Presenting: A cross between a pomelo and an orange and other novel Israeli produce varieties

Researchers at Israel's Volcani Institute show off their new produce varieties to eager chefs.

New chickpea varieties at the Volcani Institute. (photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
New chickpea varieties at the Volcani Institute.
(photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
Would you like your tomatoes with extra lycopene? How about a sweet, easy-to-peel grapefruit, or even chickpeas that don’t make you gassy? These products, among many others, are what scientists at the Volcani Institute’s Agricultural Research Organization (ARO) – the research arm of the Agriculture Ministry – are working on bringing to the market.
Researchers on Tuesday presented their work – and its tasty applications – at an event for several dozen chefs from around the country at ARO’s headquarters in Beit Dagan. The eager and hungry group from the Israel Chefs Association heard from four scientists about their fields of specialty: fresh herbs; citrus fruits; strawberries; and chickpeas.
Dr. Nativ Dudai, who specializes in aromatic and medicinal plants and herbs at ARO’s Neveh Ya’ar branch and also lectures at the Hebrew University, says the perrie basil strain developed by ARO is the most popular fresh herb in Israel, and also exported overseas.
“It’s not just about the quality of the herb, but also their ability to grow year round and their shelf life,” said Dudai.
Until the ’70s and ’80s, he said, people overwhelmingly cooked only with dried herbs – never fresh – and that partly due to Israeli efforts that began to change so that, today, chefs around the world recognize the superior taste of fresh over dried.
“At Volcani, we develop products, we don’t grow them, and we don’t sell them,” he stressed.
Rather, the new strains are created for farmers to grow and sell to consumers.
“We knew if we wanted to establish a branch in Israel we needed to make it commercially viable,” Dudai said.
Today, Israel ships its herbs to Europe, thanks, in part, to another Volcani creation: specialized boxes for herb storage.
The cardboard boxes hold a kilo of fresh herbs and are lined with a special breathable plastic.
They also have a unique shape, with one corner flattened so there is a gap between the boxes when stacked together, allowing air to flow through and not overheat those packed in the center of a large shipment.
According to a 2012 ARO report, exports of herb and herb products from Israel exceed $2 billion a year.
“We even have the chutzpah,” Dudai said, “to sell our basil to Italy,” a country renowned for its pesto, a sauce combining fresh basil with olive oil, pine nuts and garlic. Exports of basil alone – only the perrie variety, which is particularly resistant to mold – have topped $50 million a year.
Volcani researchers continue to develop new strains of herbs, some of which are still unnamed, focusing on the optimal taste, smell, appearance and shelf life of the products.
Dr. Nir Carmi, whose specialty is the world of citrus, said most commercial varieties of those fruits today are hybrids.
“People today prefer clementines and mandarins to traditional oranges, because they’re easier to peel,” he said. Consumers also want varieties without seeds in them, and juicier, sweeter fruits.
Carmi said it takes at least eight to nine years for a new strain to enter the market, from grafting the varieties to multiple seasons of planting, testing and harvesting.
The ARO’s aliza grapefruit – a cross between a pomelo and an orange – recently won a European taste test. It is easy to peel, seedless and has a high-sugar content giving it a sweet taste.
Volcani also recently developed the “flamingo” – a red pomelo that’s a hybrid of a pomelo, orange and clementine. It has a 14% sugar content, is seedless and contains the supposedly cancer-fighting antioxidant lycopene.
There are constantly new varieties of citrus fruits being developed, Carmi said, in part because “taste is very objective and hard to measure.”
Another development in the works for the ARO is creating a grapefruit free of furanocoumarins, a chemical that those who take statins for heart problems are advised to avoid.
In the world of Israeli strawberries, Dr. Nir Dai is king. The ARO researcher told the group that Israel produces 25,000 tons of strawberries a year, and that 97% of those are consumed inside Israel. Only about 500 tons are exported each year, mostly to Russia and the UK, he said.
The goals of Volcani research on strawberries, he said, are to perfect the taste, color, shape, shelf life, yield and sweet-tart balance of the fruits. Their studies have shown that even more important than the presence of sweetness in the product is the optimal equalizing levels of both sugar and tartness.
“We do regular taste testings throughout the process” of developing new strains, he said.
One area they continue to work on, he said, is the aroma of strawberries. Varieties with a strong smell, like the Mara de Bois strain, have a high presence of methyl anthranilate, he said. But those berries are very small, very soft (and, therefore, hard to ship), have a low yield and are susceptible to mildew.
“But the taste is great!” Dai said.
A popular strain in Israel is the tamir strawberry, which produces large, sweet berries.
The jasmine variety also yields big fruit and is able to grow in compact areas. The gili berry, a breed that has been available commercially for only the past couple years, has a high yield and a long shelf life.
Many of the chefs entered a heated debate on appearance vs. taste of strawberries for cooking, but no product engendered more arguments than the iconic Israeli food: chickpeas.
Dr. Shmuel Galili, the chickpea specialist of Volcani, said garbanzo beans are the most prominent pulse grown in the Mediterranean region and the majority of those grown in Israel are consumed locally.
The most popular variety is the kabuli, which are light, large colored and have a thin skin.
The desi breed of chickpeas, he said, which is less common around Israel, come in green, red, black and brown, though the pigmentation is found only in the skin.
So with the chickpea market practically saturated, what can scientists look to develop? One potential future project for ARO, Galili said, is to remove a certain side effect common to over consumption of garbanzos – or all beans – flatulence.
Scientists have looked into reducing the raffinose content of the beans – which can’t be broken down until they reach the large intestine – which would reduce the occurrence of gas after consumption. But, said Galili, the consumer demand for such a product hasn’t been high enough to satisfy its development.
One chickpea product Volcani is strongly pushing is the fresh, green chickpea – harvested a month-and-a-half early. They can be eaten straight from the pod or blanched first, and have a unique taste unlike the dried variety.
While fresh chickpeas have some limited availability in Israel – most prominently in Arab areas – ARO has developed methods for large-scale harvest and production.
Galili found a receptive audience with his recipe ideas, from green chickpea hummus to green chickpea falafel, and even using chickpea flour in cookies and cakes. He also presented the idea of creating chickpea milk instead of soy milk, and developing a garbanzo liquor.
The chefs got to taste all the different varieties of chickpeas in a range of salads, and also sampled four different strawberry strains, half a dozen citrus breeds, as well as a line of infused olive oils.
Na’ama Rosenberg, spokeswoman for the Volcani Institute, told the chefs their input was essential to the process: “It’s important to us not just how the product works in the field, but also its taste and application in the culinary world.”