It is Passover, a holiday celebrated with themes of redemption and remembrance, family gathering and food.
I am in the Galilee, one of the most beautiful places I know. It is spring and the shades of green are breathtaking. It is a short season distinguished by the proliferation of wild flowers and intense colors.
The Passover Seder is the opening event of this seven-day holiday (a day longer outside of Israel.) As with any significant holiday meal, the food is bountiful and incorporates many traditional components. Matzoh, hard-boiled eggs, bitter herbs, charoset (a dish ofchopped apple, nuts, wine and spices), and other ceremonial foods are part of the story telling that begins the Seder.
Then there is the feast. How delighted was I to be in a part of the world where for the most part, local agriculture determines what is in the supermarket - and consequently, what we would be cooking.
My sister cooked a turkey - she bought it from the guy at the local gas station, who bought it from a local farmer. The pot of chicken soup (also a local bird) was already in the fridge when we arrived. The handmade Matzoh was packed in boxes, baked weeks ago in Jerusalem bakeries. Other goodies were stuffed into her fridge. The Jews may have left Egypt centuries ago with just dough on their backs, but clearly, no one was going to be hungry here while remembering that.
At dawn we headed out to see what local produce was available. The roadside stand was open, and the owner rolled out of bed, perhaps a little surprised our early arrival. A Hudson Valley girl, I was not quite prepared for the local bounty that greeted us: red peppers, kohlrabi, mushrooms, carrots, garlic (storage), tomatoes (greenhouse), fennel, potatoes, sweet potatoes, zucchini, avocados, lettuce, cucumbers, artichokes, leeks and more. The citrus was abundant, but we had harvested that already from the trees growing outside the kitchen window at home.
Visits to 2 local organic farms yielded more treats. And another trip to the butcher at the gas station was necessary for the spicy sausage snack we would savor later.
Eggs of course, local and fresh.And as it is not the season for grapes, there were none to be found in the local supermarket. Asparagus were gathered in a quick forage expedition led by local culinairian Abby Rosner.
Better yet - olives and olive oil - local! And that is when it hit me, we were going to prepare and savor a 100-mile menu for Passover Seder. It is so obvious, that the Seder must have always been a locavores delight, but in this era of international industrial diets and convenience shopping, it was never an integral part of New York tradition.
Passover Menu 2009 opened with Chicken Soup with homemade Matzoh Balls. A groaning buffet included - Roasted Turkey with gravy, pickled beets, grilled zucchini/fennel/leeks, roasted white and sweet potatoes, baby lettuce salad, local trout, a garlic studded meat roast, asparagus, steamed artichokes, eggplant salad with tomatoes and onions, spinach soufflé, avocado & grapefruit salad, and more. Fruit to finish - passion fruit, loquat, melons, watermelon and oranges along with homemade fruit tarts and chocolate ice cream.
The agricultural scene in Israel is so robust. Advanced technology is applied to irrigation, green house growing and soil management. Organic farming is gaining traction. And though the country is a leading exporter of specialty items, if you are lucky enough to be here, you can enjoy the intense flavors and craftsmanship of local artisanal growers. Bread baking has evolved to an art form and the dairy products have been legendary for decades. Even the fledging wine industry has earned high marks.
It is a thrill to drive around the country and see the patchwork of fields representing large and small-scale farmers. The earth tones of the plowed fields are a deep rich brown. Little shacks and roadside stands present a very human face and answer the simple question: Where does our food come from.
All this led me to think about one of the most famous Seders in history, which took place here in the Holy Land - The Last Supper. Its outcome had universal impact. The food was local.