, the preferred grill is a charcoal grill. Reminiscent of ancient hunter-gatherer societies, the men will often gather around the grill, ready to display their masculinity by getting the flame roaring without using any starter fluid or cubes. Instead they will use some sort of makeshift fan to fan the flames and help get the fire going. In the supermarket, you can buy a big plastic hand (a “nuff-nuff”) that you can use to help with this process. The host will often prepare copious quantities of meat – including everything from chicken wings, kebabs, hamburgers and chicken steaks to fine beef steaks, often spiced with succulent Middle Eastern flavours. But don’t expect an early dinner. I have been invited to a number of barbecue evenings that have been called for 7 p.m. where dinner was finally ready around 10:30 p.m. Personally, I have learned to get a charcoal grill started quite quickly, though I use large quantities of lighter fluid. Even so, charcoal barbecues can take up a great deal of time.

Barbecues are quite popular in Israel on national holidays. On Yom Haatzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day, parks and beach areas are filled with families making charcoal barbecues for large groups. I have been to many barbecue events, even hosted by religious families on Pesach and Sukkot as well as other holidays. It can be quite fun and the result can be some very tasty food, but it’s often a long process.

(Photo taken from Shawarma Mayor's Blog - notice the Nuff-Nuff?)

Recently, gas grills have become more common place in Israel. The prices of these grills however are obscenely high. Grills can run as much as 5 or 6 times the prices of comparable barbecues in Canada or the U.S. and many of the better types are simply not available. Although this is partially due to State-imposed duties, the barbecue prices are way out of sync with the type of mark-ups that can be found on other items.

So I decided to bring over an in-between grill on one of my recent trips. People making Aliyah or otherwise bringing a container to Israel can bring along a large grill from North America. You should make sure you will be living somewhere with access to a yard or a large balcony on which grilling is permissible. The weight of these large grills makes it prohibitively expensive to bring them by plane so it makes sense to bring them by ship. But a portable grill is a different story.

I picked up a Weber Q-220 in Canada – which was within the allowable weight limit for one of my trips back to Israel. The grill sells for about $200-$225 in the U.S. or about $280 plus HST in Canada. Canadians can use about 33,000 Aeroplan points to buy one (taxes included). In Israel, the same grill sells for between 2,000 and 2,200 N.I.S. or about $570 to $630 Canadian. It can be bought with a stand and is really quite portable.

There is no problem at Israeli customs since the grill sells for around $200 which is the legally permissible limit for importing appliances and other items into Israel. But, what I hadn’t realized was that the propane tanks in Israel (and Europe) differ in size, shape and gas mixture from those in North America.

I spoke to the "kind" folks at Weber Israel who have the exclusive import rights for Weber grills. They told me that the grill was totally different and I could only use the barbecue in Israel to “hold a plant” since it couldn’t be modified. This turned out to be completely false information, though it had me worried for a little while.

I phoned around and found a store named “Nuni” in Gedera. They said that they would simply have to change the internal gas nozzle (connected to the burner) and the hose attachment and the barbecue would be all set to work in Israel. They charge 100 N.I.S. to do these adaptations and 400 (about $112 Canadian) N.I.S. for a new 5 kg. propane/butane tank. Apparently it costs 100 (about $28 Cdn) N.I.S. to refill the tank each time. They did this quickly and demonstrated that the unit worked at their shop. They also modify larger North American grills for Israeli use at reasonable prices.

So I now have the Weber Q220 working at home and I am ready to invite some people over for a barbecue. Of course with a gas barbecue, we can call the dinner party for 7:30 and eat at 7:45 or 8 p.m. We’ll miss out on the ritual of getting the fire started (and using the nuff-nuff) and maybe we’ll miss some of the charcoal taste but we’ll have lots more time to spend drinking wine or scotch or just schmoozing while the food is cooked in a fraction of the time. Sure the food might not taste quite as good as if it was cooked over charcoal, but I have always used gas grills and generally enjoyed them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Looks Like a Goose, Tastes like a Pig - a Kosher Pig...

