Nomads and Knafeh: Palestine Beyond the Headlines

This article appears in Volume 29: The Taste Issue

To many outsiders, the disputed territory of the West Bank is nothing more than a land of conflict, a no-go zone blighted by political unrest. So contentious is it that the late chef and writer Anthony Bourdain explained after visiting: "I'll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathiser, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an Orientalist, socialist, fascist, CIA agent, and worse."

I'm here not as any of the above, nor as a Christian pilgrim, nor to make judgement on the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian question. Rather, I'm here to explore Palestine's fascinating food culture first-hand. Cross the checkpoint to enter this territory and one soon realises that its cuisine tells a far more celebratory story than any snapshot we might see in the news.

My base is the Hosh Al-Syrian Guesthouse in Bethlehem, run by the chef Fadi Kattan. As I sit and watch the sun spread like butter across the 11th-century courtyard, Kattan serves me my first meal, explaining: "You squash your eggs with the labneh, put it onto the ka'ak [a type of bread] with olive oil and za'atar, and that's a true Palestinian breakfast."

Kattan is a vivacious, articulate character who is renowned in Bethlehem for his gourmet approach - everyone from diplomats to local residents head to his fine-dining restaurant, Fawda Restaurant & Café. I'm bowled over by its dinner menu of five courses showcasing modern Palestinian cuisine, which includes a freekeh and sour cherry starter and a roasted cauliflower, tahini and lentil salad made mostly with ingredients from local suppliers. Equally impressive is Kattan's ethos. His grandmother founded the Arab Women's Union in 1947 and also launched a food project for women. She was the one who first inspired Kattan to cook, and is one of the reasons that he trains young Palestinians in his kitchen today.

From Bethlehem, Kattan and I head to Burqin, a village in the north. We drive past roads with red signs that warn: "This road leads to a Palestinian area - it is dangerous for Israeli citizens." Nonetheless, the diversity of the landscape strikes me more than these ominous missives. Drive north and you're surrounded by voluptuous green undulations; east toward Jericho is all desert and canyons; and in the Central Highlands between Nablus and Hebron, dramatic valleys are punctuated with stone terraces for farming. Fertile swathes of hills dotted with crops and olive groves soon streak the panorama.

Kattan tells me: "Palestine's cuisine comes from what the land offers us. It's extremely seasonal." We draw up at Canaan Fair Trade, a cooperative that produces olive oil, honey, tahini, couscous and za'atar, where Kattan introduces me to its stolid founder, Nasser Abufarha. Lunch is due in an hour, but the table is already heaving with oils and colossal circles of flatbread made with varieties of wheat as ancient as the land itself.

As I tear the dough and dip it into the oils, I learn more about how the Canaan is flourishing against the odds. Before it was founded, small-scale growers in the region faced enormous challenges in cultivating their crops. In Palestine it's not uncommon for water to be cut off for many days or for checkpoints to be abruptly closed.

While these hurdles remain, Abufarha's fair-trade co-op, which buys oil from 1,500 small farmers across 6,800 hectares, has instilled some measure of food security. By bringing together disparate farmers and using organic practices, he is now able to sell their produce across the world - in the UK, the social enterprise Zaytoun imports the olive oil and sells it in Planet Organic and Selfridges. As I stand among the groves, some of which date back three millennia, with farmer Mahmoud Samara, he poignantly explains: "I used to sell olive oil for nine shekels per kilo; now it's 30 to 32 shekels. I have a car, I can offer opportunities to my two girls and boy - it's changed my life."

Speckled with prickly pears and geraniums, the small town of Sebastia, just 27 miles south, was once the capital of the Kingdom of Israel (then known as Samaria). Looming Roman columns line the road as we approach, while its shimmering relics include a forum with a football-pitch-sized basilica, an amphitheatre and Hellenistic towers.

I see eerily few people here. At Holy Land Sun Restaurant there are just two occupied tables: the rest are empty. Since the separation wall encircling the territory was completed in the early 2000s, there has been less footfall, the jolly chef and owner Hafez Kayad informs us. "For eight years few tourists came at all, but now business is opening back up." With that he brings over the musakhan, Palestine's national dish of roasted chicken on olive-oil soaked flatbread with caramelised onions and pine nuts freckled on top. I'm served two further obligatory specialities: awassi lamb - distinctive for its saporous fat - and knafeh, a beguiling shredded-hair pastry rolled with a mild white cheese then caramelised and slathered in syrup.

