It was time to start thinking about my last trip in the current series of Phil’s Continental Cuisine. Alaska had been amazing and seemed like years ago. Filming bears, whales and millions of salmon was not only great fun but also a real privilege. Then we set off to Vietnam for a whistle-stop tour of the country. From Hanoi to Da Nang finally sailing and cooking around the Mekong Delta another wonderful and interesting trip.
JD happy, sort of, he really is ‘pint half full man’, and I settled down for the 4½ flight. The staff are very attentive, polite and very knowledgeable about their country and its food. The in-flight food was pretty good, and I have to say. Great hummus, warm pitta’s, salmon and chicken, along with the obligatory salad. The award-winning wine is good, nice balance of acidity and depth. I thumbed through a very informative book written by Janna Gur, called The Book Of New Israeli Food, throughout the flight. A lady I was to meet and tour Tel Aviv markets and hummus joints. It was packed with all the information and photo’s I needed and written in a way that made me want to explore and taste everything I could.
The staff saw me reading the book, and we chit-chatted about restaurants and markets. Then, over the flight period, all of them came back quietly with names of restaurants, bars, and areas to visit. These were scribbled on napkins and scraps of paper. I can’t quite see that happening on a BA flight, can you? But to be fair, Israel is a tiny place, and with only 4 million people, they all seem to want to help and big up their country; good on them!
We arrive and land in Tel Aviv and meet the boys, eventually. Oh forgot to mention, JD and I are in business. The other 3 are in the economy. So we get off first, and they have to wait. The airport is very impressive, one of the best I would say I have ever been in. We are accompanied to the passport control by charming staff again. The only reason I mention this is that it’s become a running joke, me upfront, the boys in the back. I remind the guys it is work, not play.
We leave the airport and are transferred to our hotel, The David Intercontinental, right by the sea. This took about 30 minutes. I have to say at all points on our trip the help and expertise have been fantastic. A bit tired now I retire. The lads have a beer.
The morning sun is rising when I crawl out of bed. My room is on a slight angle so I can see the sea, 14 floors up from my bed. It’s a lovely view, as good as you can, I suppose from a modern hotel. We breakfast in the vast eating area, and it’s good with plenty on offer. Salads are everywhere.
We meet our guide Chaim Helfgott, a lovely chap, very funny and full of passion and knowledge for his country. He reorganises our minibus and driver after JD changes his mind, as per usual. It takes a few moments, but we are on track finally. We decide to make the short walk to the open market across the car park/park outside the hotel. By now, the sun is high, and it’s pleasantly warm. I love filming when it’s like this, bright but not too hot.
The market is a couple of long passages; some covered, some not. The first thing I notice is the wonderful array of fruit and vegetables. It’s packed and piled high. We film for an hour or so, trying not to get in peoples way (quite difficult). But, on the whole, they are all very accommodating and helpful.
We film a young lad cooking Falafels in a small booth. He’s funny and speaks good English; we josh with each other about football. We film his deft touch when moulding and cooking Falafel. Then slicing the pitta and filling with salad and various dressings and of course hummus. Thinking back to what Ottolenghi said about the 90-second rule, I roughly counted when he made them. He was about to bang on. They were really good. We ask to film him, but he declined, saying his English is not good.
The next contact we were to meet was Janna Gur, the author of the book I had been reading. We meet. She is very attractive and informative and reminds me of a young Nana Mouskouri. She is going to take us to a hummus restaurant called Ali Karavan to show me what the real stuff is like, and I can’t wait.
We pile into the bus and head off to Jaffa (yes, the home of the orange), about 15 minutes away from Tel Aviv. In fact, you could walk it in 30 minutes. Jaffa is a quiet place, quite touristy, but spotlessly clean. The upper town is renovated and dotted with coffee bars and snack joints. Lower Jaffa and the harbour area are very nice, again clean and a bit touristy. We film a couple of pieces to camera then head up the street to the restaurant.