It's not yet April Fool's - but I couldn't resist including this. After all, it is supposedly true, according to Haaretz, one of Israel's major national daily newspapers.

An organically grown, Spanish goose has been located that, apparently, tastes just like a pig. Of course, observant Jews cannot eat pigs, which are one of the animals expressly forbidden in the Torah for consumption. But there is nothing wrong with eating a goose that tastes like a pig, as long as it has been slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law.

The Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, has given these geese the official stamp of approval. So Israeli restaurants that observe Kosher dietary laws (certainly not all restaurants in Israel are Kosher) will soon be able to sell Kosher "pork" – (which will really be disguised goose). Score another one for those observant Jews who just have to find a way to eat what everyone else is eating - more or less. And it is bound to help with those Jews who have always wanted to keep Kosher but just can’t give up the swine...

Personally – I have never really gotten excited about simulated bacon bits, kosher imitation crab, fake pepperoni pizza or other Kosher items masquerading as some prohibited non-Kosher food. There may be a way to season the right kind of chicken so that it tastes just like a lobster but those who are eating it would not have had the experience of torturing it first by tossing it on a hot barbecue or into a boiling pot.

Maybe our Rabbis would be better off ensuring that we are able to eat some healthy green vegetables – like broccoli, asparagus, spinach, collard greens and other wonderful food items that have recently been facing increasingly stringent rules (due to the existence of microscopic or almost microscopic bugs). Many vegetables are banned or hard to find in Israel – without any really compelling reason (as far as Jewish law is concerned), other than a relatively new found Rabbinical interest in an increased level of vigilance for avoiding the tiniest of insects, even those that are not normally visible to the naked eye.

Consider this crazy picture. The Kosher Indian restaurant at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem (that I reviewed in a previous post), which is supervised by the highest level of Kosher authorities in Israel, may soon be able to add Kosher simulated "pork" to its offerings but will still not be able to serve cauliflower and potatoes ("aloo ghobi"), a dish that is so essential to Indian cuisine - or a range of other vegetarian delicacies.

It seems to me that Israelis interested in eating healthy diets are really the ones getting goosed, yet again.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kosher restaurants - serving Meat AND Dairy products

I am fascinated with the process by which eating establishments are certified as “kosher,” particularly after I had some involvement in a Canadian lawsuit involving now defunct Levitts Meats – which was for many years, the quintessential purveyor of kosher Montreal smoked meats – for Montrealers and the Canadian Jewish community in general. Levitts failed in its bid to break into the monopolistic Toronto kosher market – and subsequently went bankrupt – much to the disappointment of smoked meat connoisseurs everywhere. The politics involved in Levitt’s battle to obtain kosher certification for its meat products in Toronto were simply astounding. This seems to be the case in many other areas as well.

Last year, before the huge fire that burned the place down, I visited the IKEA store in Netanya, Israel. IKEA had been newly purchased by an owner interested in ensuring that its Israeli operations were Kosher and Sabbath observant (i.e. closed from sundown Friday until after sundown Saturday night). I arrived at about 10:15 a.m. at the IKEA restaurant on a weekday morning. IKEA is, of course, famous for providing a variety of Swedish delicacies at very reasonable prices – including Swedish meatballs and smoked salmon (lox). At this IKEA location, all of the products had been certified as “Kosher” – so observant Jewish clientele could now eat Swedish meatballs – and other Swedish dishes.

The interesting thing – from my point of view – was that this location also included an espresso bar – adjacent to the main IKEA restaurant. Normally, kosher establishments offer either dairy products or meat products – but not both. This IKEA offered a regular coffee bar – with cappuccinos, lattes etc., made with milk products- right next to the meat restaurant.

I spoke with some employees – who explained to me the following: Between 7 a.m. or so (store opening) and 10 a.m. – the coffee bar used real milk and dairy products. At about 10:15 a.m. – the Mashgiach (kosher supervisor) would arrive and clean all of the equipment – including the mugs, dishwasher and espresso machines. At about 10:15 a.m. – the coffee bar would officially switch to “pareve” status – meaning non-dairy – and non- meat. They would use soy milk only for the rest of the day (but with the same mugs…).

