Winter passes so quickly in Israel; it sometimes feels like the rainy season has come and gone in the blink of an eye. So it’s integral that we not get too comfortable on the couch with the heater set on high and instead get out into nature to search for all the beautiful flowers and carpets of green grass that cover the countryside. One of my favorite places to visit in Israel in the wintertime is the Jezreel Valley. Its gorgeous landscapes and plethora of tourist sites and natural springs and streams make a day trip to the area well worthwhile. In addition, there are a number of family-run farms in the area that invite visitors to come partake of the earth’s great bounty. One of the best reasons to make a trip to the Jezreel Valley is to participate in the Festival of Tastes in the Valleys. This festival, which takes place around Tu Bishvat every year and attracts foodies and families alike, will be celebrating 15 years of fine food, wine and music. This year, the Festival of Tastes will commence on January 13, and the opening event will take place at the Museum of Pioneer Settlement in Kibbutz Yifat, with tickets for the dinner and wine-tasting running at NIS 250.The festival will continue from January 14 thru 25, and visitors are welcome to dine at participating restaurants where special festival menus will be offered at prices ranging from NIS 79 to NIS 119, including appetizers, entrees and dessert or wine. A few of the participating restaurants include Octagon, Bela, Gustino, Coffee Grove, Herb Farm, Tanduka, Limousine, Lala and Marinado. One of the main objectives of the festival is to increase awareness of sustainable agriculture. To this end, there will be an exciting event on January 19 at the Horse Spring in Ka’abiyye, which has been renovated and is now handicapped accessible. Throughout the festival, there will be tours led by KKL-JNF and Kishon River Authority guides and musical and dance performances by groups from Zarzir, Ka’abiyye, Shimshit and Harduf. In addition, there will be arts and crafts workshops and lots of food stalls offering an assortment of treats. 1. AYA COFFEEThis coffee house is located in Yokne’am in the home of Ayelet, a single mom who decided to make an abrupt career change after working in hi-tech for 12 years. Born and bread in Yokne’am, Ayelet decided to fulfill a dream she’d been cultivating for many years: to open a small café in the courtyard of her home. She offers an assortment of scrumptious breakfast options, including shakshuka, sandwiches, paninis, homemade granola, pastries, shakes and juices. And of course extremely good coffee. Ayelet’s café is known for its top-quality service and also as a great place to hang out and meet other travelers. Kosher. Hours: Monday to Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Location: Derech Ha’emek, Yoqne’am2. NACHAL BEIT LECHEMThe next stop is Nachal Beit Lechem, a new stream that was created by the Ramat-Yishai sewage treatment plant, in cooperation with the Transportation Ministry and the Jezreel Valley Local Council. For many years, this area was neglected and run-down, but new walking and bike trails now connect Ramat Yishai with the Kfar Yehoshua train station. The trail serves a dual purpose: it’s a great place to hike and it also offers residents a nice way to access the train station. The 4.7-kilometer-long trail follows alongside the stream, which begins in Bethlehem of the Galilee, passes through Alonei Abba, Ramat Yishai and flows into the Kishon. The water flowing in the stream is clean, but shallow. There are plans to add more vegetation in the vicinity of the stream, as well as a number of benches. 3. JEZREEL VALLEY WINERY Food festivals would not be complete without some good wine. At Kibbutz Hanaton, which identifies with the Conservative Movement, Yehuda Nahar and Jacob Ner David founded the Jezreel Valley Winery. The two of them chose to plant vines that will flourish in the local climate, such as carignan, syrah and argaman. Nahar, the vintner and owner of the winery, is a pioneer in the local wine industry. He chose to make wine from less-popular grape varieties, and apparently he made the correct choice, as his light and fruity wines have become quite popular. He produces more than 80,000 bottles a year, 70% of which are for export. The winery is open Sundays thru Fridays, and on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., visitors are invited to partake in Bottomless Friday, which is an all-you-can-drink experience with a participation fee of NIS 50. Plates with cheeses, crustini, and lots of fun hors d’oeuvres are also available for NIS 10 to NIS 25. Wine tastings at other times during the week run NIS 25 per person, which includes a guided tour of the winery. Cheese platters are NIS 75.Location: Kibbutz Hanaton Pre-registration recommended: 054-321-13454. LIMOUSINE RESTAURANTAnd now on to food. There are quite a few culinary surprises in the Jezreel Valley, but not many success stories like Limousine. This story begins back in 1990. Amir Talmor met Rami Ginat when they were both working as cattle ranchers at a kibbutz in northern Israel. They joined forces and began raising a herd of their own in the Jezreel Valley, but they were having a hard time making their dream come true, since neighboring Bedouins made it uneconomical to leave their herd unattended. They began sleeping on site and after a couple of years decided to open up a butcher shop in Ramat Yishai in an effort to increase profits. Then, in 2001, they opened up a restaurant alongside the butcher shop so that customers could sample the beef they purchased just minutes before. The restaurant was so successful that they had to relocate to a larger building.
During the festival, visitors can dine at Limousine and also participate in two beef workshops that will take place on location. There will also be performances, a cooking workshop, an evening of stand-up comedy and Greek Night. There will be alcohol on sale throughout the festival.Location: 14 Choresh Alonim, Ramat YishaiTelephone: (04) 953-3173
5. GUSTINO RESTAURANTAnother fantastic restaurant in Ramat Yishai that has been open only a year is the Italian Gustino. Amnon Yaskil and Itai Adoni, two restaurateurs from the Jezreel Valley who had worked together in the past, joined forces with chef Leon Alkalai to create a traditional southern Italy restaurant. Food is served in a charming garden where Italian music plays in the background. Enticing aromas drift from the wood-burning stove where fresh pizzas with bubbling cheese and focaccias are baked. Hours: Noon until last customer. Breakfast is served on Friday and Saturday mornings from 8:30. Location: 4 Hatzaftzafa, Ramat YishaiTelephone: (04) 988-3300 Translated by Hannah Hochner.