How the Golan reached the gourmet heights

By Anna Harwood, November 8, 2012

The trend for so-called artisan food — locally sourced food and drink made by individual crafts people — is not particular to the UK. In Israel, business at the Shuk in Jerusalem and the farmer’s market at Tel Aviv’s port is booming. Further north, a new region has emerged as a favourite with foodies — the Golan Heights.

This area has been renowned for fertile soils and a perfect climate for agriculture since biblical times. Artisan food and drink producers thrived there for thousands of years until the Muslim conquest in 636CE, when high taxes drove them out.

Over the past 40 years, government incentives have enticed growers and producers back to the area. Cheese producers, chocolate-makers and brewers all now thrive there, making it a popular destination for foodie tourists.

Naomi Dagan’s parents made aliyah from London in 1949 to live a kibbutz life in Israel. “I trained as a nurse and worked in medicine for many years, but 10 years ago I decided that I wanted to return to agriculture,” says Dagan. “We began with just two goats. My husband and I hand-milked them and I made cheese in our kitchen. We eventually had 100 goats grazing on our hillside plot.” Needing more space, Naomi and her husband looked for a bigger plot.

“We heard an advertisement on the radio for the Golan Heights,” she explains. “Everything just fitted into place — beautiful views, a welcoming village and perfect grazing land for our herd.”
Moving 100 goats from central Israel was not easy, but Dagan says it was worth it. She and her small team selltheir cheese at markets across Israel but a stream of people still visit them to buy directly from the couple’s restaurant, Meshek Naomi (Naomi’s Dairy) in Moshav Natur, a village close to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

They offer a variety of goat’s milk products, from brie to a strawberry yoghurt drink. Everything is made in their kitchen next to the small restaurant dining room. When they are closed, there is a self-service fridge packed full of dairy products and a trust box for paying.

Further north is the town of Katzrin, home to the Golan Heights Winery and the Golan Brewery. The visitors’ centre at the Winery offers details of all local artisan food producers.

The boutique brewery produces Batzelet (Basalt) Beer, one of the newest beers in the Israeli micro-brewing industry. Last year Golan won best Israeli brewery prize at the BIRA 2011 competition. The high quality of the beers made there is said to be due to the superior mineral water extracted from the basalt rocks beneath the Golan Heights.

There are also several chocolatiers in the area. De Karina Chocolates, at Kibbutz Ein Zivan, was established by Karina Chaplinski, a third-generation Argentinean confectioner. De Karina makes hand-crafted chocolates and offers classes to visitors.

Other chocolate-producers are the Galita Chocolate Farm on the southern shores of the Kinneret and the Marzipan Museum in Kfar Tavor, in the Galilee region.

Chocolate-making does not require fertile soils, but all the artisan producers admit to having been drawn here by the area’s natural beauty. Galit Alpert, founder of Galita Chocolates, says she draws inspiration from the Sea of Galilee. “I love nature, so for me it’s like being in heaven,” she smiles.

The area is also littered with fruit- growing farms. In the summer, many open up their fields to visitors to pick their own. Roni Levy is the owner of Mashak Levi (Levy’s Farm), a family-run operation located near Moshav Sha’al.

“Produce in the Golan is of a high standard,” he says. “It is a combination of the very cold temperatures in the winter and the unique water coming from the basalt stone below us, which allows us to grow a range of fantastic fruits which you can’t find elsewhere in Israel”.

Produce includes the Isabella grape — said to taste like mango — as well as figs, white nectarines, raspberries, gooseberries, sabra and summer fruits, which fill the surrounding fields. “It really is an experience to spend a couple of hours surrounded by nature, with amazing views, and taste the difference between the fresh foods of the Golan and those you buy in the supermarket,” enthuses Levi.

Most of these products can be bought at farmer’s markets in the larger Israeli cities, but true foodies still flock to the Heights in droves.

Meshek Naomi: Tel: +972 524833166 or +972 523437580
Golan Brewery: Tel: +972 46963625
De Karina Chocolate: Tel: +972 46993622
Mashak Levi: +972 524600465
Golan Heights Winery: +972 46968420

Last updated: 12:20pm, November 8 2012