A Testament to Taste: Now as in Biblical Days, Foraging a Feast in Israel

By Holly Hubbard Preston | May 01, 2015
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Judaea Hills of Israel
Since biblical times the region has been known for its hearty, herbacious terroir.

The Judean Hills of Israel in late winter are alive with colors. Brilliant greens, pinks and purples dapple the undulating landscape before me. Overhead, large white clouds move like flotsam across the azure sky.

Named after the ancient tribe of Judah that once roamed here, these semi-arid hills sit atop a limestone plateau about 2,500 feet above sea level. Since biblical times the region has been known for its hearty, herbacious terroir. There is ancient terracing here as old as the Bible.

According to our guide, Shmuel Browns, my traveling companion and I are seeing the hills in their climatological sweet spot. In a month or so the green hillsides will give way to the parchment hues one might expect in this part of the world. For now, the rugged topography of the Judean Hills is soft and lush and full of vegetation, much of which I will learn is edible.

As we walk along, I ask Shmuel to help me locate a mallow plant. I’d read about the wild edible in a book called O Jerusalem! that chronicled the struggle for Jerusalem following the partition of Palestine in 1948. The book’s authors, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, recounted how Jewish Jerusalemites subsisted off mallow during an Arab blockade of the city.

“You are looking for hubeza,” he says, pointing at a tall, broad-leafed plant that looks a like a geranium on steroids. I tear off a leaf and take a bite. It tastes a little like spinach but milder. (Back home I will learn that mallow grows wild along Sacramento’s Highway 50. Local blogster and forager Hank Shaw uses mallow to make dolma.)

Sage from Judean Hills of Israel
Mallow from Judean Hills of Israel
Cyclamen from Judean Hills of Israel
Carob from Judean Hills of Israel
Photo 1: Sage from the Judean Hills of Israel
Photo 2: Mallow grows wild along Sacramento’s Highway 50 as well.
Photo 3: Chef Basson is careful to not over forage.
Photo 4: I chewed on a carob pod as he made the reservation for the restaurant.

Everywhere I reach there is something to munch. Carob. Sumac. Verbena. Sage. Cyclamen. Before this morning, I’d never foraged for anything save for the miner’s lettuce I ate on trail rides as a kid. There is something freeing about foraging. It’s a little like channeling Moses.

I am cradling a small salad in my hand when Shmuel offers a stem of hyssop to sniff. If the Old Testament had a smell, this woody, sweet aroma would be it. Hyssop, an aromatic and medicinal herb, comes up repeatedly in both the Christian and Hebrew Bibles as a symbol of purification.

“If you like eating this way,” says Shmuel, “there’s a restaurant in West Jerusalem you should try. It serves hubeza the way it was eaten during the siege.”

I chew on a carob pod as he makes the reservation. The restaurant is called the Eucalyptus. A Google search back in our hotel room reveals that its owner/chef Moshe Basson is not only a big-time forager but also a venerated biblical food historian.

We find his restaurant at the base of some steps opposite the walls of Old Jerusalem, on the side closest to the Jaffa Gate. The menu is extensive if not slightly overwhelming.

Verbena from Judean Hills of Israel
Verbena from the Judean Hills of Israel

We entrust our waitress to select a tasting menu heavy in edibles. Her solution is a multi-course meal of biblical proportions (I lost track after eight).

There are homemade breads served with an assortment of dips that include a hyssop pesto, tahini laced with sumac, and a spicy mango aioli. A trio of soups is served in tiny espresso glasses, including a fragrant red lentil stew inspired by the Book of Genesis (Esau, the brother of Jacob, gives up his birthright for a bowl of his brother’s stew, thus paving the way for the younger brother to become Israel’s first patriarch).

A fire-roasted eggplant drizzled with raw tahini and aged pomegranate syrup comes next, followed by the much-anticipated hubeza, or mallow, salad. Sautéed with onions and herbs, the hubeza is tender and full of flavor. There are fish falafel made with coriander leaves and chickpeas served in a piquant tomato sauce and figs stuffed with chicken in a sweet and sour tamarind glaze.

We are sampling a duck confit pastilla made with grape preserves and pumpkin cream when the chef, with his white jacket and long ponytail, arrives at our table clutching a basketful of foraged greens.

Sumac from Judean Hills of Israel
Hyssop from Judean Hills of Israel
Photo 1: Bread was served with a tahini laced with sumac.
Photo 2: Hyssop has a woody, sweet aroma.

Laying the greens on the table, Chef Basson seats himself and tells us a little about each one. He confirms they were foraged in the Judean Hills but quickly notes the care he and his staff take in not over foraging. Even wild edibles, he says, can be over consumed.

Basson is part of a nonprofit, nonpolitical group of Muslim, Christian and Jewish chefs who calls themselves Chefs for Peace.

An Iraqi Jew, Basson immigrated to Israel in the early 1950s with his parents. In the Arab village where he grew up, foraged ingredients were a common component of the daily cooking experience. Through his career Basson has tried to honor the land and the inhabitants it supports. “We must share what is given us,” says Basson.

Looking at the fresh greens, I think of the sameness of humanity. All people can be nourished by this food: near and far, in old days and new.

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