Israeli cuisine is hot these days. Over the past few years, the country’s status as a foodie destination has risen precipitously, thanks in no small part to Israeli-born British chef Yotam Ottolenghi and his best-selling cookbook “Jerusalem,” which has elevated the profile of Middle Eastern Jewish food. Last year, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism reported a record 3.5 million visitors, up .5 percent from 2012. No one can say for sure how many of those tourists visit the land of milk and honey for, well, its milk and honey, but Jewish organizations in the U.S. are now betting on the strength of those numbers.
This year, tour operator Israel Experts is offering a special “culinary” Birthright trip, and the Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella organization representing 153 local federations and 300 independent communities, is offering a springtime “Flavors of Israel” foodie mission to the Jewish homeland.
“We’re always trying to find new ways to engage communities,” said Aaron Herman, director of missions and development at JFNA. “Food is one of those things that can bond people of different backgrounds, and enhance their current community base. And Israel has so much to offer.”
The nine-day trip begins on April 29 and will make stops at such varied food and drink destinations as a kibbutz chocolate factory; a winery in the Golan Heights; an olive oil orchard; a Safed cheese factory; and a spice farm. And though the trip will certainly call upon many food experts to explain their wares, attendees will also participate in a range of interactive events, such as a “Chopped”-style cooking competition and a beer-drinking contest: talk about hard work.
“The idea of a mission is that participants become ambassadors, people who, when they return home, think about their trip and talk about their trip,” Herman explained. “On a special trip like a food trip, there’s that opportunity to really forge a deeper connection to the land and the people of Israel. Those are the kinds of experiences that create ambassadors,” he said.
Herman said he has noticed a definite increase in Israel’s food profile.
“People are discovering that this is not just a hummus country,” he said. “There’s this rich and high-end type of food experience that you can have if you know where to look.”
“Flavors of Israel” attendees will have ample opportunity to sample high-end fare, dining at establishments such as the Carlton Tel Aviv’s Catit restaurant and a spa resort in Rosh Pina. But they’ll also get to taste some of the home-style food for which Israel is so well known, lunching with a Yemenite home cook and munching on falafel in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Along with an increased knowledge of Israel’s food has come an increased demand for its wines, Herman said.
“It’s not like it was 20 years ago, when no one paid any attention to Israeli wines,” he said. “Now it’s, ‘I want to have Israeli wines — that stuff’s unique.’”
The JFNA trip will allow its participants many sips of the fruit of the vine, with four wine-tasting events scheduled.
Herman said he hoped that through all the noshing and nipping, foodies will find a sense of belonging in the place that produces all the wonderful food and drink featured on the program.
“When you’re doing what you love, you feel something a little bit deeper,” he said. “We want people on the trip to think, ‘I’m really getting into the land of Israel.’”
For more information on JFNA’s “Flavors of Israel” trip and to view a sample itinerary, visit jewishfederations.org. Cost (not including airfare) is $3,980 for double room, $5,080 for a single.