In fact, it’s not a restaurant. It looks like a takeaway cafe, with a few tables, almost like a bar. It’s packed full, and people are queuing down the street. Janna corrects me. It’s not a restaurant; it’s just selling hummus, nothing else. She almost calls it a shop and gathering area.
We line up, and she explains the 3 dishes on offer, plain hummus, with tahini creamed inside with a few warm whole chickpeas, and a dusting of a couple of spices. Next, a version, exactly the same, filled with a warm stew of dried broad beans. Finally, Janna calls the 5-star version, with herbs, spices, and lots of whole, warm chickpeas. All come with small, warm, soft pitta’s.
We move across the road and sit on a wall in the warm sunshine. I dive in, starting with the basic version. The first thing I notice is that they are all served warm, not like the UK. Instantly it’s better; why do we chill ours? The really creamy tahini mixed with the hummus is truly delicious and satisfying. Wow, it was good. Onto number 2, again, lovely, the broad bean stew very ‘meaty’ and very filling, I liked it very much, packed full of flavour. Finally, the 5-star version, well, what can I say she was right. Creamy, full of flavour, the spices and herbs perfectly balanced loads of olive oil and beautifully seasoned, I can see why they eat this dish all the time. I will say it again, I have never eaten anything like it before, so filling, it’s a complete meal on its own, no wonder they love it so much.
I quiz Janna on why it tastes so good, something we film later on in the day. She explains it’s the tahini, sesame seeds ground to thick, pulpy oil and packed full of creamy flavour. The other reason it’s so good is that it’s 98% fat, oh yes!!! So there was I thinking it was a really good healthy option…
We finish the tasting session with a bottle of a sort of Israeli non-alcoholic root beer, and it’s quite nice. Reminds me of Dandelion & Burdock, thick and dark. Unfortunately, we finish just in time as a refuse truck on the other side of the wall lifts out a huge bin of stinking rubbish; thank goodness we got it in the can.
After a little more filming in Jaffa, we head back into town to film with a young, exciting chef who is moving the Israeli fusion food forward. His name is Omer Millar, and his restaurant is called The Dining Hall in a very trendy part of Tel Aviv.
We film in his kitchen, wait for it, prawn falafels, mmmm not what I expected at all, my Jewish friend was up in arms when I told her. Still, they were good, light and crispy, really pushing the boundaries of classic street food. We have coffee and leave the tired-looking kitchen guys to prepare for the evening service (I don’t miss those days).
We film the beautiful opera house and the buildings beyond before quite scarily being stopped at gunpoint for filming the wrong building (another story entirely).
We then film in the area in town where all the spices, nuts and dried fruits are sold and have been for many years. It’s an interesting place, shops filled with every nut and dried pulse imaginable, all beautifully presented. They take this very seriously indeed. Here I try raw tahini for the camera. Janna explains it’s the base for an all-good hummus and has to be of top quality. So I try 3 teaspoonfuls, one after the other. I’m sure JD is doing it on purpose as it’s a strong, intense, powerful flavour and coats my mouth like glue, making it hard to speak.
We rush back to the seafront to get the sunset on film. We get there about 1 minute before the sun is gone for another day. That night, we met Chaim and his charming young wife to have dinner in a trendy seafront restaurant called the Herbert Samuel. It’s only a stone’s throw from the hotel, and we all meet at 8 o’clock.
The chef here has done stints in many top restaurants, including Gordon Ramsey in London. So I’m expecting big things. The menu is chosen for us, and it kicks off with a selection of starters. Grilled artichokes, spicy peppers and beetroots (the Israelis love their beetroot) with garlic. Very good and full of flavour. Next, 3 varieties of tomatoes. The purple variety is the tastiest (even straight from the fridge), some roasted, some raw with soft Turkish cheese and shed loads of fresh garlic. Yellowfin Tuna, salad leaves and dressing are pleasant enough. Next pink cooked veal loin, sliced thinly and served cold with thin tuna mayo, classic northern Italian. In fact, all the food leans toward Italian fare here.
