One year ago: Duck baked with Garlic & Honey
Two years ago: Mantu
It’s a holiday suggestion this week, sharing my last trip up north to the ancient Crusader town of Akko, also sometimes spelt Acre in English.
"Of all the cities along the Syrian shore – from Antioch to Gaza – there is no city whose chronicles are as eventful as those of Acre, and there is no other city whose direct impact on the fate of the entire country was so great," wrote 19th century English MP, journalist and mystic Laurence Oliphant.
There are Crusaders, Templars, Knights of St John and Ottoman Turks. Napoleon too - though he didn't make it in, departing after a 2 month siege when he couldn't break through the walls. And they all feel very present, not at all distant... So if you're a history buff, or you just want a rest in an exotic location, Akko is for you. (The Crusades Through Arab Eyes is a great read for anyone visiting. And anyone not visiting!)
And of course a recipe. Fish, because it's a staple in Akko, which is also a fishing village. The recipe also uses saffron, since I bought huge quantities of saffron in the Akko markets. Check out how huge below!
Akko is a town with a mixed Arab and Jewish population facing the Mediterranean in northern Israel. There are also Christians, Druze and Bhai - for whom it's a holy city. Its stunning Old City is still populated mostly by its original Arab inhabitants. Its natural harbour and strategic location mean it has been continuously inhabited since the Middle Bronze age, some 4000 years ago. It's one of the oldest towns in the world, and also one of the most beautiful, a sandstone city perched on the sea.
Every aspect is beautiful, whatever the weather, And since we're experiencing spring in winter, it proved a wonderful location for a winter break.
We had a favourite table. When we took a boat ride, we could even see it from the sea! The boat was great fun – and at 10 shekels (less than USD $3.00) great value in anyone’s book.
The only thing better than a traditional souq is a traditional souq by the sea. This is the place to buy industrial quantities of saffron. And many other things. Scarves. Coffee pots, and coffee beans. Fruit and veg. Herbs. Pita baked the old fashioned way, in front of your eyes. And freshly caught fish and seafood, of course.
If you can tear your eyes away from the the market stalls, the decorations on the walls are also interesting. And every angle reveals something else that draws your gaze.
Many guidebooks will tell you that Akko has the best humus in the country; some stick their necks out and say in the whole Middle East. That's a big call. And obviously, there are people who would die in a ditch defending their humus in Lebanon and Syria, as well as just down the coast in Jaffa.
So I went on a humus tour. Someone's gotta do it. And all the humus I ate in Akko was outstanding. But there is always a queue outside one place, Akko's most famous humuseria - Humus Said.
When you finally get in, it's not at all fancy, and it's packed with locals as well as busloads of tourists. And I can say that Said deserves his reputation. His humus is simply superb. Rich, warm, creamy, so so satisfying.
And people's prices. Said doesn't charge much, though he could. You can also get take-away, at a blue window round the back. 8 shekels (just over USD $2.00) for half a kilo, less than what you pay for half the quantity at the supermarket, plus this one is preservative-free.
Many locals say they prefer Abu Sohil's humus, which is in fact made by a woman, Suheila and that's what the locals call it. (She's the only Muslim woman who owns a major business in Akko and one of the stars of the Israeli film Hummus! You can read about it here. )
Her humus shop is on Salah e-din street, outside the market, but still within the walled old town. Of course, we tried that too, and it was also really, really good. Amazing, actually. She also opens later, so you can get humus at the un-heard of time of 5.00 pm.
When I couldn't decide which was better, I asked one stall holder in the market what he thought. He replied that both were good. When I asked him what the difference was, he replied, "Luck!"
Humus Said has no website, and no real address, other than 'in the marketplace.' (and Trip Advisor, of course.) Telephone: +972-4-9913945. It's open Sunday - Friday: 6 am to 2:30 pm and closed Saturday.
Humus Abu Sohil 24 Salah e-Din | Old City, Acre. Telephone +972 4-981-7318. Open 9 am to 6 pm every day except Tuesday.
CATs & conservation
Everywhere you look in Akko you see 2 things. Cats – mainly orange and tortoiseshell, Ginger Rules here – and building work.
Akko's Old City has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and there's a large renovation programme underway, with Italian conservators involved. From what I could see, it is being done sensitively. The aim appears to be repair, not that reconstruction that turns into destruction.
Hamam Ghattas is an exquisite, renovated Ottoman bathhouse. (Have a look at their website here.) The owner told us he’d returned home to Akko after years working in Jerusalem, and invested in this post-retirement business. His USP is something I’ve never seen anywhere else. You rent out the whole hamam! It’s yours for 2 hours, no sharing with anyone except your boyfriend, or whoever else you’re travelling with, which makes you feel like an Ottoman emira. Or a modern day celeb.
It has a wet sauna, a dry sauna, a jacuzzi, hot stones to lie on and a massage option too. Marina the masseuse was simply fantastic. It took me back to Russia, where massage was strong and medicinal. In fact, this massage was a great mixture of the romantic east, the hot stones, and the scientific west. Plus the Russian touch of alternating boiling and freezing water. One of the best massages you’ll ever have, plus you come out super-clean, relaxed and invigorated. (That cold water!!!)
Ask for Marina.
“I trained in Russia and then here in Israel with Gregory,” she said, sure that I would know who she meant.
Apparently Gregory, a massage teacher originally from Georgia in the former Soviet Union, is of such legendary stature that he is known just by his first name.
The hamam is open every day from 10.30 am - 23.30 pm but it is popular, so you have to book. It's not cheap but you have 2 blissful hours, and it’s worth splurging on.
