“There are 50 ways to leave a lover, but 1,000 ways to f**k up a fish,” chuckles Uri Buri, Israel’s pre-eminent fish chef, as he presides over dish after dish of succulent morsels arriving at our table.
It’s an attitude we find all over Israel: a no-nonsense knowledge of what tastes good and bad. Uri Buri’s restaurant looks wholly unprepossessing from the outside. No music, stark white walls. But the ingredients – “never more than eight” says the chef – are vibrant. Food from east and west set together with little thought for anything but taste.
We had arrived in Akko on the north coast of Israel the night before from Tel Aviv, Israel’s melting pot and its largest city.
It was not the plan to follow our stomachs so assiduously but Israel is a country that eats. Every corner has a pastry shop oozing honey coloured baklava or a spice hawker or simply a mound of dates.
Israel produces over 90 per cent of its own food, and the old port of Jaffa – the city from which Tel Aviv sprouted – was once a humming orange export hub.
Tel Aviv is easily split into two: Jaffa and the older parts of the city such as the original Jewish neighbourhood Neve Tzedek, now home to an oasis of design shops and chi-chi cafes, and Tel Aviv itself with its Miami-like beachfront (a 50m seawater pool that is well worth a visit) and rows of Bauhaus villas.
We started at Jaffa’s much-loved pishpeshuk – flea market. It bursts out from the streets south of the Ottoman clock tower by the port and ranges from the mundane to the gor-blimey: old radios and teddies, Arabic side tables, coffee pots, records, army memorabilia, and 1940s electrics.
It’s lucky that fuel from Ali Caravan, Tel Aviv’s best and busiest hummus joint, is not far. Pots of warm fava bean paste swept up with pitta come at a small price and only a marginal amount of hustle.
Tel Aviv is a city to see on your feet, as proved by our guide Amin, who took us from the uptown boulevards lined with the earliest Bauhaus buildings of the so-called ‘White City’ down to the ramshackle graffiti covered walls of Florentin. On the way he feeds us tidbits of information about historic adultery (look at the shutter holders on the older buildings), the city’s ‘thermometer’ windows and its much-loved kiosks.
Founded by just 66 Jewish families in the 1920s, Tel Aviv is home to some of the finest examples of Bauhaus architecture still extant thanks to the mass exodus of Bauhaus artists from Nazi Germany.
Even our hotel, Hotel Saul, pays homage to its minimalist legacy with posters of the most iconic buildings in each room, and a distinctly Bauhaus flavour to the design.
Better than the design though, the hotel manager David told us, is that Tel Aviv’s best sabich shop just happens to be on the same street.
This lunchtime staple is almost unique to Israel. The egg and aubergine pitta sandwich, in this case liberally adorned with four different sauces and three spice mixes, comes from an Iraqi-Jewish dish and is one of Tel Aviv’s most popular snacks. A close second can be found in Carmel Market across the road where laffa – a kind of flatbread – is liberally iced with creamy labneh and fragrant za’atar.
On Amin’s instructions we washed it down with eye-wateringly fresh bitter lime juice made by a Yemeni family on the edge of the market.
To work up an appetite, we scrambled away from the Carmel Market crowds and headed to the cool of the Museum of Tel Aviv, which has an impressive array of Impressionist and post-Impressionist European art, before coming back into town to one of Tel Aviv’s most iconic hotels – The Norman – for dinner.
Built in 1925, The Norman is a classic example of Tel Avivian modernist architecture. Restored in 2012, it is home to two outstanding restaurants.
One is an import of the London-based Japanese restaurant Dinings, which serves up exquisite slips of sushi and sashimi. The other, Alena, run by chef Barak Aharoni, mixes Mediterranean and Arabic cuisines.
This fusion is typical of a burst of new Israeli cuisine emerging mostly from Tel Avivian restaurants such as hipster havens Port Sa’id and North Abraxas or, a little off the beaten path, the bistro-style CoffeeBar.
It is certainly why, as we reached the little known town of Binyamina a day later to visit the Margalit Winery, we felt somewhat heftier than we did when we departed from Luton.
Upping the food stakes has also helped Israel’s burgeoning wine scene we discovered as we were whisked, glass in hand, around Margalit (tours by arrangement).
Debby Sion, who came to Margalit from the Golan Heights Winery in the north, explained that although wine was grown in Israel before Europe the practice died out.
It was brought back by the Rothschild family in the 17th century and then enjoyed a second, more modern, renaissance in 1983 in the Golan Heights.
Margalit prides itself on being something of a rebel in the field. Its eponymous founder, a chemistry professor, starting making wine in 1982 and now produces up to 30,000 bottles a year. It even has its own unique grape, which Debby says is “shamelessly” called ‘Margalit Blanc’.
Before we left for Akko to meet Uri Buri and hunt out more addictively good hummus (this time at Akko’s Hummus Said), Debby left us with a warning: don’t eat in Jerusalem.
Dire though this sounds, take it with a generous pinch of kosher salt.
You need only take one step inside Mahane Yehuda market – a pilgrimage for any Ottolenghi fan – to see why.
Here amid the hustle of Jewish families picking up the last ingredients for Shabbat meals is a smorgasbord of cafes and restaurants including Machneyuda, where oxtail bourgignon was chased with a supremely moreish semolina cake.
Jerusalem is one of the world’s most venerated cities and it is near impossible not to appreciate the buzz of reverence at any one of its holy sites, but more forgotten are its ritzier corners.
Only in Jerusalem could you pause for thought in the Garden of Gethsemane one minute and sup dusky negronis in the vaulted bar of the American Colony hotel the next.
Or, stumble upon the delightfully old world cliché Al Mihbash where we found four linen suited ex-British diplomats ploughing through wine and joking with its shisha-smoking Arab owner.
Or stroll through the grand and modern Museum of Israel, which is packed to the gunnels with everything from Henry Moore sculpture to entire examples of synagogues from India and the Caribbean, as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the day only to drink beer at the wistfully European hideout Barood late at night.
Nibbling a bizarre saffron-infused chocolate bread as we climb up to the room of the Last Supper seems to sum it all up.