You can't buy food this good

Foraging for your next meal may be more fun than you imagine

From left: Uri Mayer Chissick and Yizhar Sahar harvest produce from the fertile grounds of the Rutenberg Restaurant in the northern Jordan Valley (photo credit: HAIM YOSEF)
From left: Uri Mayer Chissick and Yizhar Sahar harvest produce from the fertile grounds of the Rutenberg Restaurant in the northern Jordan Valley
(photo credit: HAIM YOSEF)
Have you ever sunk your teeth into a succulent tomato you have just plucked off its green stem? How about digging your incisors into a corn cob, grabbed from a towering shoot? We're talking the freshest of fresh picking here. If your senses are in even half-decent working order you will have enjoyed a sensorial experience you simply can't get when you pop along to your local supermarket, or even greengrocer, for your veggies.
There is something of a primordial, Mother Nature bonding feel to nipping out to some pastoral spot and running your eye over the various verdant plants spread before you and deciding what to gather to eat immediately, or for collecting as the basic raw material for your next meal.
I had a glimpse of that bucolic bounty lifestyle when I recently took a trip to the northern reaches of the Jordan Valley, and stopped by the Rutenberg restaurant at Kibbutz Gesher.
Uri Mayer Chissick is a font of health-inducing information, and exudes vibrant elemental vibes when I meet him near the eatery. We take a stroll to the nearby garden, which, truth be told, looks more like an unkempt overgrown winter-season plot of land. It soon transpires that we are looking at a sprawl of scrumptious ground-level mouthfuls.
“I really enjoy foraging,” says Chissick, who has a PhD in the history of medicine and nutrition.
“There are several reasons why I engage in foraging. Firstly, I want to preserve the tradition and the knowledge that was accumulated over thousands of years but is being lost to us. You could say that 20,000 years ago a hunter could identify around 800 species of edible animals and plant life they could forage, but today our knowledge in this area is negligible.”
The idea of delving back into time, and reviving knowledge which, even in this information-laden day and age, is hardly available to us is an appealing one. There is something about getting out there on the range, so to speak, getting down and dirty and actually coming into contact with leafy flora of all kinds, that warms the cockles and activates the salivary glands.
“My second reason for foraging is nutritional,” Chissick continues. “In terms of the variety we consume, it only appears to us that we vary our diet when, in fact, we generally eat pretty uniformly.”
According to Chissick, supermarket signs directing customers to fresh fruit and vegetables are fundamental misnomers.
“As soon as we pick something, a process of diminishing freshness beings, right away,” he notes.
“There is great [nutritional] value in eating something immediately after you pick it. When it comes to supermarkets, and what they offer, what you get when you buy there is something that has been picked, in the best-case scenario, a week earlier. You can also buy an apple which, in the worst case, was picked a year earlier in the United States.”
Of course, the latter option also involves a hefty carbon footprint element.
There are also environment preservation benefits to be gleaned from adopting a foraging philosophy.
“We discovered that when a person is familiar with the plants and trees around, him, and knows their stories, it is much easier for him to protect them,” says Chissick, “especially when you are talking about traditional foraging, rather than commercial foraging.”
Mother Nature, if left to her own devices, will keep her show on the road year in year out. Much of the food we eat today has been genetically engineered and, hence, harvested and picked from crops and plants that have to be seeded and replanted anew after each season.
“We want to be able to eat from the land, from the same vegetation, next year, too.”
At the end of the day, Chissick says that it’s all about his own personal gain.
“The last reason is that I really enjoy doing this,” he beams. “There’s nothing better than getting out, getting a campfire going, and making some kind of tasty soup or stew from the stuff you’ve found here, outdoors.”
As we chat, Yizhar Sahar comes into view, in his chef’s outfit and complete with stainless-steel bowl. It transpires he is off on one of his foraging jaunts, looking for herbs and vegetables with which to enrich the day’s gastronomic offerings. Within a few minutes he has got himself a whole load of enticing greens some of which, we later learn, find their way to our dinner plates.
Rutenberg’s restaurant certainly has a lot going for it in terms of natural and historic ambiance. It is located just up the road from the Valley of Springs, with the Gilboa Mountains rising to the west and the hills of Jordan across the border to the east.
While, we’re on the subject of the international demarcation line, the security fence runs just a few meters from the eatery, with a bunch of historic bridges across the river within easy walking distance. The earliest of the crossings was built two millennia ago, by the Romans, and was recently restored by the Italian government. There is also an Ottoman bridge there and one built by the British.
It is also a great time of year to get yourself over to the Jordan Valley, with lush greenery sprouting every which way, and with the baking summer temperatures still months off.
Going with the seasonal flow is very much a part of the restaurant’s ethos and, as the enterprise’s website notes, “The restaurant’s menu is adapted to our agricultural produce according to the season.”
Rutenberg has been doing its nature- synchronized thing for five years now, proffering excellent victuals from a charmingly restored wooden building that once served as the British Mandate’s Veterinarian Department border control facility, for checking up on livestock crossing the border, in either direction.
“This was basically an abandoned spot when we came here,” says proprietor Hila Sahar Ronen. “There was this orchard, but it hadn’t been watered for a long time.”
Three years into her tenure at the restaurant, Ronen and Sahar decided they wanted to bond with the spot in a more meaningful way.
“We got in touch with Uri and we asked him what was indigenous to the place, what we should cultivate and renew, and what was here 1,000 years ago and 1,500 years ago,” says Ronen. “We also do our utmost to use locally grown products. That cuts down on pollution, helps the local economy and ensures the stuff is as fresh as possible.”
Today the restaurant sells olive oil that comes from trees that are centuries old, and the menu features a slew of “foraged greens” – including radishes, tomatoes, chickpeas, mint, parsley, cilantro and spring onions.
Now we can all get in on the ground to mouth act, as Rutenberg is running a series of monthly Friday foraging workshops, with one due to take place today, from 2 to 6 p.m. The next is scheduled for March 10 at the same time. The program takes in an edifying and informative talk about the local flora, and its history, as well as some hands-on activity, followed by a meal prepared by Sahar incorporating your very own personally picked veggies and herbs.
If the dinner I had there is anything to go by, you might even wash down the deftly crafted dishes with some excellent wine.