In many ways you can say that one person put Akko on the international map and that’s Uri Jeremias. He began with a seafood restaurant, Uri Buri, a play on his name and the Hebrew word for mullet fish. Then he invested in an ice cream parlour, Endomela, and also a high end hotel Effendi, a restoration that took years and was a labour of love. It paid off. The hotel has been a hit. At reception they told us that it’s full all summer and most weekends throughout the year. And that's despite room rates that are eye-wateringly high.
I have Uri Buri’s cookbook, bought after a trip I made with my friend Cheryl Bart can it really be 7 years ago now? His restaurant is well-known and much reviewed, so I won’t review it again, but if you have the chance, try the tasting menu. It’s good value and his wasabi sorbet remains a knockout.
YOU SCREAM, ICE CREAM
Do go to the Endomela ice cream parlour. It's on the harbour (and was near our Airbnb apartment. Wasn't that lucky?) and it really is gorgeous. The fruit and mint sorbets were fresh, and you could taste the real fruit, and the cinnamon and cardamom ice creams were amazing. Both so spicy!!! Mmmm, that cardamom ice cream was fab. I can still taste it now. Make sure you go.
EL MARSA RESTAURANT
I want to tell you about another chef’s restaurant called El Marsa (Arabic for marina). It’s on the marina, as you'd expect from the name, just near the beautiful turquoise domed mosque. (See their website here.)
The restaurant is in the old Ottoman custom’s house, a 13th-century (!) building. Renovating it was another labour of love. Chef Allah Moussa worked in various Israeli restaurants, and then at Michelin starred restaurants in Sweden for a number of years before returning to his home town (where btw he began his career aged 14 washing dishes at Uri Buri's restaurant.)
In 2012, Moussa talked his childhood friend Marouan Sawaid into running the business with him. Sawaid left his old job as a sociologist and they opened El Marsa.
They serve Arabic dishes with both eastern and western influences, and fish and seafood so fresh, you can practically smell the sea on your plate.
We chose simple dishes, and saw how well the Chef Moussa mingles his Western training with his local roots and cuisine. A first course salad, with Galilee greens and herbs, cashews, and sour cherries was wonderful, and a great preview for a perfectly grilled really fresh fish.
We also tried a starter which is the size of mains in other restaurants – grilled calamari served on a bed of hummus and tahini. It was literally perfect. Wouldn’t change a thing – cooking, spicing, consistency. Standout. The meal came with complimentary olives, bread and baba ganuj. It was rounded off by attentive service from really nice staff. Only downside was that we were too full for dessert! Definitely worth a visit.
El Marsa: Fisherman's Wharf, Old Akko. Telephone: 04-9019281. Open Sunday - Saturday 12:00 - 24:00
Yep, that's what I came home with from Akko. A friend says seeing this quantity of saffron makes her queasy, as if I’d paid a smuggler or something. Instead of which, I only bought half of what they were trying to sell to me in the Akko market!
So you can see why I've been looking for a recipe with saffron. I wanted to make chraime, a spicy fish dish prepared by North African Jews for the Sabbath meal on Friday night, and remembered seeing this recipe from Uri Buri. But his recipe had no saffron, and also no tomatoes, which is different to how I remember Food is Love grandmother Rina Mevorach preparing it … so I raided my recipe files.
There I found a recipe for fish braised with saffron, fennel and cannellini beans. I didn’t have any cannellini beans, so I used what I did have – chickpeas and potatoes – and by the end had pretty much prepared Chraime 😊
Mediterranean Fish Stew, with Tomato, Fennel and Saffron
NOTE ON FISH: In Israel, they like to serve larger chunks of fish, still with skin on, like small fish steaks. The original recipe called for fillets, cut into 2.5cm pieces
- 500g white fish pieces - see note above
- 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2-3 tablespoons warm water
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 large fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced
- ½ teaspoon each fennel seeds and cumin seeds
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
- 1 teaspoon hot paprika - or to taste
- 1 x 400g can diced tomatoes
- 125ml / 1/2 cup fish stock or water
- 2-3 strips orange rind (rind of less than half a small orange)
- 400g cooked chickpeas, tinned or frozen
- Optional - 2 potatoes, skin on, sliced thinly
- chopped fresh parsley or coriander – 3 tablespoons
- Chopped fresh fennel leaves, extra, to serve
1. Crush the saffron strands with the salt in a mortar and pestle, or you can do in this in the small bowl of a food processor. This ‘wakes it up.’ Add warm water to the saffron, best in a glass bowl or cup, a containter that won’t stain. Set aside 10 minutes to infuse.
2. Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven or a large pan with a lid. Add fennel and cumin seeds, cook for 1 minute. Don’t let them burn! Add the onion and fennel slices, and cook over medium heat, stirring, for 10 minutes or until soft. Add the garlic and paprika, and cook, stirring, for another minute or so.
3. Add the saffron water, tomato and orange rind. Stir to combine. Add fish stock or water and increase heat to high. Bring to the boil. Add chickpeas and potatoes, if using. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes.
4. Taste. Add salt and pepper. And extra hot paprika if you like it spicier. When it’s ready ie the tastes are melded and the potatoes and chickpeas are done, add the fish. Cook for 5-6 minutes or until the fish is cooked through. Don’t let it over cook. It's really good when the fish is just done. When the fish is cooked, it’s ready. Stir in the chopped fennel fronds, parsley and coriander.
5. Serve with a grain – I used a mix of barley and buckwheat, but couscous is good too. Or if you don’t want carbs, this is also good over green beans. Top with extra parsley to serve.
VERDICT: This is a lovely, warming healthy dish. It's tasty and easy - 2 excellent features! You can cook it up until you add the fish and then stop. Put the tomato vegetable stew in the fridge, re-heat when you’re ready to eat, add the fish, cook through and serve! Chraime usually has fresh chili and I think I might use that next time. I prefer it taste wise, and also visually. Now, for the rest of that saffron…