Tree People

 

The Yair Forest in the Judea Hills, Israel's largest forest

The Yair Forest in the Judea Hills is Israel’s largest forest

Before the settling of the Land of Israel by the Jewish pioneers of the late 1800s-early 1900s, Israel was a vast, uninhabited wasteland of bare mountains and deserts. In 1866, the beloved American author, Mark Twain set out on a trip through Europe and the Holy Land, writing his memoirs of the journey in his famous book, The Innocents Abroad. 

Twain was fed up with the primitiveness of the settlements and roads he encountered: “The further we went the hotter the sun got, and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became…There was hardly a tree or a shrub any where. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country”. The statement reflects his general attitude to the ancient land throughout his journey.

I come from a line of Tree People. Before Earth Day, before it was even popular, we planted trees and forests. My mother was sometimes known as ‘The Tree Lady.”  From the 1950s to the 1990s, she took on the job each month of calling up every member of the Jewish community in our small Southern US town. On behalf of the Jewish National Fund, she would read out the list of birthdays, anniversaries, new births, deaths, weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of our community for the month. These were all opportunities to make a small donation and have a tree planted in Israel in that person’s honor or memory. In turn, the recipient would get a lovely certificate of planting with the location of the tree. When I lived in California, I became The Tree Lady for my congregation. For years I did the same, inviting people to plant a tree each month. My sister in Raleigh is also a Tree Lady. And so it goes….

When I moved here, it was no surprise to see much of the country covered in forest – mostly various species of pine, but also deciduous oak and maple and elm and hickory and redbud in the North. It is gorgeous and life-giving. Almost every mountain has been planted, blanketing huge swaths in vibrant hues of green.

From the mirpesset, balcony of our house, we look over acres and acres of JNF planted trees. Favorite pastimes of Israelis are hiking, bicycling and picnicking in the forests. Through many donations, and much hard work, the Land has come alive again. We, too, go hiking and have picnics in these government protected areas. Many a last minute decision to pack up a backpack of food, grab the dog, and jump in the car to get out of the city has resulted in an idyllic adventure. Often we pass random people stopped by the side of the road and setting up folding chairs, tables, food – and hookah and coffee set-ups to have a little relaxation time. Jews, Arab Muslim and Christians, Druze – we’ve passed them all enjoying nature in the forest. The Israeli forests are open and available to all.

Very sadly, there are certain (not all, but enough) Arabs who call themselves the Palestinian Peoples who do not want to see the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. They try to thwart our being here any way possible – and one of the ways they terrorize the people is by setting fire to the forests. Each year, there are massive forest fires in this country set by these Palestinian arsonists (It’s a bit like being back in Southern California during brushfire season).

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However, there are several things that are done here that are not done in the States. Namely, we have excellent forest control. If there are any dead or diseased trees, they are removed immediately to keep the forests healthy and to keep any blight form spreading. This is a necessary preventative measure. It is good stewardship of the Earth and its resources. Healthy forests free of dead and decaying matter are less likely to burn as quickly. Still, the damage is done each year by the arsonists.  When a forest burns, after they are put out, the land is immediately cleared and new trees are replanted. In abundance. (There is also video of Arabs pulling out the trees within a day or two of the Jews’ planting. This happens repeatedly.) But these modern day pioneers and nature lovers prevail, as they are constantly putting in new trees and forests across the entire land.

In the Galilee, we have acres upon acres of olive trees. Fruit orchards line the Hula Valley and Northern Golan. Palm Trees stand proudly in rows that go on for miles in the Jordan Valley and in the desert. Most of these groves and forests are still made possible by the donations to the Jewish National Fund. The Israelis in Judea and Samaria have turned the desert mountains green by bringing in irrigation and planting – trees, bushes, grasses, and crops.