In my humble view – this represented quite a liberal approach – since you cannot normally “kosher” ceramic mugs – but it was certified by two different authorities – both the local Netanya authority – and the Jerusalem Rabbinical authority. That has to be good enough for me! Alas, the IKEA burned down – in a fire that I have written about in another article – so it remains to be seen what will become of the kosher status of the IKEA restaurant in the newly renovated premises.

Fast forward to just a few weeks ago. The Aroma Coffee bar in Ra’anana has been newly renovated. Aroma is.a wonderful Israeli-owned coffee shop chain (which has expanded into some North American cities including Toronto and New York). The coffee is tastefully strong but not as bitter as Starbucks – the lattes and cappuccinos are terrific. Each coffee is served with a little chocolate square. (For now – they are all milk chocolate though I think they would be better off to offer a choice of milk or dark but I digress…).

Some of the Aroma Coffee shops in Israel are certified as kosher. These establishments have generally served only dairy products. The menu is diverse with a wide selection of healthy salads, sandwiches and soups. Picture a healthy Tim Hortons, with espresso products… For example, try a Portobello mushroom /pesto sandwich on whole wheat bread – or a quinoa/yam/mint salad. You can get a printed information sheet with the calorie count, fat content and other nutritional information for each item. Until recently, the location in Ra’anana, Israel was certified as kosher and served only dairy products. It seemed to me that the location was generally full and quite successful. Some other locations in Israel are open on Saturdays (Shabbat) and serve certain meat items (chicken etc.,) – which disqualifies them from kosher certification since they can’t mix dairy and meat – or so you would have thought…

Recently, the Ra’anana location underwent significant renovations. Aside from renovating the physical premises, the ownership decided to begin offering meat products together with dairy products – at the same location. Somehow – they obtained kosher certification for this enterprise. So you can now order a smoked meat sandwich – or a meat chilli dish – in the same restaurant in which you can order a Greek salad with Bulgarian cheese. Apparently, the products are prepared in different parts of the kitchen.

For anyone used to the traditional interpretation of kosher laws, this sounds crazy. How can a person order a meat sandwich and a latte in the same place (without violating Jewish dietary law)? By way of comparison, all of the kosher establishments in cities like Toronto are certified as either dairy or meat. Apparently, the Ra’anana Kosher authorities have agreed to licence the establishment as kosher – as long as it only serves the meat products as “take-out” and prepares everything with separate equipment. I am not sure if the staff are actively policing the policy – and asking meat eaters to leave the restaurant – but I am quite sceptical.

So we now have a restaurant in Ra’anana – certified as kosher – where you can go in and order a smoked meat sandwhich – together with a cafĂ© latte, made with milk – and the establishment is “kosher.”

The really strange thing – is that there are really only two or three meat items on the menu – so it seems like an awfully great hassle for a few small items. One wonders whether this is a trial balloon of some sort to determine whether to convert the restaurant into a non-kosher establishment.

Alternatively – the level of flexibility is astounding. The same Va’ad Harabonim (Rabbinical Council) that will reject romaine lettuce, asparagus, cauliflower and broccoli, among other vegetables (for fear of insect contamination) – and will certainly reject any role for women in formal Jewish prayer ceremonies – is prepared to look the other way while an establishment serves dairy and meat products – at the same time – to the same customers.

I can only conclude that the Aroma in Ra’anana agreed to pay whatever exorbitant price was requested by the Ra’anana authorities. What else could explain this type of establishment? I have cynically concluded that for the right price – you can have a pig declared to be “kosher.”

Curiously enough, I found myself in a coffee bar in Tel-Aviv last week – that was certified “kosher – chalavi-basari” – meaning that it could serve both dairy and meat products. This was only a few days after I saw what was going on in the Aroma in Ra’anana. So, apparently there are quite a number of establishments in Israel that are now able to take advantage of these liberal rules.