The accompanying 4 types of bread are warm and delicious, but all with a sweet edge. Mains arrive, including salmon with crispy skin, Somali spices fritters (not sure what), and carrots. The sauce was good with that intense coriander seed, orangey kick, and I loved it. Huge beef kebabs with spinach and a large roasted marrowbone. This was accompanied by a good wild mushroom sauce (very Hix). Very light gnocchi come with large whole chestnuts. These are a little dry for my liking. In my view needed to be smaller in size. I was pleased with the restrained use of that awful stuff truffle oil. The dish needed a sauce, though.
On Chaim’s instruction, we drank a 2008 Castel red (more on this later) very nice, deep and packed full of flavour, not what I was expecting at all. Puds were more run of the mill. Chocolate Tart, rich, dark and filling and Tonka (bean) ice cream. Banana Tarte Tatin was good, and the pastry was well cooked again with ice cream, this time a salted caramel version. The other option was something with Kulfi shards and pistachio ice cream. By now, I was tired. All in all, it was a good meal.
Up the drive, we arrive at Rama’s Kitchen. It looks like a sort of Nursery crossed with a few beach shacks. All the outdoor areas are loosely covered with tarpaulins as this area gets blisteringly hot in the summer. I meet Tomer Niv (Tom), the head chef, and he speaks good English. It transpires he used to work for Heston and at the acclaimed Ledbury in London, what a small world. He shows us around the restaurant, kitchen and his wonderful herb and flower garden. These gardens grow many of his ingredients; he explains, wow, it’s awe-inspiring. He tells me how he wants to use local ingredients and cook them simply to evolve a new type of Israeli cuisine. His local means the Med and will use ingredients from many countries. He’s a breath of fresh air. We film in the garden and outdoor oven. We film the driving shots across the valley and, of course, one of his dishes.
It’s a braised veal dish with lamb, potatoes, and carrots. It’s simple and straight to the point. Every mouthful tastes what it should. I detect in his food that he has exhausted every angle of the individual component to get the best flavour out of it, no doubt a throwback to his time with Heston. The sauce is particularly good, a deep meaty sauce sweetened with concentrated pomegranate juice.
As with all filming, we are running late, so we hurriedly scoff a plate of Tom’s local, slow-roasted Judean hills lamb. It has a slight mutton flavour and is very lean. We say our goodbyes and crack on.
We arrive in Jerusalem late afternoon and immediately set out to film at the Western wall, more commonly known as the Wailing Wall. It’s late afternoon, and we are in the middle of a religious festival.
The place is packed with many people praying and milling about. It’s a very moving sight. So I spend a few minutes just watching and listening.
The day started early again. First, we headed back to Jaffa to pick up a few bits and pieces and to meet our Land Rover driver for the trip to Jerusalem. Then, it was out of Tel Aviv into the Judean hills to meet an exciting young chef. The trip takes about an hour, and in glorious weather, we head higher and higher into the hills, finally arriving at a small entrance to a farm in the middle of nowhere.
As the evening draws in, the blue sky turns into a deep blue, the now lit wall standing out even more so. It’s a spectacular sight—the shiny gold-topped mosque in the background shining brightly under the floodlights. I’m swamped by the atmosphere here, and it’s an incredible feeling. We film and depart, settling into our hotel.
Not for long as we are having dinner at a restaurant called Eucalyptus and serves biblical cuisine. Yes, I know; I was confused also. Chef Moshe Basson has been a stalwart of regional cooking here for many years and is really well known throughout Israel. Somebody described him as a ‘food archaeologist’ all his dishes he explains personally and in real detail. They are cooked and served in the traditional way and use many old recipes, local spices, herbs and vegetables. So now I can see where he is coming from.
The 12-course menu is a treat, in fact, it should have been a few more, but we had to decline. Chaim is not impressed with the wine, describing it as ‘average minus.’
We feast on so many dishes I will only pick out a few. Three soups to start red lentil and cumin, Jerusalem artichoke, and a warm almond milk soup are well seasoned, balanced and taste pretty good.
