The road to discovering the Israeli food scene leads through the enormous amount of various restaurants (surely a surprise considering the small size of our country). Those restaurants verify in their cuisine, style, size, and location, but many of them have an important thing in common – they all get their fresh fruits and vegetables from ‘Aleh – Aleh’, who grow, develop and sell agricultural products to the Israeli culinary sector. Let’s take a moment and join a magical journey, tracing back the origins of the unusual zucchini flowers you had for your first course, the fresh artichokes you had for main or the beautiful lemons in your cocktail.
This story starts with a guy named Gidon, or even before that, with Gidon’s father who abandoned a career as a mechanical engineer back in the ’70s and decided to connect to his roots going back to agriculture. Like father like son, Gidon who had a successful career in the semiconductors business found himself following his father’s steps, reconnecting to agriculture. You may ask yourself how someone is quitting such a profitable job and joining such an old school sector with such questionable profits. Well, according to Gidon the biggest motivation for him was building something from scratch, creating his own story, touching others and dealing on a daily bases with a variety of disciplines. All that made the decision much easier for him.
Gidon did his bachelor degree in programming and worked in the Hi-Tech industry for a while, but the agriculture world was always a part of his life. Back at his school days, every time the situation on the borders was not quiet, the farmers took the kids to help in the fields, and he found himself skipping school to support his family. There was no other choice. So in a way, for him, it was finding the way back home. Driven by the wind of change, Gidon joined his father’s business and started to lead the way.
The idea to get into this direct selling system came from the significant share cut the whole share market was taking from the farmers. It was clear that to survive in this field one needed to control the entire chain of production. Today Gidon and his company ‘Aleh – Aleh’ are, without a doubt, an integral part of the Israeli culinary field. Their idea is not simply selling fruits and vegetables but having the chefs back in every way possible, even if it means delivering a single leaf all the way to the restaurant.
Let’s join Gidon for a day and follow the roots of a single vegetable all the way, farm to table, soil to plate. When the seeds first arrive at the farm, they have two option – being plant directly in the ground or joining the nursery. The soil is soil, while In the greenhouse, the seeds are planted by a machine in tray slots and kept in an incubator for 8-10 days. During this time, in a hot and humid temperature (around 28 degrees Celsius) the seeds start to germinate. At this point, they are making their way to the nursery, while the sprouts are still white as they are not doing photosynthesis yet.
In the nursery, sterile conditions are kept, a combination of temperature, moisture, light and UV measurements are being taken and changed accordingly to create the best terms and climate for the plants to grow. Sometimes the plants are tricked into thinking they are at a completely different environment, making it possible to grow successfully exotic varieties. After around four months as the seeds become seedlings the tiny tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli, micro leaves and many more are ready to be planted in the soil.
Seedlings are still not considered food and waste at this point is better than waste in farther stages of the growing process, and yet, the greens that can be donated go either to the organization that is helping sea turtles in ‘Michmoret,‘ a nearby settlement or to charity organizations like ‘Latet.’
Although ‘Aleh – Aleh’ is not organic by the label, they do use organic methods in their fields. By not using chemical pesticides and listening to the needs of the soil they manage to grow incredible fruits and vegetables. Their secret is in crop rotation, letting the minerals and vitamins in the ground to balance. In order not to use chemical pesticides, either small amounts of organic pesticides are used or, and it is the best solution – natural methods come in handy, especially growing the vegetables in their season.
Walking between the fields, we arrived at the so-called ‘Amusement park’ – the experimental fields of ‘Aleh – Aleh’. Being not very profitable they are the place for the growers to get crazy and have some fun. Some of the plants are first time grown in Israel others are just funky. Colorful carrots, rainbow radish, sweet turnip, yellow beetroot, sweet garden cress (the garden cress is a very ancient local plant, usually being bitter-spicy), the Japanese mustered that is now the chefs’ favorite decoration and many more.
It is not easy to enter new vegetables into the market of suspicious customers. Gidon and his team started to grow kale 26 years ago, but no one was interested in it. Only in the past 12 years with the blossom of the superfood movement, kale entered the local market. Same with the yellow beetroot that the guys started to grow almost 15 years ago and only in the last five years the demand for it started to grow. Although it sounds so simple, it is a long process of trials and failures. Sometimes the biggest surprises are the ones that where there all the time. As recently they discovered that the flowers of the cucumbers could be eaten and used in high cuisine. New or old, when you are eating directly from the field, the taste is so intense that sometimes it is hard to believe that it is the same fruits and vegetables you are familiar with from home. Everything is so fresh, aromatic and crunchy – and of course, it is much more fun when you pulled it yourself from the ground.
Working with chefs and restaurants is one thing but working with private customers is an entirely different effort. Recently ‘Aleh – Aleh’ opened a side project called ‘Aleh Habaita,’ allowing private customers to get the same vegetables as the restaurants. The customers order their vegetables online and get a box at their doorstep on the following day. Dealing with private customers brought to the business completely new troubles. A customer is complaining that his or her lemons are not yellow enough or that the bananas they got are not ripening in time. We can blame everything on Snow White’s apple, as it is not easy to make the clients understand that vegetables should be tasty and not necessarily pretty. In Israel of 2019, when you can order online almost everything the challenge is not to make the customers order online but to let them understand that it is ok to order their vegetables and fruits elsewhere than the supermarket. The idea of a direct selling system that is built by creating a relationship with the farmers is still new to most of the households in Israel.
So, what’s in the future for ‘Aleh-Aleh’? Foraging trips are an option, as the interest in foraging has started to grow also in Israel. Understanding that gastronomy is much more abstract than culinary and trying to expand in different directions. For example, taking part in the culinary culture association, the guys who deal with different academic questions about the future of food. Why? They are still not sure, but exciting things will definitely come out of it. As long as they will keep telling their story and try to make as many innovations as possible, they will never get bored.