I can’t say that I really oppose these “liberal” approaches to Jewish law. However, I can say that I would like to see these liberal principles applied to other areas of Jewish “law” and tradition – such as the role of women in the traditional prayer service.

These same Rabbis, sitting on the Kosher Council of Rabbis – willing to approve of this kind of establishment – continue to adamantly oppose the idea of women reading from the Torah, praying at the kotel (the Western Wall) or participating in a Jewish religious service as equals. Perhaps one day, they will apply the same “liberal” approach to gender issues that they apply to kosher issues.

In the meantime, as liberal as I am, I am becoming queasy about the idea of eating any food items in the Ra’anana Aroma…though I suppose it is the same as eating dairy (non-meat products) in any otherwise non-kosher establishment. However – it does not seem to have fazed Kippah (skullcap)-wearing Orthodox Jews, who continue to patronize to the location in droves.

Interesting to compare this to Ra’anana’s kosher McDonald’s – which is almost across the street –and which was forced to open a second “take out” bar location – (where ice cream and other dairy products are sold) to retain its kosher certification.

Ultimately, it seems to me that one part of the appropriate solution, both for Ra’anana and places like Toronto – is access to a range of Kosher certifying authorities. The range of options will create healthy competition and will eliminate the problems that are inevitably created by deferring to one centralized monopolistic establishment.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Jacobs Dairy and Recanati Winery - Wine and Cheese in Central Israel

It was a beautiful sunny March day - about 23 C - so we decided to try a wine and cheese combination in the nearby Sharon Valley in central Israel.

Our first stop was Jacob's Dairy - a dairy farm featuring cow, goat and sheep products. The Dairy is a family run dairy, originally established in 1936. It is located in K'far Haroeh - about 20 minutes north of Ra'anana, right off of Highway 4 - at the Haroeh Intersection.

The store offers a wide variety of cheeses for tasting. We sampled some goat camembert, sheep roquefort, and a few other specialty cheeses. The dairy sells these cheeses by weight along with cream cheese products, yoghurts and some fruit and nut spreads. The cheeses were delicious.

The dairy shares the premises with Agadat HaLechem - the "Bread Legend" - which produces a fine selection of oven fresh breads and rolls, emphasizing whole grain and multi-grain products. Perfect accompaniment for the cheeses...

Jacob's Dairy is an ideal starting place for a wine and cheese trip - or to gather some of the ingredients for a picnic at one of the nearby hotspots in the Sharon Valley. K'Far Haroe, Hefer Valley. All of the products are Kosher.

From the dairy, it is about a five minute drive - one intersection north on Highway 4 - to get to the Recanati Winery. The signs to the winery are not well marked. The Visitors Center does not look like it has been set up to attract a high volume of traffic. The main winery sign is obscured - and entry to the center is by way of intercom buzzer.

However - Recanati produces some great wines. Established in 2000, Recanati is a growing winery that has been making highly acclaimed wines. The winery is rated as a four star winery by Israeli wine critic Daniel Rogov, signifying consistently high quality wines. It currently produces more than 900,000 bottles of wine a year and continues to grow.

At the visitors center, we were greeted by a friendly host who was happy to offer freshly opened samples of almost anything we wanted. We tasted the winery's high end wine - the Special Reserve 2007 - a blend of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. We also tried a number of 2008 Reserve wines including the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petite Syrah-Zinfandel blend. All of the wines were quite good - though we particularly enjoyed the Cab Franc and the Cab Sauvignon.

The winery does not offer spectacular deals - the prices were competitive with specialty wine stores and other Israeli wine sellers - with only a 5% discount offered for purchases of 6 bottles or more. In fact, some of the wines are much cheaper at the Israeli duty free shop at the Ben Gurion Airport - which typically runs a "buy 3 get 1 free" special. Of course, that doesn't help much if you are limited to two bottles at your destination. Israeli residents are able to buy 4 - take two along - and leave 2 at the duty free shop for pick up on return.

