Journal

A Feast Beyond the Wall

26th January 2018

Interview: Felicity Spector
Photographs: Manal Abdallah

There is the wall, of course: that towering presence which Israel has built around the West Bank, covered in graffiti and barbed wire and watchtowers, dotted with intimidating signs warning about the dangers of entering Palestine. But we have come to Bethlehem to create a dinner, a one-off collaboration between the French-Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan, known for his modern take on traditional cuisine, and British chef and writer Tom Hunt, who has taken his “root to fruit” philosophy of seasonal, sustainable and zero-waste cooking to the highest level.

We have just two days to create this feast, for which we will journey through the country meeting producers, beginning with the herb and vegetable vendor just yards from Fadi’s guesthouse and restaurant Hosh al-Syrian. Along the way we will meet young twin butchers in a cubbyhole of a shop on the top floor of the market, expertly cleaving a lamb carcass in two, all the while sipping on tiny cups of impossibly strong Arabic coffee. We’ll travel to meet a man who built a business harvesting sea salt, visit a giant herb farm with polytunnels filled with the heady scent of basil, and stop by a date farm with rows of palm trees laden with ripe fruit, hot and dusty under the midday sun.

 

Fadi, who opened Hosh al-Syrian in 2015, exudes the kind of generous hospitality which would put anyone at ease: like Tom, he has set out to champion locally-sourced ingredients. It has taken a while to get people to appreciate his updated take on local dishes: he serves more vegetables and salads than is customary, uses the smoked green wheat known as freekeh instead of rice, and has his butcher age his lamb, which is unusual in Palestinian cooking. We try some of his food, a freekeh risotto topped with a local goat’s cheese and beetroot tahini, a beautiful chickpea-and-parsley dip with pomegranate, and softly roasted aubergines with a garlicky puree, and it is excellent.

The two chefs immediately hit it off. Sitting in the courtyard outside Fadi’s restaurant, they compare ideas for dishes, talking excitedly about using ingredients in new ways. “Why don’t we roast the radishes and use the tops for a salad?” Tom suggests at one point.

Afterwards we walk round the corner to an old bakery, its wood-fired oven like something from another century, and find the baker Wajeeh deftly rolling flatbreads and twisting turmeric tinged dough into round loaves stuffed with a thick paste made of dates. He flips a couple of mini taboon breads into the oven: they are baked in moments, light and pillowy with a slight crunch of semolina flour.

The taboon will certainly be part of the dinner, for it seems no Palestinian meal is complete without huge baskets of bread – but so too will the oven, rented for a day to cook the centrepiece lamb, which will be marinated overnight in sumac and olive oil and fresh za’atar, slow roasted until it falls off the bone, soft as butter. There will be plenty of vegetables too, huge plump radishes from the market, a giant pumpkin and onions and herbs which will be layered up inside giant clay pots with garlic and chilli and pine nuts (a take on a local Palestinian stew called fukhara). There will be a jam, or possibly relish, made from tiny berries which Fadi says are related to quince. He wants to make a dessert out of aubergine.

Bethlehem market itself is full of inspiration, but Tom and I travel further afield, with Michel, a genial man from the British consulate, our van swaying past settlements and sand dunes with herds of goats until we reach the Dead Sea, so close to Jordan we can see it across the river. At the West Bank Sea Salt plant, everything is crusted with a blanket of salt: it’s as if the air itself is crystallised. Husam Hallak leads us enthusiastically around his site, holding out handfuls of salt for us to try. “It is so natural, it tastes so smooth, not bitter at all”. Conscious of the environmental impact, he assures us that the desalinated water is pumped straight back into the sea. We leave laden with packs of salt, which Tom will use to bake beetroot for a salad.

We drive on, through the shabby outskirts of Jericho to the Nakheel date factory, surrounded by fields of palm trees which are surprisingly squat, the better to harvest the fruit. Over cups of strong coffee and plates of plump, fresh dates, Mustafa Hasan talks about expanding his business worldwide: around 70% of his produce is exported – the market, he says, has grown “exponentially”. Inside the packing plant, the mostly female staff are sorting and grading dates, some of them destined for the UK market under the Zaytoun brand. We promise to use some of the dates in our dinner, possibly stuffed inside pistachio shortbreads in a Nigel Slater take on ma’amul.

Our final stop is at a herb farm, where 90% of the work is done by hand. This is another Palestinian export success story where all sorts of herbs from purple basil to rosemary and melissa are sold everywhere from Europe to the Gulf. We leave with so many bunches, the van smells like a garden.

Later, back in Bethlehem, we finally eat: a trolley arrives, crammed with plates of hummus and m’sabaha and tahini flecked with parsley and studded with pomegranate seeds, bowls of tomato and cucumber, tart with sumac, baskets of warm pita which vanish remarkably fast. This is Tom’s first time in the Middle East, but, he says later, “sitting down to my first meal was like being welcomed home”.

And so: the dinner itself – and a whole day of preparation. First thing in the morning, Tom and Fadi collect the lamb which has been sitting in its marinade overnight, and carry it carefully through the streets on a giant tray from the Hosh al-Syrian to the bakery, before levering it into the wood oven, along with the radishes and those salt-caked beetroot, and the giant pots of fukhara stew.

It is quite a production, yet in one corner Wajeeh the baker is rolling his breads, oblivious to all the commotion. While the lamb cooks, there is yet more kitchen prep, eagerly assisted by a local team, who speak no English but pitch in with huge enthusiasm. There is not a great deal of space, but somehow vegetables are chopped for salad, herbs are prepared, and shortbread dough is mixed without the aid of a recipe, equipment or weighing scales.

Dinner is served! In the dining room of Hosh al-Syrian around 40 guests have gathered, among them some of the farmers and producers who have supplied our ingredients. Everyone is excited. We start with raw lamb kibbeh mixed with maftoul which is hand-rolled at a local co-operative. Then freekeh mixed with tahini and more herbs and toasted nuts to go with the pulled lamb, with plates of beetroot flecked with mint and za’atar and a strong local goat’s cheese. There are bowls of a herb called Jew’s mallow dressed in olive oil and sumac, then roasted radish which Tom has served on labneh with nigella seeds and shredded radish tops, baskets of mini taboon breads and another crepe-like bread known as markook.

And still the plates keep coming, platters passed around the tables so everyone can help themselves. Seconds of lamb are requested and that experimental aubergine dessert, baked soft and piled with nuts and giant raisins from the market and sweetened with caramel, is a hit. The date-stuffed pistachio shortbread biscuits have surprisingly worked. There is applause from the guests, genuine and happy, a team photo with the kitchen staff, and finally, in the quiet of the courtyard long after everyone has left, cups of fresh lemon verbena tea.

Fadi has welcomed us like family and we have learned much, about this place, its traditions, the local ingredients and techniques and the producers with ambitions well beyond the country’s borders. This wonderful food, and the cooking and sharing of it, has brought us together: not just the dinner but the boxes of dates, the jars of tahini and the bunches of fresh za’atar which we have packed to take home. A memory of Palestine which will last long after the trip has ended.

This trip was kindly supported by Zaytoun and the British Consulate in Jerusalem

Hosh al-Syrian is in the Old City, Bethlehem, Palestine; www.hoshalsyrian.com

For more on Tom’s work, go to www.tomsfeast.com

Posted 26th January 2018

In Journal

 

Interview: Felicity Spector
Photographs: Manal Abdallah

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