Eyal Shani on wet dreams, tomatoes, and the Mediterranean kitchen.
A gourmand’s refuge, Rutenberg restaurant brings new meaning to the concept “farm-to-table”.
Turning East from the Jezreel Valley, the reddish Terra Rossa soil and cultivated green landscapes quickly changed to gold; fields of dried bush shined bright under the sun. We were heading down route 90 — a highway from Metula, near Lebanon, in the north, all the way down to Eilat in the southern tip of the country, which runs right beside the Jordanian border the whole way. A mere 80 km from the sea front to where we were in the northern Jordanian Rift, summer felt different; the salty humid Mediterranean air became hot and heavy, carrying a desert like flair, and dust danced off the marlstone soil.
We turned off the highway and onto a dirt road leading to the restaurant. To our right was a massive concrete structure standing silently; wild vegetation climbed in and out of its wide windows and firearm shots scarred its every wall. The abandoned fort was built by the British during the mandate and served as a police headquarters in the 1930’s revolts. And about 200 meters from us you could see the border; a wire fence marking where Israel’s eastern border ends and Jordanian soil begins.
Until the legendary peace treaty signed in 1994 — one of Izhak Rabin’s well known legacies — this place, Old Kibbutz Gesher, knew fierce battles. Both Jordanian troops and Iraqi invaders attacked here more than once, following which the Kibbutz moved to its current safer location about 7 minutes away, a place a bit further from the border, and a bit higher up on the hill. Where we were now became the old Gesher, a landscape with little more than what was around us: a few out of sight structures, the old abandoned headquarters, and right ahead of us, in the midst of the ivory plateau a few meters in front of the fence was the small, beautifully preserved, 1919 quarantine structure: Rutenberg Restaurant.
Inside it was a small restaurant that could seat about 30 people and each table had a window next to it, looking over the old bridge that gave the settlement its name. Light generously poured in from its green wooden windows and on each frame rested some of the best cookbooks and guides from both Israel and the world: Noma’s guide to fermentation; Faviken; Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail; Things to eat here, by Israeli food historian Dr. Uri Mayer-Chissick, and many more, all bearing their share of tears and drippings. Outside the window I could see the Jordan river, and the ancient arched stone bridge – Gesher in Hebrew – that gave the kibbutz its name. Unlike panoramas that sometimes feel they could be many places, the view was singular.
“Here are a few samples of the new tasting menu I was telling you about” — owner and wine expert, Hila Sa’ar began filling the table with small plates of her husband’s doing — thin slices of cured meat made in house with fermented egg yolk shavings and hard cheese; beetroot, folded like ravioli, filled with a delicate semi salted white Arabic cheese called Jibna; a piece of lamb liver and half a fig both seared in olive oil and served together; soft aged goat cheese with a piece of honeycomb and fresh Syrian oregano. The table was bursting with color.
Rutenberg Restaurant opened in 2012. Once declared for preservation by the national council for the conservation of heritage sites, the old quarantine hut that used to house animals at the border crossing, was destined to its new life. Back then co-owner and chef Izhar Saar was a line cook on a payroll, Hila was still at her previous job as a quality wine buyer for a big importer, and Rutenberg was serving chicken in cream sauce and lasagna. “A very good lasagna” Izhar laughs “but nevertheless, lasagna. Here!”
It wasn’t until two years in as partner, when one of the leading food PR experts in the country came to visit, that the realization came. “I grew up here, I knew the local wildlife, I worked on farms and cultivated almost every vegetable there is. Why the hell was I using canned pineapple and imported cheese? Suddenly I freaked”.
New Local Cuisine
“Izhar and I first met on a peace delegation to Jordan,” says Dr. Uri Mayer-Chissick, whose books about wild foraging, local ingredients, and nutritional history, grace Rutenberg’s windowsill. “But I was so sick on that trip I barely made it out of bed in the mornings, so we didn’t really make much conversation. After a few days we were back in Israel and we each went our own way”. Little did he know that Hila and Izhar would be knocking on his door only a couple of months later. “They said they wanted to do something different, and asked for my help”. Over the next few months Dr. Chissick – today, their dear friend Uri – encouraged them to look for local producers and taught Hila how to forage. He opened his library to them, and threw ancient recipes their way, once even a made up recipe that kept Izhar challenged and the doctor amused.
A morning forage walk in the restaurant vicinity slowly became routine. Hila started to notice the riches around her: prickly lettuce, wild mustard, carrots and garlic in winter, spinach and beetroots later in the season, then replaced by mallow, goosefoot, and a wild like arugula in early spring.
“Every day Hila comes into the kitchen with a basket full of plants she has gathered and Izhar just has to learn how to deal with them. He experiments, explores and finds a way to use whatever she brings in” Dr. Chissick adds. Nowadays there are even some plants they have learnt to use entirely making use of every piece from leaf, flower, fruit and stem, depending on their time and the season. “Finding the plants was the easier task”, Izhar admits; finding the producers that make up Rutenberg’s network today – that was the ambitious part.
On our way to Kfar Kanna, about 30 minutes north, Hila’s hair dances in the wind as she goes over her short mental shopping list; fresh flour, freekeh (a smoked wheat), and some sumac. Maybe some cinnamon bark shavings as well. “Finding local flour was probably one of the biggest challenges” she confided in me, “but then we found Tawfik”. Tawfik Hamaisi’s mill sources some of the very little locally grown organic wheat found in Israel. Hila read about Tawfik in an article a few years ago and had to drive up and down the entire village several times before she found the small shop hidden down the driveway.
