If You Only Knew… Part 1

I will first say that I promised to behave. I promised to temper my Middle Eastern / Mediterranean /Eastern European, free-run, free-range, farm-to-table, and gluten-free temperament as I continue with my rants. It is disheartening that now as the ALS breathes down my neck, I, who was a soldier of life, a warrior, lord of the castle, master of my own destiny, have to lay down my armor and arms and allow others to lead me on a leash like a blind and docile poodle. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I will try to express all the anger, disappointment, aggression, and frustration that bring my blood to a boil, in a mild and serene manner (deep, deep breath here – Lamaze, yoga anyone?).

‘Sharon, my lovely wife, tries to keep a lid on all this and save me from myself. She’s the pure embodiment of compassion, and wouldn’t swat a mosquito even under the threat that she might turn into the Michelin Man after repeated bites. Little does she know that long ago I hired mercenaries to do the dirty job of ‘taking care’ of the pesky blood-suckers: bats have settled in to our home for the promise of free food and cheap room and board. I’ve named them the Seven Samurais, and when their friends join in, they become The Dirty Dozen. They keep the skies clear of enemies so I can sleep better at night. Quid Pro Quo. The enemy of my enemy is now my brother in arms. ‘Si vis pacem, para bellum’ : If you desire peace, prepare for war.

Please note: due to the ever-watchful eye of the Animal Rights Society, no mosquitoes were harmed or offended during the writing of this piece. And they were paid above minimum wage plus benefits.

Since our society has lately become more and more censored, I reluctantly submit my head to the PC guillotine (can I invoke my civil rights?). There will be no public shaming or crucifying. If this were a video, the faces would be blurred and pixeled, and the voices would be distorted and sound like they were coming from the bottom of an empty wine barrel. All the witnesses have been placed under the Government Protection and Relocation program and were issued new IDs. By the time this piece is finished it will have the bland flavor of a vicious Rottweiler who after he was neutered lost his ‘cojones’ and chutzpah, and then was muzzled. All he can do now is think of unicorns and smell the daisies.

I fondly remember the good-old-days of Archie Bunker and Al Bundy, when people had thicker skins and things could be said openly, no apologies necessary. Suddenly, past memories of living under a Communist regime seem more palatable compared to our so-called ‘free’ society of today. Back then, citizens did not muzzle one another. That was solely the government’s job.

To be continued. . .

Our Precious

Our Precious (Coxeruntque Farinam Proclivitas)

There are rumors of a man who turned his kitchen into a laboratory where he engages in dubious activities. In the wee hours, away from prying eyes he makes attempts at oregano and rosemary leaf distillation for the purpose of converting this ‘concoction’ into potent potions. He experiments with liquid Nitrogen and separates ripe tomatoes in a centrifuge. But the most bizarre ritual he performs is pure Ethanol inhalation, which he religiously does every time a new dough-fermenting bin is exposed to the air: then, he closes his eyes and travels back in time to distant lands and places in his childhood.

Only lately have researchers named this phenomenon as “Coxeruntque Farinam Proclivitas” or “Dough Addiction” where those afflicted experience high euphoria and a sublime state of mindless floating often described as Nirvana. In its advanced state this predicament turns into ‘Bread Addiction‘: a permanent condition without a known cure which afflicts its unsuspecting victims in a terrible way – it turns completely normal ‘Wonder Bread’ consumers into ‘Artisan Bread’ seekers who will relentlessly search for a prized crusty loaf with earthy-nutty flavor which will remind them of the long-gone era before the machines took over our world and fast-food became the ‘Mantra’. When those lucky ones finally manage to put their hands on their ‘prize’ they will cling to it, with a silly smile plastered over their faces while they whisper “Our Precious, our precious…” -Sept. 2017

