The rains and winds and chilly days are hopefully behind us here in Israel. It’s tiyuulim weather! In Hebrew a tiyuul is best described as a day-trip, and Israelis are crazy about them. I’d heard about Azizo Lavender from a friend who brought us the most heavenly lavender liqueur, so we decided to drive way up in the highest parts of the southern Golan Heights. The mountains were still spring green and the wildflowers were in full bloom making splashes of pinks and purples over the ridges and wadis. On a high plateau overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), we finally pulled into Azizo Farms just outside the tiny moshav of Kanaf.
In the center of a field of row upon row of different varieties of blooming lavender is the Azizo visitor center. We were met by the owner, Lilach Assraf, who welcomed us with cups of lavender lemongrass tea and lavender shortbread. Can you say heaven???? John and I sat on the expansive terrace cafe and listened to Lilach tell the history of the farm and business. It started in 1985 with 11 men, all friends who had served in the IDF together. They were going to start a new agricultural community on the wild plateaus of the Golan. Lilach and her husband, Dan, lived on a nearby moshav (village) while they built their homes and plowed the fields around what was to be Kanaf. They started with orchards of plums, pears and grapefruit. One day, another of their army buddies, a lone soldier from France, came to them with a proposal. Norn had just returned from working on a lavender farm in Provence. He was looking for a few daring, open-minded farmers willing to set out on a new course: lavender.
In 1987, 15 acres, about 60 dunams, of French lavender were planted along the Syrian border. The volcanic soil would be perfect as well as the hot days and cool nights. The plants needed little water and drip irrigation was put in. The amount of flowers produced was surprisingly enormous and the quality of the essential oils was the highest on the spectrum. They made and sold the oil and sachets filled with the dried seeds. The venture grew and grew to include the purchase of more dunams and marketing of more products sold within Israel. The original farmers still worked in other fields, holding onto “day jobs” with the lavender being a side business. Then in 1992, everything was “gone with the wind. It was the end of the world, complete heartbreak for us,” recounts Lilach. After severe rains and flooding followed by the most intense heatwave and drought, all the lavender dried up. What to do? Lilach and Dan made the decision to persevere.
They traveled the world – to France, Hungary, Bulgaria, the United States, to visit other lavender growers. The Israeli Volcanic Research Institute was called in to examine the Golan soil. More irrigation was installed and more dunams were planted with heat tolerant, high yield varieties. Now six different types are grown and new cultivars are being tested. The Assrafs used to pay the teenagers on the moshav to harvest the crops, but now they have a special lavender harvester. Lilach took us and two other couples on a guided tour of the farm and explained the process and manufacturing. We went into the drying room. The smell!!!!! The lavender stalks hang for weeks in a special atmospheric controlled room as they dry, preserving the oil content. Dan and Lilach re-engineered a chicken plucking machine into a device that separates the dried seeds from the stalks. All the distillation is done on site, the oil separated from the hydrosols (water), and both used for different products. The distilling machinery was purchased in Bulgaria, famous for the distillation of its famous roses in the manufacture of perfume. The Assrafs called in Professor Nativ Dubai of the Neve Yaar Agricultural Research Center to confer on varieties of lavender suitable for the climate that would produce highest yield of flowers per plant and the highest concentration of essential oil.
There is a classroom on site at Azizo Lavender for demonstrations, experimentation and projects for different ages. Throughout the year schoolchildren visit the farm to learn about the distillation process. They learn about all the different uses of this herby flower from medicinal to cosmetic to culinary. The ‘King of Essential Oils,’ lavender is antiseptic and anti inflammatory, so can aid in burns, headaches, digestive issues, skin problems, insomnia and is an anti-anxiety remedy. Azizo produces the finest soaps, candles, lotions, balms, oils, diffusers and sachets. The list is quite lengthy. Beehives have been placed adjacent to the fields, and now lavender honey is also part of their venture. Lavender fruit jams, lavender liqueur, lavender syrup, lavender chocolate! Azizo Farms has teamed up with DeKarina Chocolates to produce the chocolate and the liqueur. Powdered lavender is jarred for culinary uses. Herbes de Provence, their secret blend of Israeli herbs with lavender, mint, thyme, oregano and other dried spice is also available in the shop, which has been open daily for six years now.