We love our land. We are proud of our country. As a whole, Israelis are very green, taking care of the Earth and encouraging her bounty. We know how important it is to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and go Forest Bathing, a now-popular term that was coined here. There are usually (not this year due to COVID) myriad nature camps for kids during the summer months. After high-school, gap year programs include forestry service – before army service the kids spend the year clearing trails, setting up picnic areas, cleaning the parks, planting trees, and caring for green space.

Today, I invite YOU, dear Reader, to go to the JNF website, use.jnf.org

or at Treesfortheholyland.com because trees are a living memorial. Thank you!

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Driving home from a picnic in the Misgav Forest

Golani Cherries!

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Picking Bing Cherries in the Golan  Heights

We had been waiting for this tiyuul (Hebrew for field trip) for weeks now. It seemed like ages since we were up in the Golan, one of my favorite places in Israel. First there was all the winter snow, sleet and rain, and then the COVID lockdown for months. But the day was perfect – nice and warm, sunny, with slightly cool breezes from the West off the Mediterranean. And it was the first week of cherry season!

Odem Mountain sits towards the foot of the Mount Hermon and butts up against the border with Syria. The Heights have been quiet since the Syrian Civil War moved from the area about a year ago. Odem is known for its wonderful wineries and for its pick-your-own fruit farms. Raspberries, blueberries and blackberries (called ‘black raspberries’ here) will be ripe in mid-July; grapes in August. But last week, life was a bowl of cherries for us!

We were given entrance to the orchard for 20 shekels per person, about $6 each. We could eat as much off the trees as we could stomach – and that was a ton! – plus pick as much as we could carry in our baskets. The first kilo was included in the price, the rest were about $5 a kg – 2.2 pounds. There were only a few families out, so we had the huge orchard mostly to ourselves. The sky was a gorgeous blue, the birds singing, and the butterflies were out in abundance. Who could ask for more?

I love that Israel is so family friendly. Because fruit picking is a family activity here, the orchards cater to the wee folk. Instead of pruning back the lower limbs and bushes as one normally does to increase fruit production, everything is left in its natural state. Low hanging limbs mean low hanging fruit, and any 2-3 year old can enjoy harvesting the luscious gems.

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John and I each picked four baskets of Bing Cherries before we discovered the sweetest, most delicious Rainiers. Within an hour, we had picked another four baskets. It was sheer bliss – I found my happy spot. As the morning wore on, we followed the sound of Russian voices chattering madly in the Eastern part of the orchard. We found out what was causing the commotion: fresh sour cherries! The Russians and Eastern Europeans are absolutely wild about forest fruits. They especially love sour cherries, preserving them for pastries, toppings and winter desserts.

After eating so many cherries, it’s a wonder we even had room for lunch, but I had packed a lovely picnic with an assortment of cheeses, olives, homemade crackers, pickles and salads and a bottle of rosé. All of the picking areas have adjacent picnic tables under the canopy of vines and trees. It’s just so romantic!

As soon as we got home the work began in earnest -which would last the rest of the week for me. It was enjoyable labor, and I can’t wait to share these recipes with you!!

  CHERRY LIQUEUR

IMG_0144 I can’t believe I forgot to take a picture of the finished product after it had been bottled, but this is the basic process: I steeped about 40 Bing cherries in a covered Mason Jar of vodka for a week. The vodka turns red and the cherries fade somewhat. Strain the infused spirit into sterilized bottles. Store the bottles in a dark cabinet for up to a year. When ready to use, place a bottle of the liqueur in the freezer – the liqueur gets nice and cold, but will not freeze. Sip straight up in a tiny liqueur glass, or mix into cocktails.

You can spoon the reserved cherries (I microwave them for 10 seconds) over vanilla ice cream. A lovely dessert!

        CHAMPAGNE JUBILEE!

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Take the cherry liqueur (you just made, recipe above) out of the freezer. Pour about 1 oz. into a champagne flute and top off with Prosecco, sparkling white wine or a sweet white wine. This is really refreshing on a hot summer day – and beautiful for bridal showers and with brunch!

