Get to know the makers and growers of Israel’s Upper Galilee

By Melissa Curtin

In the Upper Galilee, located in the northern part of Israel and to the north and west of the Sea of Galilee (the lowest freshwater lake on earth), a slew of growers and makers are using the land and the best local ingredients to craft unique products.

Delicious food and beverages have the power to bring us together and help us better understand one another. Often, we realize we have more in common than not. Open your mind and heart to the culture of Israel through its growers and makers.

“Break bread” with the Druze or Circassians
Get to know a Druze or Circassian family in their home by cooking a meal and eating it together. Galileat, a company owned and run by Paul Nirens offers these special experiences with his Jewish, Arab, and Druze friends. After living in rural Galilee for over 30 years, he partners with people from the region to offer experiences like cooking and wild green foraging workshops, market tours, and culinary adventures.

In the Upper Galilee, there are 16-18 close-knit Druze villages comprised of a religious ethnic minority that originally came from Egypt thousands of years ago. Roughly 2% of the population in Israel, the Druze speak Arabic and follow a unique religion influenced by Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Greek philosophy. They believe in reincarnation – that a human soul is reborn into another body – and are forbidden to visit cemeteries. Almost all marry other Druze.

We met a Druze family with striking green eyes in their olive groves. They served us strong dark Arabic coffee and sweets while we helped them knock down some of their olives – first with a stick then with an electric rake. In their home, we helped prepare a meal of stuffed grape leaves, veggies cooked in yogurt, and meat-filled pastries. We watched a grandmother rip and share long extra-thin pita bread. Lebneh, pita, and olives are year-round staples but overall, ingredients are seasonal based on what is grown in the garden. We ‘broke bread’ over interesting conversation and thick bulgur wheat with tomato sauce, wild chicory topped with caramelized onions, tabbouleh, and a lamb and beef mix with drizzled tahini.

In another village, we dined with a Circassian family. One of the oldest communities in the world, the Circassian are a Muslim minority group that lives in the Lower Galilee in 1 of 2 regions. The Ciracassians speak 4 languages and are keeping their heritage alive with a museum and heritage center in Kfar Kama. They taught us how to make mataza, dumplings stuffed with Circassian cheese and green onions, accompanied by yogurt.

Wine taste with honey, cheeses, or lunch
In Israel, the big discussion around wine continues to revolve around the challenges of making it kosher, according to Jewish dietary laws and according to the Orthodox Union, “under strict Orthodox Rabbinic supervision.” During the pandemic, all wineries in Israel benefited – wine sales soared because Israelis couldn’t travel internationally but could travel within the country mask-less and enjoy drinking wine outdoors in vineyard locations.

On Ofir Farm in Alon HaGalil, you can not only wine-taste on this third-generation agricultural farm but also sample honey from their apiary. Honey lovers can sample 9 varieties here, such as honey from avocado, jujube, and the carob tree. For over 20 years they have been making wine from grapes grown in their vineyards, such as Sangiovese, Petit Syrah, Shiraz Marselan, and Roussanne. The winery produces around 10,000 bottles a year. The “visitor center” is located in a handmade wooden hut built of oak and chestnut beams thanks to an American who sent wood from Appalachia. Wine tasting can be enhanced with cheese and bread, picnic baskets, and guided tours.

Brazilian-born Johnny Stern left his job and started the boutique family-owned Stern Winery as a passion project. Today the winery makes 30,000 bottles annually – both blended and varietal – with grapes from Golan Heights and the Upper Galilee. The winery historically produced red wines and in 2012 began to produce its own white. The 2016 Cab Franc won the Fingerlakes International wine competition in New York. Situated on the mountain peaks at Kibbutz Tuval, guests can come for a tour, wine tasting, or book a dinner party.

Kishor Winery makes wine on a kibbutz where half of its members are special needs. This non-profit organization creates a community where all feel loved and valued. The philosophy here is that people come because they want to live among people with special needs and share a life together. Located in Kishorit on the Upper Western Galilee mountain range, the unique climate of the area is characterized by big day and night temperature differences combined with rocky terrain making it an ideal environment for the long and slow ripening of the fruit which gives the wine its color, aroma, and special taste. Sample and purchase wines at the “visitor center” or book in advance to eat breakfast or lunch with cheeses, bread, cookies, cakes, and fresh pastries made by members of the community. L’chaim to inclusivity!