Stuffed vine leaves with sage leaves are very good, along with many salads, hummus and tomatoes.
Aubergines stuffed with meat and thin, and figs stuffed with chicken, then braised in sweet pomegranate sauce are very nice.
Nahaphoch-hou, as a sort of pilaf with chicken drumsticks, carrots and cabbage, is delicious and again nicely seasoned. The veal Kofta with okra and tomatoes are equally as good and packed full of flavour.
The menu has duck, St Peter’s fish and a spectacular Golan Heights prime sirloin steak; I could go on and on.
Oven-baked lamb in a large pot covered with pitta pastry is a light version of our British hot pot using neck chops. It is cooked overnight and has a deep mutton flavour. I like this very much.
Puddings are ice creams, semolina sponge cake with almond milk, light and tasty. The final one is a sort of rose water gelee made from almond milk, wild pistachio and Hibiscus flowers. This is a pretty impressive way to end the meal. We stagger back to the hotel and bid each other good night. JD, as always, wants a beer. I don’t know where he puts it.
We are up early as we have to film in the Mahane Yolouda market early before it gets too busy. It was cold today, and it had been raining. So we needed to be on the road by 11.
Before that, we had to film a couple of driving sequences in the old town with me driving.
We then made the short trip and filmed on the Mount Of Olives, then looking back to the main city for a couple of driving shots to end the film here in Jerusalem.
One funny moment. After parting with a few shekels, we filmed with a rather stubborn ass and its owner. It started with me, him and the ass passing with a lovely shot of Jerusalem in the background. It ended up with the ass stopping dead and his owner wagging his finger in a sort of Mr Bean moment, all on camera, priceless.
From there, we trekked back into town to the market to film. Now, this really is what excites me. It’s a large market consisting of 3 or 4 very long covered walkways crammed full of every sort of food and products you could imagine. We filmed stalls packed full of every dried fruit you could imagine. 5 or 6 types of date, apricots, prunes and dried figs. An array of nuts like I have never seen before, from pistachios to huge peanuts roasted with salt, to pecans in the shells and many types of almonds.
Bakery stalls crammed with every bread and sweet bread known to man. Challah in many forms golden brown and glistening. Flatbreads are too many to describe, from pitta to a flatbread spread with green herb and spice mixture. The sweet pastries are all stuffed with nuts, dates and many topped with fine strands of filo or fine strands of a sort of pasta. I’m offered a sweet, vibrant red delicious cake looking like shredded wheat. It’s food eaten at breakfast or snack. It transpires its stuffed with sheep’s cheese and soaked with sugar syrup, not what I was expecting at all.
We move on to olive stalls, again crammed and groaning with so many varieties. We film a piece to camera when I taste the best olive in Israel today (says the stallholder). It was small and packed full of flavour. There are also many varieties of olive oil, thick green and slightly cloudy. Dried and smoked fish, no doubt many years ago, brought back from the Jewish travels around Europe. Fresh fruits like there were in Tel Aviv, huge oranges and football-sized pomegranates and piles of Clementine’s everywhere. Herbs and veg are big here also; I saw kohlrabi and cardoons, plus huge radishes and stacks of coriander, parsley and mint so important to Israeli cuisine.
On camera, I get quite excited and as I say ‘This is an amazing place ‘, a lady walks past me and shouts, “It’s the best in the world” well, it comes pretty close to it from what I have seen. I could spend hours here, but we need to push on. So I buy some yoghurt for my cooking slot later, and we set off to film looking over the west bank.
We leave the market and proceed out of Jerusalem, arriving at the hill overlooking the west bank. What a view, looking to the west bank and far beyond to Jordan across the desert. It’s a spectacular sight. Security is never far away here, though. The wall built to keep out terrorists in the distance is a stark reminder of that. Armed police and soldiers are keeping a watchful eye on not only us but a gathering of local activists, not sure what for.