Hila and Izhar both grew up in a kibbutz: An Israeli type of village founded by a collective of people, based upon socialist ideas that set a very communal lifestyle: The labor is equally divided, land and money are mutually owned, and children are raised together. This unique form of settlement was crucial to Israel’s establishment and agricultural industry. And people that grew up in a kibbutz have an integral sense of what we call in Hebrew ‘arvut hadadit’, a mutual accountability between one person to another. “We grew up with the idea that it’s always better for me to make a couple bucks less rather than have significantly more than my neighbor”.
As we entered Tawfik’s shop the smiling, well dressed man, was vigorously moving 20 kg flour bags from here to there and offering us coffee. “He is 82!” she whispers to me.
He’s had his shop for almost 30 years and always worked small scale. Growers and gatherers from the surrounding villages bring him bundles of Syrian oregano and sumac flowers and once Tawfik has three or four bundles to make a batch, it goes into the mill. He sells his products to private buyers and several eateries in the area, of those Rutenberg is the only one that isn’t a fast eating, home cooking diner style place. They are also the only Jewish place he works with. “Only Rutenberg” he says, and pinches Hila’s cheeks with a smile.
Tawfik knows Rutenberg well. Not only has he eaten there several times but he was also one of the workers that laid the telephone lines over the bridge for the security ministry back in 1978. “I’m much better at making freekeh” he laughs. And though I never saw him lay a telephone line, his freekeh is one of the best I have had. Under Izhar’s hand it received a touch of green leaves, goat yogurt, a salted cherry tapenade and a drizzle of olive oil on top. There are no hard husks, small dirt or overwhelming smoky flavors in the grain. It was perfect.
“My friend got married and he bought my freekeh for the dinner party,” Tawfik starts to share his story with me. “All the women finished their food. My friend was so delighted. Then his neighbor said he also wanted to have the women eat as they did at his wedding, So for his daughter’s wedding he also bought freekeh. But the women barely finished it. Why didn’t they finish the freekeh, the neighbor asked my friend. I will tell you why!” he looks at me, “because there is freekeh, and there is freekeh!” he said finally with a serious tone, only to burst into laughter and have his smile reappear bigger than before.
From Tawfik, we drove up to Yochai Schnieder’s herd. The open plains of the southern Golan heights seemed infinite. His cows were peacefully grazing in the hot and dry fields. As we drove by he watched them with a sharp eye. “You see that one walking around slowly in the back over there? She’s one of our oldest cows. She’s 17” said the second-generation cowboy. Yochai is also one of the best fair trade pasture meat growers in the country. He is the main provider for Hai Bari – an independent sustainable meat certification – and the founder of a co-op for good growers in the Golan. Izhar found him through an old friend and Yochai quickly became not only their supplier, but their go-to source for the many questions that arose during the process.
Learning how to use meat differently is a dramatic change for a restaurant. Suddenly, instead of getting cuts by the number, you’re getting a quarter of a cow. This means a change in space, logistics, and service, but mostly it requires a lot of learning. “You cannot imagine how many parts of a cow a cook doesn’t know how to use” Izhar explained. Today he makes his own cold cuts, sausages, aged meats and pâté, and he uses as much as he can from all those odd bits that still scare off the best cooks. A salad of his own cured rump, grilled apricots and arugula was destined to make my day.
As we got back to the restaurant an evening breeze broke out and the sun turned softer. Hila set a table for us under the big olive tree outside by the restaurant terrace; She brought out some cheeses from Barkanit, a nearby cheese farm whose owners she has known for over 20 years and whose products they use in the restaurant. Izhar came out with a cheese wheel he got earlier that week and the cured meat salad. The cheese form was left somewhere a year ago in Barkanit’s cave and turned out to have this amazing nutty flavor and beautifully crusted mold. “That’s one of the rewards when you work closely with producers rather than suppliers” Izhar goes on, after telling me the story of the forgotten cheese, “you suddenly get access to these weird wonderful things that happen sometimes – a forgotten cheese wheel, a small batch of some amazing vegetables that appeared naturally, a piece of meat they didn’t expect to age as beautifully as it did – things you could never have access to otherwise and that I think are gifts in one’s process of growth. I mean Israeli cuisine has so much already but it’s also a very young culture in the making!”
Nowadays, almost all of the ingredients at Rutenberg come from a 30 km radius surrounding the restaurant. No more lasagna and no more Parmesan. Food lovers from all over the country drive up here for a feeling of terroir: a day in nature, with Hebrew songs in the background and flavors from here. They have successfully created the community they wished for: Once a year they have a day where they invite all of the producers, friends and colleagues that have been a part of Rutenberg’s making to come spend a day eating, drinking and hanging out on the patio. So all of their producers have been to the restaurant more than once, and many of them know each other. “Of course we still have a very long process ahead of us” Hila says, reminding herself, as if she weren’t humble enough, “but I think we both feel there is a strong network of people walking with us, and that makes the way ahead way easier and much more exciting”.
Eyal Shani on wet dreams, tomatoes, and the Mediterranean kitchen.
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