The Recanati Winery is located at 217 Gesher Haetz Street in Emek Hefer, Israel. The wines are all Kosher - though mainly not Mevushal - for those who might be concerned. Generally, quite a number of Israeli wines are produced under Kosher supervision though very few of the higher calibre wines are Mevushal - a par-boiling process that renders them fit for broader use within the very observant community.

These two stops can provide all the necessary ingredients for a great picnic - bread, cheese, spreads, great wine - all that is missing are some of the great fruit that are readily available at small booths along the way.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Binyamina Winery Tour

Having been inspired recently by the quality of Israeli wines at Dalton and Adir, we decided to visit the Binyamina Winery. The Visitor Centre is located just off of Highway 4 - about 10 minutes south of Zichron Yaakov in north-central Israel.

Binyamina is now described as Israel's 4th largest winery, producing somewhere in the range of 3 million bottles a year.

The Visitor Centre is housed in a circa 1925 building - that was used in the 1940s as a safe house and weapons storage facility for the Hagana (predecessor to the Israeli Army) before Israel was officially established.

The winery itself was established in 1952 though it has undergone a number of ownership and name changes - as well as rebranding. It now features a range of wines - from sweet, sacramental wine (used for "Kiddush") - to a complex line of high end wines that are aged in oak barrels in a special cave. The wines are all kosher but not "mevushal." (A technical term relating to its Kosher categorization).

We visited at a fairly quiet time. Busy season apparently runs from harvest time in August through to mid-December with the winery at its busiest around the time of Jewish holidays.

We were treated to an excellent tour with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide - who was fluent in English - as well as Hebrew. The winery has invested significantly in recent years in acquiring and maintaining up to date machinery - and the facilities were impressive. The tour (which runs 25 N.I.S. per person - about $7) includes a tasting of 4 or 5 wines.

The winery carries a Teva line - the wines of which are often sold in Israeli supermarkets. These are not usually used for the tastings - though they do come in many different varieties. We started with the next level up from Teva - the Yogev line of wines. We sampled a Muscat - which was tasty enough - though I'm not that much of a sweet wine drinker.

We then moved up to the Reserve line - the next line up from Yogev - and tried a surprisingly full bodied 2007 Chardonnay.

For the red wines, we began with a Yogev blend of a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot. It was not particularly impressive - having a slightly off aftertaste. That may have been due to the fact that we were using a sampling bottle that had been opened for too long. We also managed to sample a bottle from the "Chosen" line - a line of wines named after various semi-precious and precious stones. Here we tried the Sapphire - a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and other grapes. These Chosen wines are Binyamina's second highest line. However, the Sapphire we sampled may have suffered from the same problem as our Yogev - having been opened some 5 days earlier, according to the notation on the bottle.

At this point, we were not exactly overwhelmed - but we managed to convince our guide to open a new bottle of the Chosen Syrah (Odem - or "Ruby"). This made the whole visit worthwhile. The wine was rich, complex and full bodied. It had numerous pleasant after-tastes which lingered nicely. The Chosen line of wines sell for 130 N.I.S. each at the Visitor Centre (about $37). We weren't able to sample any other Chosen wines (such as the pure Cabernet or the "Diamond" blend) (as hard as we tried to plead and cajole the management) but we were assured that they were comparable in quality to the Odem that we had so enjoyed. Surprisingly, the Visitor Centre was not willing to provide a discount on same day purchases - or apply the 50 N.I.S. tour fee that the two of us paid towards a purchase of a certain minimum amount (as other wineries will often do). So any purchases would have to be made at full freight.

Nevertheless - the Visitor Centre was worthwhile. Aside from the full range of Binyamina wines, it also featured a range of other products - including olive oil, skin products and liqueurs. The building and grounds were homey and well maintained and the tour was informative and fun. We can't say that all the wines we tasted were wonderful - but we look forward to trying the full range of Chosen wines and then reporting back.