Sip inventive spirits at a distillery
The first craft distillery in Israel sits on the border of Lebanon with a “visitor center” aka hipster tasting room bar lounge and a serene outdoor setting where you can enjoy a wide variety of the alcohol produced. Run by six people, Jullius Craft Distillery was established in 2008 by “Joov” Har Gil, a media man and former restaurant critic who left the city during the pandemic to start his dream – producing the finest spirits in Israel, made from locally grown ingredients using craft solar energy distilling methods. Jullius begins with distilling local fruit known in the world as “schnapps” and from a variety of grapes known as “eau de vie.”
Jullius created the first grappa spirit in Israel that resembles whiskey but grappa here is called Marc de Galilee since it is not Italy. A plethora of sensational sips can be discovered here like Jullius’s Meade (dry honey wine), strawberry Eau de Vie (made from strawberries, water, and yeast – tasting like a brandy), a vermouth, and a gin made from juniper with 12 botanicals decked in an Alice in Wonderland label.

“Gin,” Joov said, “is the only thing they have a recipe for,” and “Using fruit and not grains helps us be kosher.” Since every bottle is a new creation, all bottles are numbered and cataloged. It doesn’t stop there as Julius is a pioneer in refining honey and brewing bitter digestifs. His goal is to let nature speak and not try to manipulate anything with the process – to produce clean spirits without additives, and in harmonious integration with the environment. Visits are by appointment only so book in advance.

Learn about the benefits of argan oil
On the road leading to Peki’in in Moshav Hosen, Shmulik Iluz overcame the weather after many years, to grow Moroccan argan trees in Galilee. After several attempts, he finally was able to get the seeds to survive the winter. As trees produce nuts twice a year, the Moroccon-style center dubbed Argan in the Galilee invites guests for a tour of the orchard and decorated walls that tell a story, to take an argan oil soap-making workshop, and sample argan olive oil, and more. Book in advance.

Sample local ice cream flavors
Buza Ice-Cream dishes up more than 80 flavors handmade daily – according to season or demand – and created with flavors like salted caramel, roasted coconut and cashew, Arabic coffee, peanut butter, and mascarpone with cherries. Adam Ziv from Kibbutz Sassa worked in ice cream parlors around the world and met restaurant owner Alaa Sweitat, forging an Arab-Jewish partnership. Honored by the UN for building a bridge between the Jewish and Arabic worlds and making the world a better place, they work together here in a Galilean village to create the freshest ice cream.

Book a chocolate-making workshop
At La Chocolita, 28-year-old Ward Mohana, a former musician and software engineer, decided to pursue his passion for chocolate. La Chocolita, a successful factory plus coffee and chocolate café was born after Mohana learned from a Belgian chef in Istanbul and returned to his village of Pki’in. Find artful-looking pralines, truffles, and chocolate bites and an outdoor garden setting to unwind while your experience might include the owner’s dad playing one of his many makeshift flutes. Book a chocolate-making workshop in advance.

Purchase local honey
Honey lovers will want to stop at Asal Alnor in the village of Pki’in to meet beekeeper Ghassan Saleh and learn about the world of bees at his “visitor center.” Sample and purchase gifts like unadulterated honey from various plants (avocado), nutritious bitter honey, chocolate filled with honey, honeycomb, bee pollen, and more.

Indulge in goat milk products from Alto Dairy Café
This coffee, dairy, bakery, and boutique shop in Kibbutz Shomrat begin with a family love story of cheesemaking from fine Galilean goat milk using traditional methods. Pass an orchard of fruit trees to sit outside or eat under a covered terrace overlooking the landscape after ordering at the self-service café and deli.

Come for breakfast, a cheese platter, sourdough sandwiches, croissants, quiches, toasts, desserts, and their famous goat yogurt ice cream served with a variety of toppings. Savor Alto’s butter, cream, labneh, pesto jam, blue cheese, cheddar with truffle, and brie with nuts served with pasta chips – all cheeses made from goat milk.

Pro Tip: Looking for a place to stay on the Sea of Galilee? Book a cabin at Vered Hagalil Guest Farm to access the local growers in the region. Besides the stunning views from the cabins, the farm boasts a horse ranch and breakfast with local produce and dishes like shakshouka.