   CHERRY-BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE                  (makes 4 slender bottles)

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Love this recipe I came up with. It’s really delicious on a pasta salad with grilled chicken strips, or on a sweet summer salad of fresh greens, red onion (or pickled onion), fruit and nuts. Add feta on top for a dairy salad – or leftover grilled chicken strips for a main course (meat/basari). Refrigerate after opening.

Ingredients:

  • 6 Tablespoons wildflower honey
  • 40 Bing cherries, stemmed and pitted
  • 2-3 shallots or 1 Bermuda/red onion
  • 1/4 cup good quality Balsamic vinegar
  • 6 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 1/2 cup champagne or white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt (I use Dead Sea salt or Maldon)
  • 1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
  • Distilled or filtered spring water

  Directions:

Prepare/sterilize the bottles and the tops by keeping them submerged in boiling water for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, place the pitted cherries and the honey in a small saucepan and let them simmer (but not boil!) for about 5 minutes. Let cool. Chop 8-10 of the cooled cherries into little pieces. Reserve the rest of the cherries (for pouring over vanilla ice cream or serving with a dollop of whipped cream!!!), saving the honey liquid.

Pour the reserved honey liquid into the four dressing bottles that have been recently sterilized. Make sure each bottle gets an even amount. Distribute the chopped cherries evenly into the four bottles. I find using a funnel makes all of this a lot easier! Add 2 Tbsp Balsamic to each bottle. Add 1/8 cup champagne vinegar and 1/8 cup olive oil to each bottle. Add 1 sprig of rosemary, the salt and pepper. Using a garlic press, I halve and squeeze 2 peeled shallots to collect the shallot juice in a little cup or glass. Pour the shallot juice evenly into each bottle. Finely mince the remaining shallot and add to the bottles. Fill the rest of the dressing bottles to about 1/2 inch from the top with the spring water. Seal. Shake vigorously before serving.

THE BEST CHERRY CHICKEN SALAD!!

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This is fairly easy to make. I serve it for Shabbat lunch on a hot day. It’s quite flavorsome, not to mention beautiful with the jewel-like cherries poking out. We never have any leftovers it’s just that delicious – but if we did, I’d serve it on a crusty baguette with a bed of arugula or rocket lettuce.

 

  • 3 cups (about 1 pound/1/2 kg) cooked chicken breasts, chopped into bite sized bits
  • 1/3 cup chopped red/Bermuda onion
  • 1/3 cup chopped celery
  • 1 cup pitted, halved cherries (I like a combo of Bing and Ranier cherries for this dish)
  • 2 Tbsp poppyseeds
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise (light mayo, preferable)
  • 1/2 cup “Chinese” sweet pecans
  • Sea salt & freshly cracked black pepper to taste

In the States, I was able to buy pre-grilled or pre-cooked chicken strips (I was spoiled). Here I have to make everything from scratch, so I boil my chicken breasts in water with celery tops, an onion, bay leaves, salt, pepper, 2 Tbsp whole cloves and a thumb sized sliver of fresh ginger (I just gave away my bubbe’s chicken stock recipe!!! I swear the addition of the cloves and ginger take the soup to a whole new level of awesomeness!!!!). Let the chicken simmer on the stove for about a half hour until cooked through. I reserve the stock to freezer bags once it cools – future use. There’s no soup in aseptic boxes or cans here.

Chop the cooled breasts into bitesize morsels. Chop the onion and celery. Add all to a large bowl. Stir in mayo and poppy seeds, salt and pepper. Gently fold in cherries and pecans. Chill until ready to serve.Can garnish with rosemary sprigs or fold in about a Tbsp finely minced fresh rosemary before serving.

CHERRY CHOCOLATE CHIP SCONES      (makes 18, but doesn’t last more than 2 hours! They tend to disappear that quickly)

My family loves these scones. I’ve made them for years, but can never seem to find them when I want to serve them. So glad I took the picture shortly after I took them off the baking sheet, because they were all gone 2 hours later when I wanted a sweet snack!