Binyamina is not too far from Recanati, Tishbi and Carmel Wineries - all of which are future destinations....

For more information about the winery:

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Indian Food in Israel

From a very young age, I have greatly enjoyed Indian food. No doubt influenced by the wonderful cooking of one of my best friend's mothers - who would often invite me to join the family for a wide range of vegetarian delights. With an ever growing Hindu community, Toronto is blessed with many fantastic Indian restaurants - many of which have a wide range of strictly vegetarian options.

Can you get authentic and worthwhile Indian food in Israel - that is suitable for a vegetarian or Kosher diet? I have recently tried to answer this question by sampling two different options - quite different experiences but both decent.

Billed as an "Authentic Indian Kitchen" - Sangam restaurant is located about 15 minutes north of Ra'anana off of Highway 4 in K'far Monash (a "moshav" - an agricultural settlement). In the middle of this farm like setting, (turn left after you pass the cows to get to the restaurant), one of the Moshav members has built a pine and oak cabin. The walls are adorned with Indian rugs. The seats are low mattresses. The plates are stainless steel - all intended to make the atmosphere as genuine as possible.

The menu is not extensive - about 10 or 11 dishes - all strictly vegetarian. Included on the list are pakoras (made much more like falafel balls), channa (chick peas), dal (lentils), aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower - one of my personal favourites), mixed curried vegetables and other dishes. The restaurant also serves chapatis (rotis) - which are the only bread item listed on the menu. The dishes were all flavourful - and well made - though not particularly hot (spicy). For added spice and flavour, we were provided with some cut up chile and jalepeno peppers - as well as yogurt and mint chutney.

The lentils and some of the other dishes were a bit mushy. The restaurant sorely lacks a tandoori oven - at least to make fresh buttery naans (soft pita like breads)But overall - the place was quite fun - particularly the atmosphere. We finished the meal with chai tea - and a very reasonable bill - just over 200 N.I.S. (less than $60) for 4 people. The restaurant is not under Rabbinical supervision - but it is closed Friday nights and Saturdays - and is vegetarian. Allow extra time to find it...and make sure to book in advance since it is a reasonably small place.

For a completely different experience - we also recently visited Kohinoor Restaurant - located in the Crown Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem. This is much more reminiscent of large commercial Indian restaurant that one might find in Toronto or London - though it is strictly Kosher, under Rabbinical supervision. Kohinoor- serves meat and vegetarian food - no dairy products of any sort.

Unlike Sangam, this is a much fancier place - with prices to match. The menus is much more extensive - featuring chicken, lamb, fish and many vegetarian dishes. The meat dishes can run around 70 N.I.S. each ($20) - and the vegetarian dishes around 50 N.I.S. ($14). You can start with authentic samosas, pakoras and other tasty appetizers. The wine and beverage list is extensive. The setting has more of dining room feel - with china and fine cutlery to match.

I was eager to try this restaurant since I had never eaten meat at an Indian restaurant (there are no kosher Indian restaurants in Toronto). We tried a range of dishes including tandoori chicken, chicken vindaloo, curried lamb and some others. The dishes were nicely spiced and some were quite hot. We also tried a range of vegetarian dishes. Here, due to strict Rabbinical supervision - the range of vegetables is limited (for fear of eating veggies infected by microscopic bugs). As result, you can't get Aloo Ghobi (with cauliflower) or some other very important veggies. I would say that the vegetarian dishes were quite lacking as a consequence of these relatively new restrictions (relatively new to the Kosher world - not to this particular restaurant - but this is all a topic for another time...). For this, you have to blame the Rabbis rather than the restaurant...

The Naans were tasty enough - though obviously drier than usual since you cannot use ghee (Indian butter) or yoghurt in a meat restaurant. There may be a non-dairy alternative that the restaurant has not yet tried. But some of the meat dishes were big hits (we were a large group), particularly the tandoori chicken. The range of available desserts and beverages was wide - and the menu even included some non-Indian childen's dishes - such as shnitzel - to ensure that the whole family can enjoy the experience.

