Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wine and Cheese in the Desert

This past weekend I was in the Northern Negev visiting some food sites for the tour. Outside of the wine and cheese tasting great, one of the most impressive aspects to visiting these farms is the fact they are able to thrive in desert conditions. There are acres of grapes, pomegranates, olive trees, and more. It seems absurd that anyone would even think to grow anything, let alone large farms, in such hot and dry conditions.

However, for thousands of years not only has there been agriculture in the Negev region of what is now Israel, but agriculture has thrived. The Nabateans developed some very advanced techniques to adapt to the desert conditions, primarily finding ways to provide water to their crops. By creating sophisticated irrigation systems they were able to water an area much larger than the land that actually received rainwater or runoff from rivers and streams. At the height of the Nabatean period, around the 2nd century BCE, they were able to have successful agriculture in an area much larger than what is in use today. Today, farms in the area use many of the same techniques the Nabateans used. Carmei Avdat vineyard, for example, has its vineyards in a flash flood plain. A few times of a year when floods come through they are able to siphon off the water into reservoirs that provide the grapes enough water throughout the year when there is little if any rainwater. Their wine is very good too, by the way. If you're interested in learning more about ancient agricultural practices in the Israeli deserts visit this interesting and very thorough site.

One of the highlights of the weekend was Naot Farm, a goat cheese farm very close to Sde Boker. Started by the former owners of the famous Argentine steak restaurant chain El Gaucho, Naot Farm has around 250 goats, producing 750 liters of milk per day! They make 10+ varieties of goat cheeses and yogurts, ranging from Camembert to hard cheeses. There's a red wine cheese, a house specialty, one infused with thyme, all of which are very good. My favorite was the "kesem" or magic cheese, that is unique to their farm. The plain tzfatit was also very, very good. You can stop by any day of the week during daylight hours and have a free tasting and walk around the farm. The goats are milked twice a day, and groups can call ahead for a tour of the farm with the owner. There is also a very good meat restaurant (going back to the El Gaucho roots) that offers excellent steaks, although at slightly expensive prices. If you're in the region travelling or just driving through I highly recommend a stop at the farm.


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