Overheard in the crazily crowded alleyways of the covered shuk in the heart of old Jerusalem’s Moslem quarter, an earnest English dad telling his equally earnest five-year-old daughter: “Yes, I promise we’ll absolutely keep an eye out for camels.”
The concert in Jerusalem is a resounding success. The program is part of the ongoing exploration of chamber music written by exiled composers of the 1930s, men such as Miecyslaw Weinberg, Walter Braunfels, Paul Ben-Haim, as well as the more renowned Kurt Weill and Erich Korngold, who were persecuted by the Nazis or by Stalin’s regime and whose work is rarely heard. Simon Wynberg is Artistic Director of the Artists of the Royal Conservatory ensemble and has a passion for reviving this remarkable music. Hearing it played so exquisitely in Jerusalem of all places adds an extra emotional resonance. Many people in the audience are old enough to be emigrés themselves – children at the time of the holocaust – and it is impossible not to hear the music as some kind of testament from the past, poignant with thoughts of what was lost or might have been created.
Next day, the musicians fly out to Amsterdam for two concerts at the Concertgebouw; Wendy and I head off into the Judaean desert, driving to a beach beside the Dead Sea to wallow in the strange, opaque, silky water and smear our startled skins with black mud. Then on to Jericho, prowling the archeological remains of the world’s oldest city. Wendy has a degree in Ancient Near Eastern Studies and is highly over-excited, leaning over the rail to ogle Dame Kathleen Kenyon’s trench and the incrdibly well preserved base of the oldest defensive tower ever excavated. The nearby ruin of an 8th-century Umayyad palace is even more spectacular, though utterly deserted except for the custodian of the site, a thoroughly urbane gentleman in a tan suit and tie who makes wry jokes in impeccable English and has clearly stepped straight from the pages of a Graham Greene novel. Our cab driver, Abdullah, is more interested in boasting about the qualities of the miniature bananas grown in the oases of Jericho. To make the point, he pulls over to the side of the road and buys us a hand of the little beauties. I thought they were going to be sticky or overly sweet like long yellow dates but the truth isn’t nearly so crude. Even in their skins they have a fresh banana aroma that is most compelling. When peeled, each one is as long as my index finger, fragrant, perfectly textured between ripe and firm and with a surprisingly subtle but persistent banana flavour – altogether delectable.
And then back to Tel Aviv for our last evening in Israel. A week has changed everything. From cold horizontal rain and crashing breakers it is suddenly summer, the sea a placid, glittering blue, the combed beaches crowded with sunbathers and frisbee players. Cyclists and joggers jostle along the miles of promenade; families stroll with ice cream cones. The afternoon is perforated by the endless, arythmic percussion of wooden bat and hard rubber ball – beach tennis – played all day long until the sound of it threatens to bring madness.
For our last dinner we walk back along the beach towards Jaffa to Manta Ray, a renowned, 12-year-old seafood restaurant built out onto the sand. It’s a ramshackle semi-circular construction that shows a glass façade to the sea and its unadorned rear end to the city but it looks cool after dark with huge amphorae filled with pussy willow boughs reaching up to the blue plank ceiling, six-foot photographs of faces superimposed onto glass, wooden troughs full of perfect vegetables. Tourists and locals are equally at home here, jollied into the details of the menu by a staff of self-confident young women. While considering our options, we drink Onyx Chardonnay 2006 from the Benyamina region, a wine that is showing its age in a rather sexy way, the bloom of fresh fruit departed but a worldly-wise, oxidative character creeping in, the structure still firm.
By now, we are used to the pattern of a meal in this part of the world – the same Ottaman-inspired routine as in Greece or Turkey, Lebanon or Armenia, that begins with bread and a dozen salads on little plates. Here at Manta Ray, those salads are far more inventive than usual and most involve seafood. The server sets a great tray of them beside the table and invites us to choose as many as we like. I’ll just stick with the highlights: a jumble of soft chickpeas, pitted black olives, sliced calamari (beguilingly tender) and slivers of crunchy kohlrabi, all in oil and lemon and parsley. Another intriguing and ultimately delicious combination involved cold steamed cauliflower florets, chopped apple and onion and dots of a soft, white, creamy cheese. Then there was a forthrightly acidic ceviche of fresh sea bass, onion and crunchy raw fennel: the final effect was closer to pickled herring than anything South American, but none the worse for that since I love pickled herring. Shelled shrimp and chunks of ripe canteloupe hiding in baby spinach leaves turned into a game of hunt the protein, the sweet melon-juice dressing a tad overwhelming.
One of the main courses was particularly notable – fresh sea bass simply pan-fried and served with soft, middleweight gnocchi, whole cashews and chunks of juicy eggplant that seemed to be masquerading as mushrooms all in a thick rich butter sauce flavoured with coriander and cured lemon.
The cat that owns the restaurant, a zaftig jellicle cat who looks as though he’s wearing a Mexican wrestler’s mask, instantly spotted a patsy in my wife and ended up with most of the decent entrecote steak she had ordered. Dessert was too scrumptious to share – a glossy beige log of fluffy halva mousse (so sweet but so irresistible) served with crushed cocoa nibs, “halva strings” that looked like asbestos but tasted divine, and a crunchy tuile wafer speckled with nigella and sesame.
And now it’s back to Toronto to launch Harry Rosen’s new web site and wait for our brief, intense northern springtime to show up.