A Sephardic Seduction

At a certain point in my life in Israel, I dated a young lady; she was a Sabra (born in Israel). Osnat was named after her maternal great-grandmother, who in turn carried the proud biblical name of Joseph’s wife while back in Egypt. Her hair was as black as a raven, her skin the colour of olive oil, and her eyes were infinite emerald pools. Her wide smile could melt an iceberg quicker than All Gore’s climate change theory. She possessed a contagious joie de vivre which instantly pulled one away from daily worries and grief and enfolded him in a shroud of eternal bliss, while exuding a sublime mystery of selflessness. She evoked subtle delicacy with intense sensuous awareness while avoiding crude titillation. I couldn’t refrain from quoting Solomon’s Song of Songs which likens a lover’s enjoyment of his beloved to a gazelle “browsing among lilies” or her breasts to “twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies” or the beloved herself to a garden filled with choice fruits inviting the lover to feast. This was just one generation since the great immigration wave of Jews from the Arab countries met their distant cousins from Europe in Israel; an uneasy tension between the Sephardic and Ashkenazi cultures was fermenting in this multi-cultural cauldron and social experiment. These were not proper times for mixed-race dating; as the saying goes: ‘Even a bird and a fish can fall in love – but where will they build their nest?’

Her family hailed from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco; Their millennial residence as an open and organized Jewish community in the Iberian Peninsula was brought to an end starting with the Alhambra Decree by Spain’s Catholic Monarchs in 1492, and the decree of 1496 in Portugal by order of King Manuel I, which resulted in a combination of internal and external migrations, mass conversions and executions orchestrated by the Spanish Inquisition. One of the notable Jewish figures at that time was Don Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel who was born in Lisbon, Portugal into one of the oldest and most distinguished Jewish Iberian families who had escaped the massacre in Castile in 1391. A student of the rabbi of Lisbon, he became well versed in rabbinic literature and in the learning of his time, devoting his early years to the study of Jewish philosophy. At twenty years old, he wrote on the original form of the natural elements, on religious questions and prophecy. Together with his intellectual abilities, he showed a complete mastery of financial matters. This attracted the attention of King Alfonso V of Portugal who employed him as treasurer; North African Sephardim are the descendants of the expellees who left in 1492. According to a legend, when the Jews were expelled, they took with them the keys to their homes and synagogues hoping that one day they would return. Those large iron keys in the old Spanish style – lay in drawers and boxes, gathering dust, getting lost among clothes and cooking pots, sometimes for years until the family moved or someone died. Others were hung proudly above the front door; reminders of a culture they had loved and hoped to maintain. This branch settled in North Africa mostly in Morocco and Algeria, they spoke a variant of Judeo-Spanish known as Ladino and also Judeo-Arabic in a majority of cases and French later. They settled in the areas with already established Arabic-speaking Jewish communities in North Africa and eventually merged with them to form new communities based solely on Sephardic customs. In 1948 following the Arab–Israeli conflict and the creation of the State of Israel, they were on the road again, leaving behind homes, friends and centuries of culture, eventually becoming refugees again. The reasons for the exodus included factors such as persecution, anti-Semitism, political instability, poverty, expulsion, the desire to fulfill Zionist yearnings and to find a secure home in the ancestral land of Israel.

The North African Jewish cuisines of Morocco, Tunisia and Libya were influenced not only by Jewish traditions, but also by the Mediterranean and Arabic cultures that surrounded them. Meals are often centered around vegetables or fish and couscous, and spiced with aromatic spices like turmeric, ginger, hot peppers, cinnamon, paprika, saffron, caraway and cumin. Tangiers, a city in Northern Morocco, is different in that it’s more heavily influenced by Spain, with its fish, garlic, onion and tomato dishes. Tunisian Jewish food is stunningly diverse – a melting pot of Spanish, Italian, French and Turkish traditions, while, Libyan Jewish cuisine is the result of an exchange of ingredients and ideas that took place between Libya and Italy.

And so it came to a pass that we were invited for lunch at her family’s home in Tiberias. At noon on a sunny July Saturday we followed the road from Nazareth to the Kineret (Sea of Galilee) which is dotted with picturesque Arab villages surrounded by ancient olive-groves, lush orchards and succulent, sweet watermelon patches. As a secular Jew, I viewed going to the beach, or attending a soccer match on Sabbath as a kosher way to enjoy the well-deserved resting day recommended by God, and hoped that Osnat’s more traditional family would be forgiving of my attempt at ‘morally corrupting’ their daughter, and not see it as a transgression.

