The woman presses her thick, freckled fingers into the soft dough, pulling it into her palms before rolling it back down into the bowl. Her moves are precise yet languid, her breathing slow. She could be meditating. Then again, perhaps this is meditation for her.
I, meanwhile, am a little discombobulated. Here in Jerusalem I'd anticipated witnessing reverence in the city's synagogues, churches and mosques, but in its kitchens? Not so much. Yet as I am about to find out, Jerusalem, and the surrounding Judean hills region, is a place for devotion of the culinary kind, too, and home to some of the world's most passionate food producers and creators.
The reverent baker before me is Idit Kostizsky Tishel, a jolly redhead I put in her early 40s. My Kiwi travel companion and I are taking a cooking class at her home in Kfar Bilu, a moshav, or community, organised around farming, 40 minutes from Jerusalem. Here, Kostizsky Tishel is living out her bucolic dream, her yard backing onto a field filled with citrus and olive trees, her home a treasure trove of handmade furniture, art and pottery, her garden abundant with herbs and vegetables.
As we sip fresh lemongrass and sage tea at her kitchen table, she teaches us how to bake her famous sourdough, made using three types of flour. Creating the dough is a lot harder than it looks and we make a sticky mess of it. But getting our hands dirty makes us appreciate Kostizsky Tishel's creations, pulled fresh from the oven, all the more. Soft, warm loaves flecked with cacao, coffee and chili, served with spicy shakshuka eggs, roast vegetables topped with crispy sage, and zesty homemade hummus, tahini and labneh.
"Beteavon – that's bon appetit in Hebrew!", says Kostizsky Tishel and we repeat the words clumsily, mouths already half-stuffed with food.
When Europeans first started immigrating to Israel a century ago, they came loaded with socialist ideology, but not much capital. Their solution was to create collective agricultural communities called kibbutz, where they could grow their own food and live based on socialist philosophies of sharing and egalitarianism. While in recent decades the kibbutz movement has faced declining numbers and privatisation, the principles behind them remain ingrained in the collective consciousness of Israelis, and they have become a model for the many small farms and agricultural settlements, such as the moshav in which Kostizsky Tishel lives, that pepper Israel's countryside.
At our next stop, Shvil Izim goat farm, set in another moshav named Tal Shahar at the foot of the Judean hills, we see the philosophy in action. Its owners, Alon and Ruth, started farming goats back in 2004 with no ambition to make a huge profit. Rather, they wanted to improve their family's lifestyle, create a product they were proud of and wanted to eat themselves, and give their cherished goats a good life. There are just 60 goats on the property, only half of which are used for milking. As we wander around the humble farm we meet their plump, well-loved herd, listen to stories about the goats with the biggest personalities, then head into the rustic cafe where we sample a selection of tasty brie, camembert, pecorino and manchego styles of cheese.The products aren't sold anywhere but here, in this small cafe, but are superior to most goat cheeses I've purchased from any of the fancy grocers back home.
Back on the road, we head to Srigim Brewery, driving through low hills filled with carob, pomegranate, peach and cotton farms, their fences draped with bougainvillea. Beer is relatively new to the Holy Land, but in recent years the scene has started to boom, with craft breweries opening across the country. Ohad Ayalon and Ofer Ronen are among those heading this movement. They connected at a beer festival seven years ago and decided to throw in their tech jobs to take their garage brewing to the next level. In the years since, Srigim Brewery has won awards in Israel and abroad.
"We aim to create the freshest beers possible, so we don't use filtration or pasteurisation," says Ayalon as he walks us through the brewery. "We also stick to small batches, to make sure our quality is the best it can be." Their tasty product speaks for itself, especially their Naughty Wheat beer, with the added zest of coriander seeds and citrus peel, and the more malty, but still light, Irish Red Ale with added honey. This is beer to be sipped, not chugged – Ronen serves it to us in wine glasses, "so you can stir, smell, enjoy the flavour and aromas". We're tempted to plonk ourselves down on their balcony, beer in hand, and not move for the rest of the afternoon. Alas, we're expected back in Jerusalem for dinner. And, after seeing all this heartfelt produce, we're now itching to see what can be created with it.
Just outside Jerusalem's old city walls we find Eucalyptus, a restaurant focused on local, regional produce. Its kitchen is led by internationally renowned chef Moshe Basson, an Iraqi immigrant who's said to have started the slow food movement in Israel. The restaurant is set in a beautiful sandstone building, its exterior wall covered in flower boxes and pots overflowing with herbs.
As soon as we've sat down in the courtyard, the dishes start piling onto the table. First, a trio of Jerusalem artichoke, lentil and sweet tomato soups, and a Syrian-style beef tartare with mint and lemon zest, via charred eggplant served with tahini and pomegranate. It's almost as good as the fish falafel, with its spicy Moroccan sauce and chickpeas, that follows.
After this, I start to lose track. Somewhere in there are duck spring rolls with tamarind sauce, figs stuffed with chicken, and slow-cooked lamb neck with root vegetables under pastry. We cannot stop ourselves from overeating in a very serious way; it's just too good.
"It's all about the local flavours and the herbs – I go foraging for them in the mountains with my grandchildren," says Basson, joining us at our table. It's often said that Israel lacks a national cuisine, that its menus are a melting pot of foods from the immigrants who arrived 100 years ago bringing recipes from the Mediterranean, North Africa and other Middle Eastern countries. But what I've understood today, and what's becoming increasingly clear as I talk to Basson, is that what makes Israeli food unique is its produce, grown locally, and used with great consideration and care.
Soon, Basson ushers us around a communal table for our meal's grand finale. An enormous pot is carried from the kitchen, then flipped upside down onto a platter. We're asked to wave our hands around the pot seven times and give it a blessing, before Basson pulls it off slowly, dramatically, the scented steam rising to reveal a rich Palestinian chicken, vegetable and saffron rice dish called maklouba.This is more than just a meal, this is a ceremony. And a perfectly fitting finale to a day spent worshipping at the altar of food.
Nina Karnikowski travelled courtesy of the Embassy of Israel and Cathay Pacific Airways.
Cathay Pacific Airways flies to Tel Aviv via Hong Kong from every capital city for about $2300 return. See cathaypacific.com
Mamilla Hotel, a five-minute walk from Jerusalem's Old City, and part of the Leading Hotels of the World group, has 162 beautifully designed rooms and 32 suites, a choice of restaurants, a spa and gym offering yoga and pilates classes, and a rooftop bar with one of the best views in town. From about $430 a night. See mamillahotel.com
To book a baking class with Idit Kostizsky Tishel, see facebook.com/kitchensqueenIditKostizkytishel/
FIVE OF JERUSALEM'S MOST IMPRESSIVE NON-FOODIE SIGHTS
The Western Wall is the holiest of Jewish sites and all that remains of the holy Second Temple of Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Visit at sunrise to beat the crowds.
Via Dolorosa, believed to be the route Jesus walked to his crucifixion, is filled with Christian pilgrims day and night, many of them singing and carrying crosses on their shoulders.
CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE
This church, reputedly built on the site of the crucifixion, welcomes a constant flow of pilgrims from 4am each day. An incense-perfumed, meditative space to visit, even for the non-believer.
YAD VASHEM HOLOCAUST MUSEUM
Israel's largest Holocaust memorial, set on the slopes of the Mount of Remembrance on the edge of Jerusalem, is a powerful, sobering experience and a design masterpiece.
You'll find two of Islam's most sacred buildings, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, at this elevated Cyprus-planted plaza in the southeastern corner of the Old City.