When my good friend Natalie asked me if I’d be interested in being part of a food and wine mission to Israel, I didn’t hesitate. I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the real Israel. Looking back, it was one of those trips that was so unbelievable that I was pinching myself long after.
The trip had been organized by David Cooper, who works for The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) in Ottawa. CIJA’s mission programs aim to educate Canadians about the people and land of Israel. CIJA generally takes politicians on these mission programs, so when Natalie suggested to David a mission focusing on food and wine, she wasn’t sure he’d agree (but thankfully, he loved it!). Natalie curated a great group of well-seasoned travelers, foodies and adventurers. We were known as “The A-Team” – Arlene Stein (founder and chair of Terroir Symposium), Amy Rosen (food journalist and cookbook author), Alejandra de Miguel (urban winemaker), myself as the token chef, and Natalie Goldenberg-Fife (Culinary Program Director of IDMG Culinary Marketing and editor of City Bites magazine). Okay, so Natalie’s name didn’t quite fit, so she renamed herself “Aladdin” for the trip. Our group was rounded out by David and his cousin Alan (or “Cousin Al”, as he soon became known as), who hadn’t been to Israel in 25 years!
Our trip was a unique mission to explore Israel’s vibrant, exciting culinary and wine culture. The week-long trip was dedicated to consuming Israel’s unique food and wine, visiting food and spice markets, as well as meeting Israel’s top chefs and visiting their restaurants. It was any chef, winemaker or foodie’s dream! We documented all of our experiences on social media using #FoodiesInIsrael.
On June 23rd, we took off for Tel Aviv on a 787 Dreamliner (for all you plane geeks, this is a sweet plane!). Following long lineups, false alarms, and delayed boarding – it was pure bliss to finally relax in our premium economy seats. For those of you who are tall like me, you’ll understand that those extra few inches of head and leg room make a real difference!
Fast forward 10 hours and a seven hour time change – we landed at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, where we were met by our ground handler, who got us through customs with ease. Once we made it through the various checkpoints, we were met by our guide Elad Bar Ilan and driver Egal. We boarded our tour bus and were given a warm welcome by Elad and our final itinerary books for the week. I was beyond excited. It wasn’t even 11am, but it was hot and sunny in Tel Aviv. I was taking in all the initial sights and smells, experiencing the rush you get from visiting a country for the first time.
We drove directly from Ben Gurion for an hour to Zichron Ya’akov. We arrived at Elma Luxury Hotel & Art Centre, where we were met by Hedai Offaim, who is the chef, farmer and co-owner of the Ofaimme Farm. She is also a food columnist for Haaretz magazine.
Located atop the hills of Zicheon Ya’akov, Elma has breathtaking views of the Mediterranean. Designed by architect Yaakov Rechter, the hotel is a work of art. The building won the Israel Award for Architecture in 1973. The wave-like structure follows the curve of the mountain on which it sits. We were given a tour of the hotel and then went with Hedai to have lunch at the hotel’s restaurant, Oratorio. Our first meal was, naturally, a tasting menu custom prepared by Chef with wines pairing – our first introduction to Israeli cuisine and agriculture!
After lunch, we headed to the Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater lake in Israel. We stopped in Capernaum, an ancient fishing village and visited The Mount of Beatitudes, the hill where Jesus is believed to have delivered the Sermon. We also stopped inside the Church of Beatitudes, an octagon-shaped Roman Catholic Church built on the site of the ruins of a small Byzantine era church from the 4th century.
Capernaum National Park is one of the most moving places in Israel for Christians. The house of Saint Peter is also located here, where Jesus is believed to have lived for three years. Aside the ruins is an ultra-modern Franciscan Church that almost resembles a spaceship! Also on this site are the remains of a 2nd – 3rd century Synagogue built with imported limestones.
We then drove for 30 minutes to Tiberias to check at Europa hotel. The hotel was gorgeous and my room made me feel like I was staying in a castle.
That evening, we enjoyed dinner at Magdalena Restaurant, owned by Chef Yosef Hanna (from season two of MasterChef). Magdalena features Galilean and Lebanese cuisine merged with western cooking. Chef Hanna also opened K-BAB, the first Galilean fast food restaurant in Israel.
As soon as the mezes arrived, we dove right in, and then realized that we had many more courses to go. We quickly learned after our second meal that pacing yourself is key to surviving meals in Israel. This was our first taste of Galilean and Lebanese food and it was delicious. The sommelier paired up some fantastic wines to go with our dinner.
After dinner, we went for a stroll in downtown Tiberias to walk off some of the food before returning to the hotel to crash. I was completely wiped out from our first day, but also excited for the rest of the week to come!
Stay tuned for the next installment!