The moment we entered the home which was nestled on the hills above the lake, offering breathtaking views of the gentle waves soaring on the light breeze, caped with white foam, I stopped in my tracks – an intoxicating aroma wafted through the air: the scents of garlic, cumin, turmeric and cinnamon were abundant, sublime, and not overpowering. Suddenly I had entered an unknown culinary territory completely different from the East-European, Ashkenazi pastures I had grazed on so far. Without apology, I followed my nose straight to the kitchen and stopped in front of the oven where through its window I saw a pot with a slow bubbling sauce. The source of this exciting ‘commotion’ that released addictive aromas was the Chreime; a classic dish from the Tripolitan Jews that was widely spread throughout North-Africa, and which is traditionally served at room temperature or slightly warm. The sauce is sweet, spicy, bright with lemon and rich with complex, warm spices. The fish is cooked in aromatics and vegetables that impart deep flavors into the dish which slowly simmers overnight on low heat in the oven, so warm food would be available for Sabbath without actually cooking during the day of rest. To my surprise, the fish was perfectly moist and tender, atop a saffron-infused couscous and surrounded by vegetables cooked in a tomato sauce. Both, the appetizers which included raw and cooked vegetables, served either hot or cold, and the desserts that ended the meal were no less spectacular, and included Ma’amul (date cookies) and Malabi (creamy pudding perfumed with rose water, sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with roasted pistachios).

This meal was a sensory feast, accomplished by bringing to the foreground the sensuous and natural aspects of food. It was a combination of exquisite artistry and fine sensitivity. I was seduced by that which I did not fully know, could not fully see, and could only sense. I had always taken great pleasure in food and favored a simple style of cooking, and had little tolerance for overly sophisticated cuisine. Now I could completely surrender both to the sublime gastronomic experience and to the woman I loved.

The summer that was…

The time of the year that stretches from May to October has a specific name in Walla’s lexicon –  it’s called ‘The Market Season’: starting on the first Saturday in May we go into high gear and stay there until Thanksgiving weekend. Mixers and ovens go into overtime, bread dough is mixed, pastry is rolled, new products are created such as last summer’s ‘snail,’ a croissant pastry filled with frangipane and rum-soaked raisins, and the ‘accidental’ Boureka made with rye (!) puff pastry, filled with smoked meat and named ‘Pastrami on Rye’.

Rum-Raisin Frangipane snails

Walla’s Chocolate Babka

Giant Almond Croissants

A love/hate relationship has evolved between me and the Downtown Community market, of which I was one of the original founders seven years ago. On the one hand, I welcome the abundance of customers  and the frantic energy around our tent, seeing the expression on people’s faces who for the first time are tasting a salted caramel Kouign Amann pastry or an almond croissant.  By the end of the day this provides me with the immense satisfaction of a job well done and a well-deserved rest. On the other hand, there is the terribly inefficient act of 24 weeks of schlepping back and forth: tables, tents, generator, hot-holding table, breads, pastries, Bourekas, preserves, condiments, signs, baskets, refrigerator, freezer, etc. – all for just four and a half hours of the Saturday market.

Market display

Market display


Walla’s presence at the Saturday market and the logistics that are constantly evolving to accommodate new products, can be perfectly executed only thanks to our top-class ‘elves’ who are deeply committed to excellent food. Their work ethic is hard to come by these days and thanks to them, I finally learned to let go of my ‘control freak’ attitude  and to trust their endless resourcefulness and competence. Last fall, on Oct. 3, Sharon and I passed the baton to the ‘kids’ and enjoyed the season’s opening opera live from the MET at the local Landmark cinema – ahh, la Dolce Vita…

Joey the 'Fisherman'

Joey the ‘Fisherman’

Joey, a former Montréal native of Italian descent who recently made the Okanagan his new home, knows good food; his family owns a well-known Italian restaurant in Montréal, and like most of Walla’s employees, he started as a customer. Now he’s in charge of transportation and sales. He used to disappear on the occasional Saturday – “Going fishing” he said, and left us all behind, to face the hoards of customers who would descend upon our tent, appearing like swarms of hungry locusts. And what was in it for us?…Nothing, not even a shriveled sardine tail. . .nada.

