Make it. Eat it. Love it.
Living in Be’er Sheva, I have truly come to love the desert. Yes, in the summer it may feel like you live on the sun and every surface of your home may be covered in a thin layer of sand at all times, I still despite this, have fallen in love with the beauty and mystery of the desert, the Negev Desert.
The history alone here is something to be amazed by and the landscape can make anyone breathless. Taking a deeper look into this wonderful rocky land can lead to hidden treasures that any foodie like myself would be excited about.
I was lucky enough to join Ben Brewer, founder of Israel Food Tours on culinary tour of the Negev Desert of Southern Israel. Piled into a car with my friend Katherine, who is writing an article about food tours in Israel, a girl Liz, who helps Ben with the Tel Aviv culinary tours and her husband, we set out early one morning from Be’er Sheva to discover local culinary delights that I never would think to exist smack in the middle of Israels largest desert.
We visited 2 wineries on our tour. The first stop was the Rota vineyard where we were greeted by the owner, Erez. A wonderful man who enthusiastically showed us around. He took us up a hill where he told us he was more then just a farmer but an artist as well. He showed us sculptures that he had made and we had a wonderful view of the vineyard below. Erez took us through the vineyard teaching us about how he farms and the different grapes he grows.
Rota winery produces Cabernet, Merlot and Shiraz. They also grow white grapes, but have yet to sell any white wines. We tasted a selection of wines picked out by Erez as we sat watching a sand storm roll in.
The second winery we visited later in the day was Carmei Avdat Vineyard. The vineyard was built on the location of an ancient Nabatean vineyard from over 2,000 years ago. Their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes grown on the farm are harvested by hand, and personal attention is devoted to each and every detail during the wine making process. The wines of Carmei Avdat have a unique desert aroma, making them first choice in vintage varieties. We tasted a large selection of wines that were ‘on tap’ in the tasting room. Having the wine on a pressurized system helps keep it fresh. My favorite was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon which I, without hesitation, bought to bring back home with me.
Aside from the wineries we toured 2 wonderful goat cheese farms. The first was Naot Goat Cheese Farm. We walked into a small store where pictures of goats, visitors, staff and new born goats hung from the wall. We were given yogurt to try made from goats milk. They specialize in Hagar cheese which we tasted in a variety of flavors including, natural with chives, with onion and sumac (my favorite), with sesame and zaatar, with dried tomatoes and garlic, and black cumin. We were given tastes of many Nitzan cheeses, which are hard cheeses aged for 3 months. We also nibbled on Noam which is a Camembert like mold cheese that was offered in natural flavor of ash or nuts. This was my highlight of the tasting.
The ash Camembert like cheese was to die for. As soon as you cut into it, the cheese seemed to melt. I couldn’t help but buy some for home. I am a big fan of goat cheese and getting to taste the beautiful selection they had was intoxicating. We walked around the farm and stopped to look at their goats. We spent a pretty long time taking photos of them, you would have thought we never saw a goat before.
The second goat cheese farm was Kornmehl Farm. We walked into their tiny cheese shop and sampled a few selections of their cheeses. From a light Camembert type cheese to a very strong and aged goat cheese. The latter was probably the funkiest thing I have ever tasted, I learned that I do not actually like every cheese. The farm is situated among breathtaking views of the desert hills and faces remnants of terraces belonging to an ancient farm from the Middle Bronze period. We watched as their goats were herded into the feeding area. They lined up in anticipation to climb the platform and feed, not knowing that they were being tricked into being milked as well. And, as if we didn’t get enough goats in the first farm, we stood fixated on them and their feeding.
We had lunch made up of cheese we bought at Naot Farm, breads and mezze in Avdat National Park, where the ancient Nabataean city sat high above us on a rocky desert hill. The remains here are one of the famed ancient Nabatean cities along the Incense Route, the road over which incense, perfumes and spices were brought from Arabia, through the Negev Desert and to Mediterranean ports.
We walked through the ruins and saw an old Byzantine wine press (pictured above) and drank wine in a cave of what was once a Roman wine cellar. Drinking wine in this old cellar was a pretty wild experience. One you don’t get to have very often.
On our drive through the desert we stopped to take in the worlds largest cacti farm. Orly Cactus Farm produces sabra, which is a very popular fruit here in Israel. Israelis like to compare themselves to the sabra fruit saying that they too are hard and prickly on the outside but soft and sweet on the inside. The farm was an incredibile site to see. A sea of green against a sandy dull desert backdrop. Truly beautiful.
Our evening was spent in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Givat Goral. We were greeted by Kamal, a Bedouin man, who gave us a tour of his home. He showed us his land where he grows olives, figs, apricots, plums and more. He showed us his irrigation system and freshly planted fava beans. Kamel showed us his a pigeon coop where he raises them to be eaten. Unfortunately we weren’t able to see his camels, who’s milk he says is ‘addicting’. We sat on large pillows on the floor outside his home in a makeshift large Bedouin tent. 2 of his sons served us tea. If you have never had Bedouin tea, it is pretty much all sugar and could give even the strongest sweet tooth a run for its money. Kamel lit a fire and we sat around talking while his wife cooked us a traditional Bedouin meal.
Kamel’s wife brought us mansaf, a large platter of rice and potatoes with chicken on top. It was served with flat bread that was to be used in place of utensils. Bedouin meals are served as large portions that is meant to be shared. We ate until we could hardly stand it. The food was amazing. Kamel told us we must recline after eating to help the food digest. I am not sure if it helped digest the food but it sure did feel good to lay down after such a big meal. With full tummies we bid farewell to Kamel and his children and headed back through the desert to Be’er Sheva.
The day was wonderful. It was so special to be able to discover these hidden gems that are right in my backyard. The people and farms we visited made me appreciate my new home and fall more in love with this desert land. A culinary tour is the perfect way to experience a new place and I would suggest doing it whenever the opportunity presents itself during your travels. If ever in Israel give Ben a call for day that will be unforgettable.
To see more photos go to my facebook page and ‘like’ me!