Why Israeli spice tastes twice as nice | פורסם JC לונדון- 22.7.15
Avi Zitherspieler has created an international brand from the most unlikely sources. In the past decade, his brand, Spicy Way, has become a household name in Israel and has an overseas presence.
The flagship store at Beit Lechem Haglilit, in northern Israel, is the world's largest herb and spice emporium - a destination in itself with its own visitor centre. Stores in Netanya and Eilat also attract tourists, with locals served in city centre shops in Ashkelon and elsewhere. Abroad, there are also franchises in Dusseldorf, San Diego - and, coming soon - Los Angeles. Closer to home, two Radlett-based residents are finding fans through their shop and wholesale business, the more Britishly named Spice Way.
"We discovered the spices in Eilat when we went on holiday together several years ago," explains Karen Pomerance who set up shop in Battlers Green Farm in Radlett last year with Louise Caplin. "We were overwhelmed by the smells and tastes we encountered in the store, which we had heard about and made a point of seeking out."
Now the pair carry 70 of Zitherspieler's lines, which include single spices as well as mixes and infusions specially made for the British palate which have won several prestigious Great Taste awards in Britain.
"We bought as much as we could carry, and even as we came out of the door, I said to Louise: 'This could be something for us.'"
The duo, who have known each other for 30 years, had been looking for a project since Pomerance gave up a jewellery business and Caplin retired from buying clothing for Marks & Spencer.
They met Zitherspieler and persuaded him to supply them with special spice mixes tailored to British palates, which they started selling to farm shops and delis in 2011.
"We have tastings every day, showing customers you can stir the spice mixtures into soft cheeses to make a dip instead of just marinating them," says Karen.
Zitherspieler believes spices can improve our health as well as our tastebuds. Nigella seeds, for example, are known in the Middle East as a boon for diabetics. "It controls blood sugar - people call nigella 'black and blessed' here," he says.
Zitherspieler served up daily spoonfuls of za'atar - the now fashionable mix of hyssop and sesame seeds - to troops he commanded in the army to keep up their energy when supplies were scarce during combat. He even imports certain spices, which can't be grown in Israel, because he is so passionate about their health benefits - turmeric, for example, whose anti-inflammatory qualities he describes as being "anti-cancer and anti-dementia".
The story began when, as a five-year-old in his father's fields in the Galilee he weeded, planted and reaped the seeds of what became a formidable family business.
"By the age of 12 I was driving a combine and learning to operate the cleaning and packaging machines," he laughs.
In 1984, after the death of their father, Zvi, Zitherspieler and his elder brother, Ilan, took the business over, and started growing not just for Israel but for the world. "We're able to produce plants in Israel which are twice as aromatic as those grown elsewhere," he says.
"Herbs and spices grown in the Israeli climate contain a higher percentage of etheric oils and other aromatics than those grown in other parts of the world. The warm climate and the farming culture in Israel help preserve the natural substances of plants in general and in herbs and spices specifically." He is proud of their lemongrass, which he says is twice as fragrant as that in Thailand, oregano twice as powerful as in Greece and even cumin and coriander more potent than those grown in India.
But the company's great innovation was selling spice combinations pre-mixed for busy cooks. Now commonplace in Israeli grocery shops and food markets, it started with Majadra, a mix of onion, fried lentils, turmeric and cumin to spice up rice, while Miracle Mince - a blend of oregano, garlic, ginger, chilli, allspice, dill, white pepper, caraway and dried onion - is based on a recipe Zitherspieler's late mother, Zipora, developed for her Polish meatballs. Cubes of dried fruit infused to make refreshing drinks followed and started an Israeli drinks trend.
Back in the north of Israel, which has a large Muslim population, Spicy Way has another kind of medicine to dispense, one based on embracing the "otherness".
"We have eight Arab workers in our fields and production facilities, and they represent half our workforce," says Zitherspieler. "In the Galilee we are used to working in harmony with our Arab neighbours, and I have learned a lot from them about planting medicinal herbs. But it's more than a working relationship; we eat in each other's homes and we celebrate all our holidays together."
It gives another dimension to Zitherspieler's vision to make the world a better place to live through spices. "Maybe as the world becomes more spicy, we will feel less stressed and will learn to use less medicine," he says hopefully.