And then there’s Dave, the retired geologist and passionate photographer (some of you have seen his outstanding work on our walls) who spends his nights manning the front desk at the Lakeside Resort, and then Saturday mornings congenially handling the logistics and sales at Walla’s tent, while also helping out at Phyllis Jmaeff’s produce stand at the nearby Farmer’s Market. Like Joey, he also hails from Quebec.

Team Walla 2015

Team Walla 2015 – Joey, Adra, Ben, Dave

There’s also Elena who just graduated high-school and is spending her Rotary year abroad in The Netherlands,  and her sisters Madeleine, in grad school for nursing, and Adra completing her studies at U of T.  These young ladies have exceeded my overly-high and often uncompromising expectations for everything that encompasses the ultimate employee: punctuality, responsibility, professional conduct, and higher than average intelligence. I am not easily impressed by human traits, but I commend their parents for raising such fine children (six in total).

Ben and Elena at the market

Ben and Elena at the market

As every summer gracefully fades, it gives way to the warm red, yellow and gold autumn colors that bathe the shorter days and the gentle rolling hills of Naramata in thousands of fire-like  lights. Our seasonal ‘tenants,’ the crickets with their endless song, the hooting owl perched up in the big pine tree, the constant buzzing bees in the intoxicating lavender bushes, the wasps that build their round hives almost everywhere, the little bats that pass above at dusk like a silent shadow, and the birds nesting and raising their chicks in the ‘townhouses’ attached to the shed wall – they leave in search for warmer lands as their ancestors have for thousands of years.

Now is the time to pick the partly shriveled wild grapes that grow unattended behind our home –  ripe, sweet and loaded with wild yeast which happily frolics on. This will serve as the base for the sourdough for the rest of the year. Nature regenerates and is reborn in the form of a plain, nutritious and crusty loaf of bread.

Our Naramata wild grapes

As we reflect upon the summer that was, we embrace the slower pace of life, grey streaked skies, falling leaves and naked trees, and welcome winter’s cold shrouds of snow. 

I come for the food!

When I finally drag myself out of my cave/home and head for a food establishment – which can include anything from a dingy fish’n-chips shack that lies nonchalantly on a wharf and where the food is served in disposable-recyclable-compostable plates and cutlery, and where the skinny, homeless dog wants to share your plate, to a four-course glitzy restaurant, where I am seated by a pompous waiter and looked down upon by a snooty sommelier – I expect only one thing: FOOD! Now, let’s make that clear:  not just any food, but Simple, Excellent and Unpretentious fare!  I’m not terribly impressed with Organic, Non-GMO, Wheat-Free and Gluten-Free, Free-range, Head-to-Tail, Farm-to-Table, Local, Raw, Decaf or any other Voodoo stuff. You know why? Because, and despite all the current mumbo-jumbo, fancy ‘Globe and Mail’ jargon, a meal with all these ingredients can be just as bad as one made with Fertilized, Sprayed, and GMO ingredients.  I also have a hard time understanding geographical lingo, i.e. what is considered local?  Is it Canadian P.E.I potatoes from 6000 Km away, or Washington apples just 10 Km. across the border from Osoyoos?

When attending a meal I do not wish to be distracted by anything except the food; in other words, hold the ‘amazing’ lake-mountain-vineyards views, the loud music and obtrusive noises from other diners, the constantly bored and screaming children who run around and keep banging into my chair. If possible, I would appreciate a windowless, sound-proof room (a bomb shelter, perhaps?). I have left too many establishments with an oath to never, ever set foot again in their door, ‘thanks’ to inadequate service, food, noise, just name it.  I’ve been to restaurants where the food was meager and I left feeling as hungry as when I came.  Others that were extremely expensive for the quality, and yet others where the noise level of the music ruined the experience, so all I remembered was ‘boom-boom, boom-boom.’

