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I have gotten giddy over gelato, emotional over Emmental, and even, on occasion, sung the praises of a pot roast, but never have I cried over a carrot. As I waited to interview Michal Ansky and Shir Halperin, co-owners of the farmers' market in Tel Aviv, a farmer from Netanya was hoping to sell his wares. He came with carrots in four different colors, as Ansky welled up. "Them carrots were gorgeous." No negotiation was needed. Ansky turned to the farmer and said, "You'll bring your carrots next week?" I had to suppress a giggle. The farmer, who can only be described as "salt of the earth" (where salt and earth have had extended contact) said, "Only as long as I get the booth next to yours." Our poster child for carrots of any color said, "You can have my booth." The more base amongst us would be smothering outright laughter at this point.
The farmers' market in Tel Aviv is filled with laughter, chatter, smell and color; but above all, people. It is not only a meeting of gastronomic minds, it is a meeting of ideas on the way food should be purchased, and from whom.
While chef and co-owner Halperin was studying at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, she fell in love with the idea of the farmers' market, where farmers bring their produce and sell it directly to the consumer. With the help of her university friend and fellow foodie Ansky - a spokesperson for food with a CV as long as my arm - they have set out to educate, although that very French word "revolution" comes to mind.
The rest of the world is going back to basics, eating locally produced foods (everyone has a different definition of local, but the farmers' market ladies have opted to define "local" as a 100-kilometer radius - which pretty much means anything grown in Israel). Eating locally is not a modern Israeli problem, as it happens. Israel remains one of the few modern countries where people still eat seasonal food - no peaches in winter!
The farmers' market is, however, bringing two new experiences to the Israeli consumer. Here, the consumer can taste export-quality foods for the first time. In London, for example, shoppers buy Hass avocados - the good ones with the black pimply skin, the kind that makes the best guacamole. Each one is perfectly ripe and adorned with a Carmel sticker. But in local supermarkets, all customers can dig up are green, rock-hard avocados, because Israel exports so much of its best produce.
The second revolutionary aspect is the farmers' market itself. European cities have a historic concept of "market day," a day when local farmers could bring their wares to the city square and sell directly to the consumer, a tradition that has only been nudged out by supermarkets in the last half century. But because Israel is a modern country, food growers have been able to transport their goods to city centers. The farmers' market allows Israeli consumers to deal personally with the people who grow their food for the first time.
Having studied at the renowned University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy, Ansky became acquainted with the Slow Food movement (www.slowfood.com). "Slow" foods emphasize taste, high-quality production, small-scale farmers with niche expertise and, my favorite, value for money (a girl can have principles, and be thrifty at the same time). Ansky and Halperin traveled around Israel, looking for farmers interested in selling their produce directly to the consumer. They found raspberries, strawberries, mini super-sweet grape tomatoes and stripy tiger tomatoes, asparagus, artichokes, herbs of all kinds, hand-made bread, handmade cheese - and let us not forget those carrots. They spent days on the road, their car filled with eggs and milk, fruit and vegetables. Finally, one Sunday in May, the farmers' market opened for business in the trendy Tel Aviv Port.
The market brings together producers from all sectors of Israeli society. A Christian Arab woman from Nazareth selling the tastiest tehina and halva known to man stands next to a baker from Carmiel, who proudly wears his tzitzit over his shirt, long peyot and a beard, which only add to his charm as he hands over a basket with bites of homemade bread. The market has no blanket kashrut supervision; each producer is certified individually. There are booths in which fathers and daughters work side by side, and another staffed by a busy grandfather and grandson. Mostly, though, the booths seem to be run by best friends; people attracted to each other by their shared passion for food.
Consumers are swept into the frenzy as they walk around the small market. Nothing is off-limits. Everything needs to be tasted. These people are proud of what they do and they want shoppers to be involved. Customers are into it, and about 4,000 frequent the market regularly. Do be wary, though. This is definitely not a one-time experience. The produce is fresh - nothing refrigerated is accepted - and it's all so tasty. The tomatoes are so sweet that they give the organic candy a run for its money. You'll keep coming back for more.
Ansky and Halperin, at the tender ages of 28 and 26, respectively, are educators, intellectuals, and chefs turned revolutionaries. I asked if they felt responsible for the market, now that they have started. Both answered "Absolutely!" This is so important to them that they are talking with city councils across Israel, hoping to open farmers' markets in every big city. Halperin wants you to come and buy the different varieties of tomatoes, slice them lengthwise, sprinkle with coarse sea salt and drizzle with amazing olive oil. Ansky wants you to try Minestrone made with fresh, beautiful vegetables. Whatever recipe you try, this is simple food, so fresh that you need not bother with too much cooking. You feel good eating it - you are helping farmers, your country and yourself. Shop, eat, drink and be merry. A revolution needs people.
The Tel Aviv farmers' market is open on Fridays, from 8 a.m. until just before Shabbat.
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