Disclaimer: The following post deals entirely with fresh produce. There is no mention of dessert, chocolate, or alcohol. I know this is shocking considering my weaknesses and passions, but dear God if they had fruit and vegetables like this in America you’d see a lot more food blogs spazzing over tomatoes. Anyway, on to the good stuff.
One of my favorite activities on my Birthright trip had very little to do with the political or historical issues of Israel and Judaism. Just before we headed out into the desert for our Bedouin experience (including an all too short camel ride), our group was taken to Shvil Hasalat, or The Salad Trail, an educational farm and greenhouse facility in the Northern Negev. According to the website, The Salad Trail is owned by agronomist (awesome job title) Uri Alon, although we were led by a different guide (of Australian or South African origin — I hate that I can’t tell those two accents apart).
We started the tour a few miles outside of the facility, where we were introduced to The Salad Trail’s resident homing pigeons. Our guide explained that in the early days of the Israeli Defense Force, the army would use homing pigeons to deliver messages. A few people volunteered to write messages and we released a few of the pigeons. Homing pigeons always return to the place they were born, which in this case was the farm, so by the end of the tour they had returned our messages to us (Well, 2 out of 3 at least. Hopefully the last pigeon made it home eventually).
We then jumped on the bus to head to the greenhouses and fields of The Salad Trail. After saying hello to the homing pigeon home base, and meeting a sizable tortoise, we were ushered into the first greenhouse, where hundreds of fresh strawberries hung suspended a few feet in the air. Our guide explained how these “flying strawberries” were easier to pick, and avoided rot because of being hung in the air. They were, of course, organic, and pesticide free, although a specific type of insect was introduced to the strawberry greenhouse to prevent other bugs from chowing down. Not us, though — our guide passed around a basket of freshly picked strawberries, and when I bit into one I was actually floored by the flavor. These strawberries were much smaller than the monsters you can find in your average produce section, but their flavor was much stronger and sweeter. They lacked the diluted, watery taste of supermarket berries, and suddenly I understood why some people just enjoy a fruit salad for dessert. With this kind of freshness, I would find it plenty sweet enough as well.
Next stop was the tomato greenhouse, where the guide outlined the numerous varieties of tomatoes they grow (mostly smaller cherry and grape varieties). As someone who routinely keeps a pint of grape tomatoes in her fridge for snacking, I was in heaven. I tried to look up the names of some of the tomatoes we tasted, but it turns out there’s a vast catalogue of tomato varieties on the Internet, so unfortunately I think those details are lost to the ages. I do remember that my favorite of the samples came to a point at the bottom, so any intrepid researchers or tomato-know-it-alls are welcome to chime in with the answer. Anyway, it was in this greenhouse that we first got to put our grubby mitts all over the merchandise and actually pick the samples off the vine. It was a little surreal to not have to worry about washing my produce — I just plucked it off, brushed off a little fuzz, and popped it in my mouth. The contrast in both taste and experience between my Key Foods tomatoes and the fresh ones off The Salad Trail was pretty staggering. It really makes you take a step back and recognize how far humanity has come from basic agriculture.
I somehow managed to restrain myself from eating the entire stock of tomatoes and moved on with the group to a greenhouse full of edible herbs. Our guide chose a couple of volunteers for a blind taste test, and they did pretty well — until he gave my friend Dave the natural equivalent of Viagra. I didn’t ask Dave how that fared later on that day, but I think he succeeded in maintaining his composure, so the potency of this plant may not be at “little blue pill” level. We then milled around, trying different assorted herbs like basils, parselys, mints, and even lettuces.
My favorite farming (gathering? harvesting?) moments came when we finally headed outside again. We first went into a field of carrots, and were told to have at it. Cue many, many Bugs Bunny references. I pulled up a purple carrot by the roots (yes, this time I did wash it, only because I wasn’t super interested in eating Israeli desert dirt. However, maybe it would have been delicious, considering the rest of The Salad Trail offerings). Again, carrots are a favorite veggie of mine, so I was happy to chow down. I picked a pretty reasonably sized carrot, but some people ended up with carrots the size of cantaloupes. I found the purple carrot to be a bit milder in flavor than the common orange, although obviously it was incredibly fresh, since I literally pulled it straight from the ground. According to the Internet, however, purple carrots are usually sweeter than orange carrots, so maybe mine wasn’t fully ripened yet.
After a citrus detour (clementines and tangerines) where we rested our picking hands, we were told to jump into a maze of passion fruit plants. I’ve seen my fair share of passion fruit flavored sorbets and yogurt packages, but to be honest I had no idea what a passion fruit actually looked like. We were instructed to only take the black fruit — the green would be unripe, and therefore hard to bite and gross to eat. After some panicked searching because we had already been told we were running out of time for our tour, I managed to spot a mostly black, egg-shaped fruit hiding high in the vines at the back of the maze. It was a little larger than the size of my palm, with a smooth, thick skin that resisted the attempts of my fingers to peel it. Our guide shouted to the rest of the group to just bite into it, so I channeled Evangeline Lily and chomped down on that mofo (Yes, that was a Lost reference. Way to reference a show that went off the air in 2010). Once I cracked the skin I was able to tear open the rest of the fruit to reveal the goopy innards and seeds. Employing my Girl Scout/cave woman foraging skills, I used the torn top of the fruit as a scoop and had my first taste of passion fruit. It was overwhelmingly sweet and syrupy, ending with a sharp note of tartness. I’ve since tried both passion fruit sorbet and greek yogurt, and I think I like it best when mixed with a creamier base to balance the powerful sweet and tart flavors.
Biting into that passion fruit was an amazing moment of primitive triumph, and a perfect example of something that I would never have done on my own. Unlike visiting the shuks, which I could and will do whenever I return to Israel, without Birthright I would have never known about The Salad Trail. It highlighted the achievements of Israel without hitting you over the head with the message (look, Zionists transformed this desert land into an arable place), and it was as much about the past of Israel as its future, economically and culturally. Plus, it serves as a wonderful metaphor for self-discovery — taking the initiative to try something new and fresh, and making that experience happen on your own. Although I suppose my metaphor would collapse a bit if I was shorter and had needed someone to pick the passion fruit for me. Regardless, it was personally significant to me as a physical symbol of the growth and renewal I experienced on the trip.
And if I could have had some of the items I tried at The Salad Trail on the breakfast buffets, I might have partaken in more traditional Israeli breakfasts. Because, let’s be serious, this all really comes down to me and my need for a proper meal.
Oh, and don’t you worry, my last post about Israel deals with all the expected fare — shawarma, falafel, ice cream and more. We’ll be back to talking about grease and milk fat before you know it.
The Salad Trail