Tuscany in the Galilee

A festival of eating and drinking in the Jezreel Valley.

Zipori, The Monk's Mill. (photo credit: ALON LEVITA)
Zipori, The Monk's Mill.
(photo credit: ALON LEVITA)
Driving through the lush winding roads of the Jezreel Valley in the Israeli winter, one forgets that one is in a Middle Eastern country the size of New Jersey.
To be able to drive from the harsh winds of Jerusalem to the sunny glaze of Haifa, all within two hours, in a month when many across the world are up to their ears in snow, is a blessing one cannot highlight enough.
The Valley Flavors Festival, held from January 17 to 28, is one example of how the land flowing with milk and honey is there to experience in the midst of the winter. A far cry from the hustle and bustle of Israel’s cities, the lushness of the Jezreel Valley is a different world entirely.
The restaurants, wineries and agricultural farms of the region join together every year for this lovely festival, which co-organizer Rakefet Ivri describes as a journey “from the farm to the plate.” And that is no exaggeration.
Our first stop was Pinat Ha’ochel, a quaint deli/restaurant in Kiryat Tivon. With its trendy décor and abundance of food displayed across its many counters, owner Etika Keshet presented her simple but noble aim regarding her culinary efforts: to use local produce wherever possible.
All the food is made on the premises; therefore, she endeavors to use locally grown produce, including herbs and spices. The mainstay for Keshet is that everything on display is seasonal and fresh.
I loved the quinoa balls, making use of a foodstuff all too often derided for being the stereotypical bastion of veganism. They were succulent and delightful, each bite delivering waves of flavor that months of sandwiches on the run often leave a journalist deprived of.
Pinat Ha’ochel: (04) 822-2084 This freshness of both food and environment remained a constant throughout our journey. It was most apparent at Bella, an Italian restaurant in Beit She’arim. Driving up to the restaurant, one feels as if one were in Tuscany, where a journey into what seems to be the middle of nowhere can result in discovering food of mind-blowing quality.
Located next to gorgeous woodlands and surrounded by nature, Bella’s beautiful location is matched by a sleek interior and formidable service. Just as the exterior is reminiscent of the Italian countryside, inside the food was by far the most authentic Italian cuisine I’ve encountered this side of the Mediterranean. From the wonderful taste and texture of its truffle pizza to a formidably flavorsome tuna sashimi, every dish at Bella was a delight.
Bella: 073-758-9807 Farther up the valley and into the hills, we arrived at the Tulip Winery in Kfar Tikva, a special-needs village. Many of the village’s residents work at the boutique winery, considered one of the better wineries in Israel, which produces a range of wines numbering a maximum of 220,000.
We sampled a few of the wines poured by Tulip’s customer relations manager Lital Roth. It is clearly more than just your average winery due to its innovative methods.
Roth related tales of the winery’s attempts to create a true Israeli wine beyond the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon types of grape. The results (the Mare Nostrum 2013) took the form of a dry red that tasted sensational to say the least.
Tulip Winery: (04) 983-0573 Our final stop, Shalev Baya’ar in Kiryat Tivon, is a restaurant that serves a range of meat and fish dishes. Completely full from a day of eating, I found their desserts, most notably the panna cotta, delectable.
Shalev Baya'ar: (04) 983-1837 Overall, the concept and the possibilities that the Valley Flavors Festival presents should not be missed. As Israel’s culinary scene goes from strength to strength across the world, there is no better opportunity to experience it firsthand than throughout the Jezreel Valley this month.
The 10-day festival is not just about food and drink. Alongside this, other events taking place include a series of interesting meetings with farmers working in the fields, exhibitions by local artists and opportunities to see local musicians live.
Tour organized by the Jewish National Fund will also be taking place throughout the week, all of which will end at sites participating in the festival. 
The writer was a guest of the Valley Flavors Festival.
The Valley Flavors Festival takes place in the Jezreel Valley from January 17 to 28. For more info, visit www.hafaka-ivrit.co.il/