Thursday, May 31, 2007

A fine last day

The dust inversion that has plagued Israel for the past few days has cleared, and the dawn appears with that perfect clarity of temperatures neither too hot nor too cold. Surfers catch the last waves along the Herzylia shore before heading off to work; retirees stroll with friends, human and canine.

We set off to the south to drive off-piste along the Burma Road, the supply route that kept Jerusalem alive in the 1948 War of Independence. For Israel, the history is essential, but for an outsider, it is today simply a place of beauty: hillsides planted with olives and almonds and grapes, fertilized by centuries of bloodshed.

Lunch is a tasty country meal at a restaurant called Tivlin, a picnic without ants in a glassed-in space peering into the woods. The scents of tumeric, sumac and cloves wafts from the adjacent spice shop to our table.

The next stop is Castel, a family winery that produces 100,000 bottles annually in vintages that have been lauded by Sotheby’s, among other experts. It is simply delicious, generous and full-bodied, and there's good news: It is distributed in South Florida by Royalty Wines in North Miami Beach.

At last, we wend our way over the Judean hillsides and through the olives to the simple home and cheese-making operation of Shai Zeltzer. It is milking time, and the goats queue patiently for their turn at relief. Zeltzer – noted worldwide for his cheesemaking – shows the cave where cheeses are aged. It’s breadmaking day, and a friend is kneading the dough that he will bake in the traditional over the fresh flame.

We slice a half-dozen cheeses, open a bottle of Castel’s cabernet blend, and settle in to chat and listen to the earth: roosters and hens crowing, goats bahhhing, a mourning dove cooing. A light breeze ruffles the olive trees as the full moon rises above them. The first of the loaves comes off the fire, and we toss aside our plans of an Arab dinner in favor of cheeses, fresh bread, plums and peaches just off tree.

“We live here according to the seasons,’’ says Zeltzer. “And everything changes with the seasons.’’

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