Exploring Israel's vibrant tapestry

A visit to Israel is a true cultural awakening.  I recently travelled 1,500 kilometres across this multifarious territory visiting its ancient sites, deserts, seas and oases.  It’s hard not to be overawed by the vast architectural and archaeological heritage left by the civilisations that have lived here; from the Egyptians and Babylonians to the Romans, Ottomans and Imperial British.  But, as is often the case for wine-loving travellers, my attention was caught as much by Israel’s local food and drink as by its extraordinary scenery. 

Inside the ancient city walls of Jerusalem, religions and sub-cultures intersect at street-corners and so too do the scents of neighbourhood cooking.  At Mahane Yehuda market, the air is filled with intoxicating aromas.  This is where Jerusalemites go to buy fresh vegetables, fish and meat, candied fruits, nuts, cheese, olive oil, bread and sweet pastries. It is an assault on the senses: the sound of the traders' calls, the comforting waft of freshly baked falafel, and the smooth texture of glossy, plump aubergines alongside neat piles of fragrant herbs and spices.

At nearby restaurant, Macheynuda, Jerusalem chefs Assaf Granit, Yossy Elad and Uri Navon display their culinary creativity at the open kitchen.  This is one of the most popular restaurants in the entire country and the well-known trio serve succulent, modern Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes with ingredients sourced from the market.  British travellers will perhaps be more familiar with their recent London out-posts, The Palomar and The Barbary.

To accompany the dazzling array of dishes, there is a burgeoning Israeli wine list.  Until recently, Israeli wine was largely only exported to satisfy the kosher market.  But with a growing interest in Israeli cuisine, that too is beginning to change. 

Winemaking has existed in Israel since Biblical times due to its location on the historic trading route between Mesopotamia and Egypt which brought winemaking practices to the area. Wine played a significant role in the religion of the early Israelites and, in Roman times, wine from Israel was exported to Rome, with the most sought-after wines being vintage-dated with the name of the winemaker inscribed on its amphora.

Today, there are about 300 wineries in Israel and much of the wine production comes from international (French) varieties.  However, efforts are being made to focus on Israel’s wine heritage with varieties such as Marawi, Jandali and Argaman (a crossing of Souzão and Carignan).  In the hands of conscientious winemakers, these unusual, indigenous varieties are experiencing a revival.

Argaman in particular has found a home in the Judaen Hills, not far from Jerusalem.  The grapes here benefit from a high altitude (800-1000 metres), wide diurnal range and cool nights, which slow down ripening, producing wines with freshness and balance.  Consultant oenologist Alberto Antonini was struck by the quality of the limestone-chalk soils in the Judean Hills which he believes give energy and vitality to the wines.  His sympathetic approach to soils, biodiversity and farming practices in the area is now helping to produce outstanding quality wines at the Segal winery nearby. 

Segal’s ‘Levant’ Argaman has fantastic easy-drinking appeal, with vibrant and juicy dark cherry flavours accompanied by subtle herbal inflections and a pleasing touch of oak.  Its smooth tannins and bright acidity make it an ideal partner to the complex flavours found in Middle Eastern cooking. 

In the smoky heat of Mahane Yehuda market, a lightly chilled bottle of Argaman serves as a tasty accompaniment to the intricate mosaic of people bustling about their business.  Here, in the heart of Jerusalem, Israel’s vibrant tapestry of cuisines and cultures, wine and ingredients, religions and languages reach their zenith.  And for a moment, it seems that thousands of years of intense political and religious wrangling is quelled, and hungry citizens are unified in this market, a place where so many delicious opportunities co-exist.