I tend to pay attention to the smallest details and then cast the die in favor of returning to a particular establishment – or not. It’s similar to being in a marriage – it cannot and should not be perfect, but in the overall scheme of things, the pleasant and positive experiences should outweigh the annoying and frustrating moments. But here lies the catch:  since I’m unwilling to compromise on food if it means accepting a disappointing meal in return for a ‘breath-taking’ view or a well-played artistic act (or concert), I’m willing, in my full mental capacity, to narrow my criteria to the food only, and anything else I consider a bonus.

It’s said that men suffer in silence, and in this case I’m no different. I do not review local restaurants on Trip Adviser, Yelp, Urban Spoon or any other social media because of conflict of interest – a decision which too often I regret.  I’m not a person who frantically waves at the waiter and lets the rest of the guests hear what he ‘really’ thinks about the food and ‘this place.’  I’m not someone who typically sends the plate back to the kitchen.  However, a while ago we decided to dine at a known establishment in Penticton, and I ordered a New York steak. The moment I sliced through the sizzling and nicely charred chunk I realized that it was a few grades well past beyond the medium–rare of my choice.  It actually looked more like ’50 shades of gray’ and biting into it confirmed my complete disappointment. The waitress was gracious when she realized the blunder and immediately re-ordered it. The second steak was done to perfection however my wife was already 15 minutes or more into savoring her meal, and in this way the magical moments of dining together that particular evening – vanished without ever to return. Obviously, I felt tres, tres, desolequel dommage!  In this case my father would say: “Whatever you do, make it right the first time,” and my grandfather would add something similar:  “Practice makes perfect and exercise makes excellence.”  In his book ‘It Must’ve  Been Something I Ate’, food critic Jeffrey Steingarten writes about Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida that offers eight degrees of doneness after you choose how many inches or how many ounces you wish to eat. I mention this to point out that if one strives for excellence, it will eventually fall into one’s grasp.

I do not believe in the ’bad day in the kitchen’ story. Consistency should be the mantra, day in and day out, or in this case – evening in and evening out. A military-like discipline is needed. No wonder the French refer to the kitchen staff as ‘the brigade’. Unless you (the cook, sous-chef, chef, or anyone in charge of putting out dishes) lie on the kitchen floor with no pulse and your brain registers absolutely no activity – nothing should exempt you from delivering less than a stellar meal. If you are emotionally and mentally incapacitated (your wife just left you for your best friend, took your new Lexus and left behind the three kids, two Great Danes and the one blue-eyed Persian cat for you to take care of) or physically not fit (drunk, tired, cut yourself and bleeding to death, had too much B.C bud so your taste buds are out of tune, or just not focused), please do yourself and your guests a favor: close the bloody kitchen and DO NOT dare put out any food. Is this too much to ask?

“Today’s constraints become tomorrow’s reality and the day after tomorrow’s new norm – and that’s how quality deteriorates over time.”

It was on a cold winter Sunday evening when we decided to go out for a meal at the Naramata Pub. Following a steamy shower and a close shave that would be deemed suitable by an Italian barber, I dressed nicer than usual and out we went braving the cold, just a 5 minute drive away from home. We stopped in our tracks when the waitress delivered the dreaded news that the kitchen had closed at 7:30 pm. because of a lack of customers. Refusing to return home on an empty stomach we headed to town in search of a decent meal and decided to try a fairly new establishment that had created a ‘buzz’ around its thin-crust pizzas.

Sitting close to the entrance, my posterior froze every time the unusually large double doors opened (an air-lock would work magic in keeping the warm air in and the cold out). The server suggested a variety of in-house brewed beers with exotic names, and reluctantly I asked for a sample. Craft beer is not my cup of tea since the large amount of hops makes it bitter.  I confess, bitter flavors actually numb my palate and I definitely don’t enjoy any food accompanied by an extremely bitter overtone . . . MEA CULPA.  As expected, it was quite bitter and I politely declined to have beer with the meal and opted for a glass of wine which proved to be quite expensive. Not even a light Lager on the horizon for consolation, only Ales and IPAs with an ‘in your face’ bold attitude. But hey, what do I know? . . . I’m just a baker. . .