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Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups regular flour
  • 1/3 cup coconut sugar (low glycemic option to white sugar)
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 20-25 Bing cherries, pitted and quartered (use gloves or your hands will get stained)
  • 8 Tbsp cold butter
  • 3/4 cups cream
  • 2 Tbsp milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp almond extract
  • 1/2 tsp dried ginger powder or 1 TBSP grated fresh ginger or stem ginger pieces, minced
  • 3/4 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

 

Preheat oven to 400*F/200*C.  Place baking paper or silpat on two baking sheets.

Mix together dry ingredients a large bowl. Using a party cutter, knife, or fork, cut in pieces of cold butter and blend until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Stir in the cherries and chocolate chips to coat with a dusting of flour (this prevents sticking together or clumping on the bottom).

Make a shallow well in the middle of the flour mixture. Whisk together the wet ingredients and pour into the middle of the well. Gently stir the wet ingredients into the dry mixture without overworking the dough. It should just be moistened.

Using an ice cream scoop, I place small scoops of the batter (6 on each sheet, evenly spaced) on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with a little sugar if you’d like a little sparkle. Bake for about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for a couple minutes. Repeat until all batter is used up. Guard these babies with your life if you want them to last! They can be stored in a wax-paper lined tin box or plastic container for a couple days (yeah, right – good luck on that one!)

I find them best served with a light spread of cream cheese. So delicious!

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And OF COURSE!!!!I made 12 jars of cherry vanilla preserves last week. Two are gone, so I hope to make some more in the next couple days…. until then, my friends –

 

Merrily We Float Along

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Morning on the Sea of Galilee

The weather here in the North of Israel has been nothing short of spectacular this week!!! Hot, but not too hot; nice breezes wafting in from the Mediterranean; quiet and peaceful days. Yesterday, we decided to take advantage of the early summer weather and the calm. We desperately miss our tourists and need them for the local economy, but are enjoying the non-crowded venues and leisurely pace as various sites open, but are still social distancing. What a better way to spend the day, than by rafting down the Jordan River!!

The source of the Jordan River lies in the very North of the country from the melting snows atop Mount Hermon and the underwater aquifers bubbling up into mountain springs and rivers. The two largest, the Dan River and the Hatzbani Stream come together in the lush Hula Valley and form the Jordan River, which pours into Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). From there, the Jordan flows (trickles more like it) through the Jordan Valley (Samaria and Judea) into the Dead Sea. All in all, it is 251 km or 156 miles long.

There are several companies that offer rafting and kayaking down the upper part of the Jordan, but we love Kfar Blum the best. The attraction center at Kibbutz Kfar Blum offers so many fun activities. For those that enjoy camping, there are several different options: there is the basic tent campground. Tents are supplied. Also provided are a small outdoor refrigerator, picnic table, clothes line, and rec area. Tents hold up to four people. Just bring food and sleeping bags. A step up in the luxury campground has large six-eight person canvas tents (air conditioned!!!) on wooden floors with platform beds, large fridge/freezer, hammocks on the porch and recreational area.  If that’s too rustic, there are cabin/bunk houses with all the comforts of home and a fenced-in private yard. Playgrounds for the kids available at all sites.

On site is the Top Rope Adventure Park, a high ropes course that is incredibly popular with the youth. Add to this a 40 foot rock climbing wall, archery range, and 300 feet long zip-line course which splashes down into the Jordan, and it’s almost a full day’s worth of activities. But we went for the rafting – Blum has “The Long Course” – a 2.5 mile course down the Hula Valley, which takes about an hour and a half – or longer if you get out and swim. It costs $30 per adult and is well worth it. There were absolutely no lines yesterday (no Birthright kids on tour) so we made it to the bus within a few minutes. The Blumbus takes you up river where a guide gives you the course outline and instructions. All people must wear a life preserver at all times.