We set off to drive through the west bank and out into the desert on our way to the Dead Sea; I fall asleep. An hour outside of Jerusalem, we meet our Land Rover driver Schlomit to film a driving sequence across the desert.
We pass Bedouin tribes and drive up and over parched ravines and hills with nothing to see except stones and sand. It’s a spectacular sight. This culminated in a piece where I stop and look out to the Dead Sea in the distance, some 30 miles away. As always, we are pushed for time, so we did not savour the moment, sadly. The drive back was a scary thing, bumpy and swift.
We meet up again with Chiam and our other driver and push on to the Dead Sea, stopping briefly for a quick falafel and a drink. By now, we are 45-50 minutes from rendezvousing with our chefs and fixers for the final sequence and cooking strand.
We arrive at the Dead Sea some 75 km long and travel around its edge for about an hour. The Jordanian hills across the light blue sea looking fantastic and beautifully lit in the late afternoon sun. Chaim explains that this is where John The Baptist had lived.
We pass through yet another army checkpoint and arrive with the guys ready to go. They have everything, all the ingredients prepared, and tables set up. JD is worried about time as the sun will be behind the hills in about 40 minutes, so we kick on. Geraint has a wonderful app on his ‘phone that tracks the sun and lets you know the time it’s going to set and where in the sky it is, an impressive piece of kit.
Setting up the quickest cooking sequence I have ever done. The boys are brilliant, and everything is spot on. We film Falafel and a yoghurt dip, quick and straight to the point. To my genuine surprise, they turned out perfect. Thanks, boys!!
Sam emerges from the car with swimmers on and wades into the Dead Sea as the sunsets. Yes, he floats, all very funny and the bemusement of a few locals, they try and tell us it’s winter, we all laugh. I taste the sea; it’s not salty in taste at all, but more like battery acid; it’s vile. Sam gets out, wishing I think he had never gone in, realising that he has to put his jeans back on. His skin is oily and clammy, and he has no towel; we laugh.
The last piece is done; that’s a wrap. We pile into the truck and head back to Jerusalem; what a day.
There is a calm in the truck, everybody thinking about another whistle-stop tour of a country. I, for one, have really enjoyed the experience.
We had lunch at a restaurant called Colony, and some 15 minutes drive north of the hotel. This was, I suppose, the most European style restaurant we had to be to on our trip. It was nice and airy, with a good atmosphere. Like all the people we have met, the staff spoke perfect English and were charming and friendly.
The menu was a choice of simple salad style starters, something we had come to expect. First, a full-flavoured aubergine mousse topped with rocket and tomatoes and served with fingers of thin sweetened bread. Next, a simple Israeli salad topped with grated cheese, also a roasted aubergine topped with thick cream and lots of garlic. Finally, flatbreads with various dips are added to the delicious starters.
The main courses did not disappoint, a beautiful, soft, sweet ‘pullet’ chicken with a warm salad was very good. My Lamb kebab with intensely fresh green, herby tabbouleh, with the obligatory smear of hummus, sliced red onions, and grilled tomato, was delicious. The lamb had a slight mutton flavour and taste but was juicy and moist. Other mains included a good schnitzel served with mashed potatoes and a good sirloin steak with fries.
Deserts were also on a high standard. I had tahini ice cream with halva. Deep full flavoured and very rich indeed. Strawberry cassata was a good choice also, while JD had a perfectly acceptable chocolate fondant (urr).
This was a good lunch, the closest we had come, I think to see a modern, Israeli cuisine, if not a little European in its execution. We all pile into 2 taxis, stuffed and now a little jaded and head back to the hotel to start packing our gear ready for tomorrow’s flight home.
I write a bit of this at the hotel, then fall asleep, yes again, watching the snooker on sky sports. We met Naama Oryan-Kaplan, another Israeli contact, that evening to have dinner at one of Jerusalem’s most up and coming restaurants. More food?
We meet up in reception and get into 2 taxis’ and head towards Chakra restaurant. JD and Steve get lost, and we meet Naama and wait. Finally, they arrive, and we head into the restaurant. It’s a lively place, an open kitchen, and has a relaxed, happy feel to it.
