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.
With all that in mind, I was not sure what to expect when we decided to go to Israel. The chef in me was trying to think about a cuisine. What was it? Where did it originate from? And was it any good? Secondly, I’m ashamed to admit to, that I really did not have that much knowledge about Israeli cooking at all.
On another tack altogether, you only ever seem to hear are the political problems in the media. Something in this film I did not really want to dwell on too much.
Quite by chance whilst thumbing through one of the weekend supplements, I came across a review of a programme called Jerusalem On A Plate. This was to be presented by renowned chef, restaurateur and Guardian columnist Yotam Ottolenghi. Over the past year or two I have become an admirer of his writing and approach to the way he not only cooks but combines flavours and textures. Having been brought up in Jerusalem and lived there, I thought it would be a good point to start. I took my youngest daughter to his restaurant Nopi in London to check him out.
The food was a refreshing change from the current obsession with micro-managed, de constructed, spume covered bitsy food, set on a tear drop slick of something or other. It was good, simple tasty dishes, carefully presented and straight to the point. Having said that, on reflection it was quite complex and clever. I especially liked his approach and slant on salads and slightly off piste meats such as quail (something I will come back to later) if I had a minor criticism, I thought it majored on looks and impact rather than solid cooking technique. I was expecting the food to smack me between the eyes with flavour and kick. However my daughter lapped it up. I think he approaches food from a non professional angle, meaning not from a classic background. It comes over in some of his combinations and food partnerships.
Ottolenghi had also interviewed on the BBC 5 Live Richard Bacon show to plug his programme on BBC 3. I have been on the show for a year or so helping the public and Richard himself on Monday’s ‘Help’ section of the show to do with food queries.
I had tuned in quite by chance, that day to hear him talk passionately about his upbringing and love for his native city and country. The conversation was mainly cantered around hummus and its origins, ways of cooking and history. Bacon called it ‘hummus wars’ alluding to the fact that most countries in the Middle East in some way lay claim to inventing this classic.
Its also something that I would encounter time and time again throughout my trip. One thing is for is for sure, Israeli’s are very, very passionate about this humble chickpea puree. The other food that was discussed was Falafel, again something I was to research and cook in my film. The main point Ottolenghi made was that good Falafel has to be cooked and eaten within 90 seconds for it to be any good. Mmmmm that’s a tall order, considering that the only Falafel I have tasted here in the UK are the ones pumped out by supermarkets or petrol stations. These mostly are dry, tasteless, pucks of a cross between compressed rubber and sawdust. So when I left I was not too sure about how I would approach the dish. I had attempted to make some before I left but never got around to it, returning to a stinking bowl of soaked peas in my fridge.
I arrived at Heathrow to meet the crew like normal. The good point was that it was a 10am start, so could have a lay in. On this trip JD, director, Steve, soundman, Geraint, cameraman and runner/fixer/money man Sam.
We were met by the charming Zoe Bermant and her team from El Al Airlines and helped though the long process of checking in. Longer than normal for the many security reasons, plus lots of kit. We then met in the lounge and had a few pictures to set up the trip. El Al had arranged some food, plus getting on the plane early so that we could film our opening piece to camera, setting up the whole film. They were brilliant, nothing was a problem, even having special food ready for me to look at and chat about on camera. Chef Segev El Al’s Executive Chef Had arranged personally the food apparently. We also drank an award winning Gewürztraminer wine.
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 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. Throughout the flight I thumbed through a very informative book written by Janna Gur, called The Book Of New Israeli Food. A lady I was to meet and tour Tel Aviv markets and humours 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 period of the flight all of them came back quietly with names of restaurants, bars and areas to visit. These were scribbled on napkins and scraps of paper. 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 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 its become a running joke, me up front the boys in the back. I remind the guys its 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 has been fantastic. A bit tired now I retire, the lads have a beer.