After over 40 years farming lavender, Dan and Lilach have finally given up their secondary jobs. All of their time is now devoted to Azizo Lavender, which has also become part of the eco-tourism industry in the Golan. Everything they do is sustainable and environmentally friendly. No pesticides are used in the growing and no chemicals are added in the production process. All of the labor from fieldworkers to cafe and gift shop employees live on Moshav Kanaf or the surrounding area. The gift shop is, of course, loaded with all things lavender. I bought a case of the liqueur. Now that summer is almost here, it’s amazingly delicious on vanilla ice cream, melon, or in a drink made with a tablespoon of the nectar with a spritz of soda water. I bought some sachets, a candle, and the ground dried seeds to use in cooking. John got a pot of bug balm for insect bites and a little vial of the essential oil for our diffuser. We ended our tour by splitting a small pizza with dried lavender sprinkled on top… it was very different, and very good. And we had the lavender ice cream for dessert. It’s definitely a place we will return to with guests. The views are spectacular and the hospitality “welcoming Israeli.” Admission is free.
Lilach’s Lavender Shortbread
Lilach served her cookies with a pot of lavender lemongrass tea. So easy to make, you just put a teaspoon of lavender and some dried lemongrass in a teapot, pour hot water over and let steep 5 minutes. The result is quite soothing and can be served both hot or over ice on a summer day. The tea stands on its own and needs no sweetener. The cookies were crisp and buttery—
- 11/2 cups butter at room temperature
- 2/3 cup white sugar
- 1/4 cup sifted powdered sugar
- 2 Tbsp chopped fresh lavender or 1 Tbsp dried lavender (organic)
- 1 Tbsp finely chopped lavender leaves
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup cornflour (cornstarch in the US)
Cream together the butter and sugars in a large bowl. Mix in the lavender. In another bowl, stir together the two flours. Add to the ‘wet’ ingredients. Mix together well until all ingredients are combined. On two sheets of waxed paper, form the dough into two logs. Roll up and place in refrigerator at least one hour until quite firm. Preheat oven to 325*F/160*C. Remove dough logs from fridge and slice into coins. Place on parchment lined cookie sheet and bake for 16-18 minutes until just turning slightly golden. Remove from oven. Let cool. Keep in covered tin for about 2 weeks. These also freeze well.
Lavender Honey Glazed Grilled Chicken
We had friends over for the holiday of Lag b’Omer, when it’s traditional to make bonfires and eat grilled food (it’s often the food that goes with these holidays). We celebrate the creation of Light and the Divine Light that entered the world. It also commemorates the death (Feast Day) of the great Rahsbi, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the 2nd century Talmudist. Anyway, we had a barbecue with friends and I served grilled green beans from my garden and butternut squash and chicken glazed with lavender honey. Rather than buy the honey at Azizo, I made my own. It’s really easy and I use it on/in tea, cooking, over yogurt or ice cream and as a glaze. It imparts a lovely fragrance and flavor.
To make the honey, I steeped whole fresh lavender leaves and flowers in 2 cups of honey. I put it in a saucepan and heated it on medium heat on the stove and just let it gently simmer for about 20 minutes. The kitchen smelled so good!!!After the honey cooled, I strained the liquid back into the jar. No need to refrigerate.
- 2 kg (4 lbs) chicken..I used breasts, each one halved (thighs/pargiot) work well too
- 1/2 cup lavender honey (see instructions above)
- 1/4 cup good quality balsamic vinegar
- 1 TBSP fresh rosemary, chopped fine
- salt & pepper
This is so easy to make. Rinse and pat dry your chicken pieces. Salt and pepper. In a small bowl, combine the honey, vinegar and rosemary. Pour over chicken, reserving a bit for the glaze. Refrigerate the chicken and let marinate about an hour before grilling. Grill each piece over a high flame to sear, then lower to medium high heat. Grill chicken about 6 minutes each side. In least minute of grilling, brush with the honey glaze. You can sprinkle dried lavender or some of the chopped rosemary over the top to serve.
Some of the lavender drinks I’ve been “playing around” with are Lavender Lemonade: freshly squeezed lemon juice, some water and the lavender honey to taste. Last night before bed I made a Lavender MoonMilk: I heated a can of coconut milk and added the lavender honey to flavor. It was a nice end to the day, and I think I’ll try using that same recipe to make an ice cream by putting it in the ice cream maker and then freezing. When I was in England, I discovered their London Fog Tea, which became my go-to drink. It soothed try soul – between the cold, wet weather and everyone driving “on the wrong side,” it kept my nerves in check just to sip and smell.The London Fog was Earl Grey tea, a spot of milk, and lavender simple syrup.