The menu is ready for us, and we are told not to eat too much bread, as we have lots to munch through. Our waiter, who delivers warm bread, tells us not to eat too much, a common theme is emerging here. We start with a deep-fried cauliflower dish with a sharp lemon dressing. Next, a roasted wood-fired aubergine dish really is not to my liking, and the smoke flavour is so strong. Creamy white Taramasalata is very good, however, as is the chopped liver.
Carpaccio of beef with rocket, with a good dressing, is fine. We drink the Castel 2010 white wine, and it’s fine, if not rather sharp. Tuna sashimi with salt and onion seeds, salad of beetroot, cabbage and cheese are both good. Mains are not the norm. Fried calamari light and fluffy with a big aioli, fish kebabs with tomato sauce are very nice plus prawns, mussels in a hot sauce are spectacular.
More mainstream is the next few dishes. An okay porcini risotto, beef kebabs with a spicy sauce, and grilled sliced sirloin with mustard and garlic cloves are all fine.
Desserts keep coming; vanilla ice cream with raw tahini, pine nuts and halva. My heart really is straining now. Chocolate mousse, not the best, tastes of Kake Brand, the cheap cake topping my mum used to cook with when I was a kid. However, the Pannacotta, cheesecake (slightly overcooked), and a crème Brulee could have been better.
Now I’m really stuffed, and this time waddle, not walk back to the hotel. I ate that much. I can’t even bend over to undo my shoelaces; I’m that full. Finally, I fall onto the bed and manage to get my clothes off, plus shoes and socks. I sleep really badly, trying to get into a comfortable position. My distended stomach, not having any of it, almost saying to me, right, your turn for abusing me!
In the morning, I feel marginally better but still struggle to get up and down for breakfast. The lads feel the same; still, it was a beautiful day. So we set off with all the kit and Chaim to have a quick look at one of Israel’s best wine producers, Castel, on the way to the airport.
It’s a small winery run by a man called Eli Ben-Zaken. He is funny and gives us a guided tour. Unfortunately, as it’s winter, we are only taken to see the wine ready to bottle in February.
We are taken below to look at the impeccably kept cellar, all the barrels in a perfect line. It’s an impressive sight, and we taste all the reds and a rather nice rose; the whites are just about okay. Unfortunately, the heat here in the summer is so intense it does not make for good white wine, but it’s pleasant enough. Our fixer Chaim is a wine expert and agrees.
The 4 kinds of cheese we eat with the wine are outstandingly good and in perfect condition. Sadly I have lost all the notes on the supplier. I think I remember Eli and Chaim both saying she was a local producer.
Next was lunch in a local restaurant, Caravan Inn that included lovely big chicken and lamb kebabs, salads, and falafel before carrying onto the airport.
We say our goodbyes to our driver and Chaim and settle down to the absurdly long check-in. I have to say it’s the longest I have ever been through. Some 4 hours later, we finally get on the plane, even then being ushered through with the help of the El Al staff.
Our whistle-stop tour of Israel was finally over, and it seems like we had only just arrived. I will go back in the near future and take my wife. She is desperate to go but will make sure I starve myself for a week or so before I do.
The people, food and experience have been wonderful, and I have really enjoyed it, and I urge you all to go. I do want to thank everybody who helped us get this together. I know it’s not easy to organise, which makes it all the more special, thank you.
Thanks to the following people who made this trip possible:-
- Zoe Bermant and all the staff at El Al Israel Airlines Ltd.
- Chaim Helfgott & Naama Oryan-Kaplan Israel Tourism
- Janna Gur www.janagur.com
- Safari’s courtesy of Cnaan Tours,
- Chef Tiyul Acher & Manager: Mr Dovi Roll – www.tiyulacher.com
- Rama’s Kitchen Four Seasons Tomer Niv
- Eli-Gilbert Ben-Zaken Domaine du Castel – www.castel.co.il