We ordered a large pizza and a large Caesar salad to share. I tend to disregard the common thinking that empty restaurants serve bad meals and crowded ones serve morsels fit for the gods. The place wasn’t crowded, just a few tables were occupied and the order arrived quickly. I have to admit that a strange feeling befalls me every time I visit a new restaurant:  it’s a combination of excitement and anxiety – hope and doom coexisting in a strange harmony that only a quasi split-personality could accommodate.

From here, the situation deteriorated with lightning speed:  at the center of the table was a large tin can that was supposed to hold the pizza tray and which actually blocked the view across the table. All I could see was Sharon’s head popping up and down on top of the tray in a grotesque and gruesome way, resting on a layer of red tomato sauce and surrounded by pieces of Calabrese salami, artichokes and Sicilian black olives. She looked decapitated, yet her head was talking about how bad this Feng-Shui was.  From her perspective I probably looked no different, so we looked like a couple of bobble-heads rolling our eyes and shaking our, yes…HEADS.  I moved the heavy can and the tray to the side, and lo and behold – Sharon’s body was instantly re-attached to the talking bobble-head (she was a ‘babbling bobble head’ – an endearment which I kinda like).

Someone has to pull the Pizzaiolo aside and explain to him that a soggy pizza crust, no matter how thin it is – is a big NO NO, and in some parts of the world, is considered to be a transgression without redemption. Imagine picking up a slice with one hand while the other has to direct the ‘limp’ end into your mouth. At the same time try staving off the rolling olives (yes, whole olives) so they don’t hit your face (since there wasn’t enough cheese to ‘secure’ the olives in place – they were rolling everywhere).

After close observation I concluded that these weren’t merely plain olives, but ‘Siciliana Spiritum Liberum Olea,’ long thought to be extinct Sicilian free spirit or free-range olives.  The importance of this recent discovery of the lost Sicilian species in a small B.C. town is matched only by the unearthing of dinosaur skeletons in Alberta.  I would strongly urge the government to create a breeding program to slowly reintroduce them back into the wild, while Dr. David Suzuki could film an interesting documentary about the day those free-spirited Sicilian olives finally broke loose and ended up on my pizza.

Neither did the Caesar salad do much to improve the mood:  the only resemblance to the traditional was the Romaine. White broken crackers, strangely looking like Matzo (did Passover start earlier this year?) replaced butter-sautéed, plump garlic croutons.  Instead of Worcestershire, garlic, anchovies, Dijon, olive oil, lemon juice, egg yolks, red wine vinegar and white wine vinegar dressing, the order of the day was a beer-based concoction. The food on the plate was disjointed and I felt aggravated. Was it another ‘bad day in the kitchen,’ or was it just me? I was tres, tres, desole again – and somehow it felt like déjà-vu. I kept thinking about the customers who had written stellar reviews about the food and wondered if sometimes ignorance is bliss.

The moral of the story: If you want to break the mould, steer away from tradition, make your mark and boldly go where no chef has ever gone before – go with a bang and make it memorable, for mediocrity is not a trait widely rewarded.

I will end this story with an anecdote about something I learned from one of my customers:  it was two years ago, late on a Saturday in the summer. The Cannery was deserted and no living soul was to be seen. Walla was quiet as usual since everyone was at the downtown market. A gentleman sat at an outside table and ordered an Israeli tuna salad sandwich. He savored it slowly, paid, and left without speaking. A month or longer passed until he reappeared on a Saturday and repeated the ritual: sat at the same table and ordered the same dish. This time before leaving he spoke laconically:  “I just wanted to see whether it was a one-time thing.” Since then he keeps coming once in a blue moon for the Israeli tuna salad sandwich…

There are still a few righteous establishments among the sinners in Sodom and Gomorrah, do not fear… . .(to be continued…).