Kohinoor is nice for a special occasion. It is also quite unique in that there are few Kosher Indian restaurants that serve meat - anywhere. For the most part - as tasty as it was to try the curried meats - I am happy to continue eating only vegetarian Indian food. Nevertheless - I would still say that visiting Kohinoor was a treat.

The real challenge for me is to try to learn to make some of these great dishes at home. Haven't been able to do that yet - but until I get there - it's nice to know that I have some real options here in Israel. I have heard of two or three other places - and I'll try to make it to those as well to complete the survey.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Winery and Sightseeing Tour in the Golan

The weather in Israel around Chanukah time can be hit or miss. Some years, it is rainy - with temperatures varying anywhere from 15 to 20 C or even as high as 24. Some years, you can simply have a streak of beautiful days - 20-25C and sunny.
This was one of those warm, sunny years. So with the beautiful weather - and my Dad visiting - our family set out to see some of Israel's fine wineries.

Our first stop was the Adir Winery. This is a family run boutique winery which produces some delicious wines. It is situated in northern Israel in the upper Galilee - not too far from Kiryat Shmona - off route 886. Established in 2003 - the winery uses grapes from vines that were first planted in the 1980s and 1990s. We were able to taste a number of Cabernets - from 2008, 2007 and 2005. We also tasted Shiraz, Merlot and one white wine. The wines were exquisite and we wound up buying our share to take with us.

The fun thing about the Visitor Centre at the Adir Winery is that it is a joint project with the Adir dairy farm - a goat dairy farm. Adir raises hundreds of dairy goats and produces a variety of cheeses, yogurts, ice creams and other dairy products. This makes for a fine combination when enjoying the wines. Kids can enjoy the dairy side of the visitor centre. Non-drinkers can get a coffee / cappuccino- or a yogurt while the others are sampling the wines.

Adir has been increasing its production though it is still relatively local and not yet widely distributed outside of Israel.

From Adir - we drove over to Dalton Winery - which was very close by and stopped at the visitor centre. Dalton is a much larger winery with a wider selection and range of wines. Some of Dalton's wines - like the "Canaan" lines - in white and red - are easy drinking blends. But Dalton also has some much more complex, aged Cabernets - that you can taste in the visitor centre. The staff are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. We worked our way up to some of the finer wines that Dalton stocks at the centre - and some of these complex wines were irresistable- such as the Cabernet - Meron - Single Vineyard. So we added some Dalton to our collection...Dalton is more widely available - sold in the U.S. and Canada as well as various parts of Israel. Dalton was established in 1995 and now produces more than 800,000 bottles of wine a year.

Both Dalton and Adir wineries produce kosher wines.

Two wineries were enough for this trip - though I could easily spend weeks visiting the various up and coming wineries that have been sprouting up in many parts of Israel. The quality of Israeli wine has been steadily increasing - as has the appreciation in Israel for these products.

While in the north - we were also able to try another exciting activity. We travelled to the Hula Nature Reserve - which is just south of Kiryat Shmona in the upper galilee. The Nature Reserve is a huge park - which includes an enormous bird sanctuary. Many different birds stop here in the course of their migratory routes. Some decide to stay though most are "passing through." We were able to see thousands of cranes - as well as many other kinds of birds.

To travel through the park - you can rent a 3 or 6 person bicycle, a golf cart - or you can use you own bike. We used two different 3-person bikes. So we were able to get some exercise, enjoy some nice weather and also pedal through the park enjoying the views. (Make sure to take your binoculars or rent a pair from the visitor centre). The best time to come is apparently early spring - particularly March or April - or early Fall - late September/early October - as these times are when you find the largest collection of birds.

December was also quite nice. In case you are wondering - we did not tour the wineries and the nature reserve - on the same day... That would not have been a good scene - given the number of wines we were able to taste. For more information about the park -

These three things are a very small sample of the activities in the Upper Galilee. We'll canvas some more shortly.