Living in Tel Aviv was frustrating in many ways, but, for the purposes of this conversation, I am talking about food. Felafel, of course, is great, and, if you like sabich, which I don’t, then you’re also in luck. A sabich is pitta filled with many vegetables, but, overwhelmingly, the slippery texture of aubergine. I’m sure it’s very good for you.
What I missed most, yearned for, actually, was a British-style pork sausage. I dreamt of them. At least I think it was sausages I saw in my dreams.
There are few butchers in Tel Aviv. You will find stalls selling meat at Carmel Market, but it is often uncovered and unrefrigerated and this is a hot country. In supermarkets, usually the size of a corner shop, the meat is pallid, the chicken slimy, or worse, frozen. It looks as though it had never lived.
I went to the farmers’ market at the port, open on Fridays, and stopped at the butcher. I asked for three centimetres of beef fillet and two lamb chops, which came to 107 shekels, over £20, enough to make me consider turning to vegetarianism. Carrumba! I said, is it organic? The butcher told me there’s no organic meat in Israel, it’s too hot, and there isn’t enough grass to feed animals with. I hope I looked like I believed him. Also, he added, this is an expensive market. I had worked that out by myself, but it’s the only place I can find fresh garlic and yellow courgettes and tomatoes that don’t look radioactive. Fruit and vegetables in Israel are often shiny enough to check your reflection in.
Jane told me that animal welfare is the only place different parties in parliament, left or right, religious or secular, hawks or doves, find common ground. It is a comfort that the docking of dogs’ tails is illegal. Those types of laws are passed quickly, it’s everything else they disagree on.
A French butcher opened on Bograshov. I’d been looking forward to it since I noticed a sign announcing its arrival the day after I moved into my apartment. The fridges, imported from France, sat on the Haifa dockside for months. It took a year for the owner to be granted the license he needed.
The new shop looked expensive and polished in a way that Israeli shops rarely do. There was a rotisserie full of golden chickens, their juices dripping onto potatoes roasting below. For a few weeks I went in every day, often enough to wave a hello at the strapping young butcher when I saw him from across the street. Using a combination of pidgin French and Hebrew, I bought meat. I used the words I knew, poulet, veau, (never, of course, porc, it was kosher. The easiest place to find pork in Tel Aviv is from the Russian chain of supermarkets, Tiv-Tam), but it was always an effort, and I didn’t know how to ask for the different cuts. Most of the stock was kept in fridges at the back, so I couldn’t even point.
Shmulli said Benedict, on Rothschild and Allenby, was very good, I’d be able to have any breakfast I wanted. Even a full English? I asked.
They have English sausages, of course, he said, like I was insane to think anything else. So, the next Saturday morning, I hailed a cherut and went.
Rothschild is a beautiful, civilised street; there are two lines of trees running down the centre on a wide island along its length, another row along each kerb. You can be sure there are many French in all the nicest neighbourhoods. On Fridays men play pétanque, like they’re in Antibes or Montpelier, or name your ville.
I sat inside the restaurant and waiters passed saying Hi, brightly, but not stopping to ask if I wanted anything. As Armistead Maupin said, No rest for the perky. Eventually one handed me a menu.
There was a section for Classics, breakfasts from around the world. The Amatriciana, mystifyingly, included Gouda. The Full English had frankfurters. I asked for eggs benedict.
The poached eggs were, as they were everywhere I’ve had them in Tel Aviv, underdone. I’m not sure how they hold together. The white is almost translucent, snot-like, the yolk all but raw. The bread, which was brioche, was barely toasted, and the bacon tasteless, not even a hit of salt. La Fromagerie, in London, makes a pancetta sandwich salty enough to burn your lips. I dreamt of that, too.
I found a deli I liked, on King George, ten minutes walk away. It is called Merkarto and is part of a small chain. Chico, behind the counter, said he can get any meat I want, and stressed any, in a way that let me know I can buy cuts of pork from him. He’d lived in New York for five years, is 34 and has three sons. He wants to be able to drink a beer with one of them before he’s 40, and is on track to do so. I never saw him not smiling.
Another assistant, Eyal, told me he’d lived in Switzerland for a year, and, proudly, that he knew cheese. Even so, he offered to thinly slice mine on a machine. What is it with Israel and sliced cheese? With hardly a sign of panic I managed to stop him, and we fell into conversation.
He was taking a course in sausage making. So far he’d made bratwurst, merguez, lamb, kielbasa, something pickled, something with cheddar. I don’t think I even knew pickled sausages existed. He was learning how to make haggis the next week, which I didn’t want. There was only one class after that.
What I dream of, I said, is a decent, English, pork sausage. He asked if I meant a banger. I nodded, and smiled, and felt full of hope. In the end he made mortadella. He brought it to the shop especially for me. I love it, but it wasn’t what I craved.
Two days before I left Tel Aviv a beautiful deli opened fifty metres away, on Bograshov. There was one already, called something like the French Market, but it wasn’t great, and was very expensive. A packet of President butter, that Amanda says she wouldn’t feed to the pigs, had she any, for 25 shekels, well over £5. But the new shop looked good, with a decent selection of cheese and charcuterie. It even had foie gras. It’s kosher, so no pork rillettes, no bacon, no chorizo or lardo and certainly no bangers. Still, I wish it had opened a year earlier.
Today’s word: buhsar – meat – בשר