Yesterday was the best, because unlike during the hottest part of the summer and all the tourists, the river was not clogged with rafts. There was plenty of room to float at a leisurely pace and to pull off to the side and swim. I just love how Israelis sing here. Passing rafts of families, so many were singing the old Hebrew folk songs I grew up hearing. One raft was full of beautiful IDF soldiers on leave posing in their swimsuits. We passed families on shore fishing and picnicking, another favorite Israeli pass-time. It was a glorious day with birds singing in the blackberry brambles lining each side of the river, and dragonflies darting between the rafts. We saw turtles sunning themselves on the rocks, and lots of trout in the crystal clear Hatzbani Stream. Further down the line were the invasive nutria, a recently introduced species that is a cross between a beaver and a river otter.

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Such a lovely day!! For those in Israel who want a staycation in the North or those planning to visit from abroad, Kfar Blum (founded in 1943 by a group of olim from the UK, the US, and Eastern Europe) also has a luxury resort, The Pastoral Hotel. Beautiful rooms, Kosher food, a pool and spa as well as tennis and fitness areas are part of the package. At various times throughout the year, Kfar Blum offers music weekends, featuring classical music, jazz and opera as well as full productions of Broadway shows (in English) in their auditorium. There are also film festivals held during the summer months. It’s a great place to host a family reunion, wedding or other life event. All information is available on their website.

Udderly Delicious

Time for the annual Shavuot-in-Israel dairy blog! The holiday where we celebrate eating cheesecake and dairy products (or so it seems) is bearing down hard upon us. Actually, Shavuot is the holiday 50 days after Pesach (Passover), commemorating the end of the barley harvest and beginning of summer, as well as the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses by G-d on Mount Sinai. Because milk is sometimes used as a symbol for the Scriptures (providing us babies spiritual nourishment), we eat lots of dairy and stay up all night studying the Scriptures, reading the book of Ruth, and discussing how bloated we feel after consuming so many milk products. Uuuurrppp -Pass that bowl of whipped cream, please-

It’s also the time when Israelis make their annual pilgrimages to local dairy farms. Goat farms and pasture-fresh goat milk dairies and restaurants are ubiquitous throughout the Galilee region of Northern Israel. All are independent, family-owned and run. Some are Bedouin Arab, some secular Jewish, some following the strictest of Kosher laws. Some offer tours of the cheesemaking process and some have petting zoos attached where little children run around petting the goats and helping with the milking. Each has its own flavor (pun intent ended).

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Galilean goatherd in the wadi below our house

This year I selected two different places, each with their own vibe and each within a fifteen minute drive of home. Due to the easing of the COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, all the local roads (many one lane in each direction!) were p’kock and each place jam-packed with locals satisfying their ‘pent-up-for-way-too-long’ and ‘just-let-me-out-in-the-fresh-air’ desires.

Yesterday, my girlfriend, Hadassah, and I decided to take a short morning tiyuul to Kibbutz Shomrat, just across the highway from Akko. (O.K., so we wound up picnicking at nearby Achziv Beach, visiting a distillery, and making new friends at a small kibbutz cafe on the Lebanese border and didn’t get home til after sunset, but we had a blast!!!)

Alto Dairy on Kibbutz Shomrat had been highly recommended as a gourmet Kosher establishment. We found it was a lot more than that. Shomrat has a guesthouse (motel); individual family tzimmerim (lodges); a gourmet restaurant and cafe. It is also the home of the Mazan family’s Alto Dairy. Run by the lively matriarch, Ariel Mazan, she prides herself on the traditional techniques she learned in Europe and the highest standards.

Alto (Italian and Spanish for high, as in their quality) specializes in both hard and soft cheeses made from pasteurized goat milk, which is mild, healthy and easy to digest. They offer over 20 different products including yogurts; two types of bleu cheese; camembert with nuts; camembert in ash; chèvre with herbs or garlic or seeds; salty cheeses; pecorino – all up for tasting. I must admit, this was by far the best dairy I’ve tried here to date. Their Tom cheese is soft and mild, buttery and yet flavorsome. (Even better than the San Francisco, Cowgirl Creamery Tom…. did I just say that????)  I bought a ton. And the goat cheddar -WOW!!!!! Flavor explosion. I bought two tons. And yogurt, and chèvre, and bleu, and halloumi (for sautéing). Their prices were very reasonable, but I wound up spending a small fortune anyway.

