Rachel Johnson got her first taste of Israel 30 years ago when she and big brother Boris spent their summer — she on a post-school gap year and he on a holiday while at Oxford University — working on a kibbutz.
“My father was married to Jenny Sieff whose father, Teddy Sieff, was the then head of Marks and Spencer,” she recalls.
The sum extent of her Jewish food memories are of what she laughingly terms “Marks and Spencer Seder nights. We used to chant things about bitter herbs,” she smiles, admitting her only memories of the nights were that they were long and that they ate matzah.
That was the extent of the young Rachel and Boris Johnson’s experience of Jewish food, until the pale-skinned, fair-haired pair were dispatched on their working holiday.
“The Sieffs had links to Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi and they arranged for us to go out there,” she explains. Both were assigned arduous manual jobs — “Boris’s memories aren’t quite as fond as mine,” she smiles.
He was assigned work in the kibbutz’s kitchen, which catered for 600 hungry mouths daily. “It was brutal as the kitchens were searingly hot in mid-July and Boris has only ever returned to Israel on official business,” she laughs.
Her food memories are limited to “endless hummus, yoghurt, tomatoes and eggs”.
She also recalls the large amount of falafel they ate on their tour of the country after finishing their stint at the kibbutz and an unfortunate bout of food poisoning that laid her low after a meal in a Tel Aviv beachside restaurant.
The stomach upset failed to cloud her memories of having really enjoyed her times there.
Having not returned for several decades, she felt a yearning to revisit Israel to investigate what has been increasingly touted as a fantastic food scene. “I watched Ottolenghi’s programme on Jerusalem so knew I would find good food out there,” she explains.
As a guest of the Israeli tourist authorities she was treated to some of the best the country has to offer and had the chance to see just how much things had changed.
“It’s not consistently amazing and you do have to know where to find it, but the best Israeli food is up there with the best French and Italian food,” she enthuses. “The great thing is that the Israelis pick and choose from the best from many cultures.”
First on her tour was the Rosh Pina spa Mizpe Hayamim which she describes as restful but in need of a makeover. The food though needed no improvement — “Everything was organic — yoghurt, bread, cheese and fruit and vegetables from its own gardens and farm.”
The next stop on her whirlwind gourmet trip was to Uri Buri’s eponymously named restaurant.
“He looked like Father Christmas and was the most interesting man,” she says. Buri’s restaurant has become a destination for Israeli gourmands seeking the best fish in Israel, who will drive there for lunch and dinner from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “I ate the best thing ever — ‘Ben-Gurion rice’.”
Buri also has an ice cream parlour where he insisted Johnson tasted every flavour. “I liked every one and didn’t even want to try half of them,” she laughs going on to explain: “He just has a knack for combining a few simple ingredients like lychee soup with wasabi ice cream.”
Buri, who cooks in the tiniest kitchen, has also opened a chic hotel which Johnson describes as “very Condé Nast traveller and very swank”.
Johnson also visited Machineyuda in Jerusalem which had been immortalised in Yotam Ottolenghi’s homage to Jerusalem. “Amazing restaurant. It’s very simple and a fun place to be where they play really loud music.”
Johnson’s love letter to what she ate in Israel continued with the market in Tel Aviv’s port — “as good as New York’s Dean and Delucca and so yuppie” — and a Druze restaurant that served amazing garlic bread, stuffed pizzas and hummus scattered with fried lamb.
She laughingly admits to having returned heavier but won’t think twice about returning for seconds. “I was surprised at the quality of the food Israel offers — it’s a real foodie destination.”