To walk off the feast we head downhill to John the Baptist's tomb. It's jarring to consider that anywhere else in the world, this place would have been transformed into a tourist haven with a museum attracting thousands. As it is, we have it almost to ourselves.

We set off to visit Palestine's only winery in the remote, high village of Taybeh. It's 9pm as we ascend among a few knobbly vines silhouetted against the moon. The Khoury family greets us at the entrance of the Taybeh Golden Hotel before showing us their state-of-the-art winery next door. They've set a table by the tanks for an intimate dinner of five courses paired with Taybeh wines.

First up is a peach-nuanced sauvignon blanc from 2018, served with labneh and a green soup. Numerous pairings follow, but it's the dark chocolate and Dead Sea salt with a late- harvest 2015 cabernet sauvignon that triumphs for me. Before leaving I meet Madees Khoury, Palestine's only female brewer, who runs Taybeh's microbrewery and organises an annual beer festival. This October the festival will draw some 4,000 visitors to this small village - Palestinians, expats and Israelis alike come for the drinks, Dabke folk dancers and theatrical performances.

Jericho is one of the world's oldest continuous settlements, dating back to approximately 9000 BCE. Jesus is said to have been tempted for 40 days and 40 nights by the devil here, so there are archaeological and biblical sites aplenty. Yet I'm on a mission to uncover something more humble: the medjool date.

We zip past Bedouin nomads, whose sheep nibble on herbs growing in cracks between rocks, to meet Fuad Najjab, who manages the best date place in the region, Nakheel Palestine. As we chow down, Najjab explains that there are few places in the world where "the king of dates" grows. He adds: "we have 10 women managing the production side, and by 2020 we aim for some of our harvest to be organic." The rush of caramel and honey is intense and intoxicating as we sample the fruits of Nakheel's labour in the hushed palm orchards, a soothing oasis from which you can see the ruins of Jericho.

The nearby West Bank Salt Company, run by the charismatic Othman Hallak and his son Husam, produces Dead Sea salt over 10 hectares. We drive along a track past a derelict casino and abandoned hotel before a hut comes into view in front of a dazzling white crystallisation pool, behind which lies barbed wire and a dusty expanse that leads to the Dead Sea. Othman, now 83, and Husam greet us, the latter explaining: "This used to be the place people would come to gamble and swim in the lido and the sea. In 1967 it all stopped and no one came back. These flats are a physical manifestation of what is happening to us."

Each year the Hallaks, both engineers, extend their pipe by 24m to access the retreating Dead Sea. "There's a drastic shortage of water and something needs to be done now. We predict in 150 years, there won't be a Dead Sea," says Husam, who laments that 30 per cent of the sea has disappeared since they've been here. Othman clutches one of the company's 10 varieties of salt. Unlike mass producers, West Bank don't use bleach or anti-caking agent: this is the real deal. Explaining why he'll never leave, Othman remarks with a twinkle in his rheumy eyes: "I am very proud. Salt is our life. It's our livelihood. It's what we do best. It's fighting for what we believe in. That's what salt means to me." Indeed, in the 1970s he was offered a blank cheque to leave, but he refused.

As I complete my last meal at Hosh Al-Syrian it's clear that, of course, the West Bank isn't without its complications. The imposing eight-metre-high concrete wall (for perspective, the Berlin Wall was 3.6m tall) that keeps its inhabitants impounded unless they have a permit to move beyond curdles the blood. There are too many concerning instances to mention regarding checkpoints, including one in which I'm corralled through a corridor and told to wait by a wall while the man in charge paces back and forth with his gun, or the time when an old lady gets her walking stick stuck in the biometric machines and a young soldier refuses to help. I say my farewells and depart for Tel Aviv airport in good time to get through the checkpoints on the way back.

Nevertheless, I get a taste of much more than conflict as I travel around Palestine. Political plight may have eclipsed the positive aspects of the state's culture in the media, but on the ground food is forming the meat of the scramble for identity. What Palestinians produce and eat serves both as a lifeline that connects its people to the land, and as a symbol of hope for a future defined by more than headlines.

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