Alto has a small cafe-style seating area indoors as well as an adjacent covered-porch sit down restaurant. All the food is beautifully presented and kosher dairy – no meat products are served and they are closed on Shabbat. They offer cheese and wine platters, of course, but their Israeli breakfast is something else. Traditional Israeli dishes with a gourmet twist: stuffed mushrooms with pureed fresh beets and melted cheese; salad with pear, pecan and bleu; roasted eggplant slices on fresh whole-grain sourdough – topped with melted cheeses; a croissant stuffed with wilted spinach and cheese and a perfectly poached egg; shakshuka with lots and lots of cheese; savory quiches; and yogurt parfaits to name just a few items.

The atmosphere is family-friendly, laid-back and very casual with nice views of the farm, fields and coastal plains between Akko and Haifa. You can take a pre-arranged guided tour of the establishment enabling you to learn the entire cheese-making process from udder to shelf. Not only will you learn the nutritional advantages of goat milk and the different types of cheeses, but how to serve and cook with them!

This morning John, Max and I visited a popular hangout for the locals. Located off Route 85 between Karmiel and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), there is a signpost for Ein Camonim, another family-owned goat dairy and restaurant. I first heard about this place from my California-Israeli acupuncturist who was good friends with the Ovrutsky family. Very small world.

Ein Camonim does not have Kosher certification because they are open on Shabbat. Still, it is all natural and dairy only, with a store and adjoining restaurant. They, too, sell a nice variety of hard and semi-soft cheeses as well as goat yogurt. I love their chèvre dipped in volcanic ash and their gouda. The fresh homemade ice cream is to die for creamy, sweet and well-balanced with absolutely no “goaty” taste at all – a hallmark of freshness. It comes in several different flavors and all products are available for take-away.

There is indoor seating in the restaurant as well as dining alfresco under the pine and oak canopy. This place, so typically Israeli, is about as relaxed and mellow and casual as it gets. Jeans, tee shirts, shorts, boots or bare feet – we’ve seen it all. But I’ll save the most interesting surprise for last….

It’s mostly frequented for lazy brunches and long lunches. Yes, there is the requisite cheese platter with local boutique wine pairings, but the Israeli breakfast (not cheap) is simple, fresh food from the local gardens served in huge amounts. Olives picked and cured on site; fresh hummus and simple chopped veggie salads drizzled with fresh olive oil; chavita (kha-vee-TAH) – the flat Galilean omelette, and shakshuka served with fresh warm bread made on the premises. And there’s cheese pizza for the kids. Totally filling. Very plain. Most Israeli.

The part that was so shocking to us the first time we visited, was not just the cats and dogs wandering the premises, visiting the tables. It wasn’t that patrons brought their dogs, who were welcome to loll under the tables, It was the peafowl!!! Peacocks and peahens seem to have the run of this establishment. They wander freely about the tables, inside and outside of both restaurants, occasionally jumping up on the uncleared tables to snatch morsels of food. It’s just part of the charm of the place: it’s a rural, local joint with absolutely no pretenses – and by now we’re used to such… It’s Most Israeli!!!

Have fun eating your cheese this weekend. I’m off to prepare my own cheesecakes and cheese blintz souflée toped with raspberry puree and fresh goat yogurt. Have to put the fridge full of dairy products to use!!!!

To my Jewish friends and family, Happy Shavuot! Chag Shavuot sameach (khag shah-voo-OAT sah-MAY-akh)!!!!! and to my Christian friends and family, Happy Pentacost!!!! And pass me another hunk of brie, please –