Friday, 17 April 2015

The Cooking Ladies

I was so flattered when Bren's daughter-in-law, herself a talented artist and a friend of mine, asked me to create a special birthday card for her mother-in-law. Bren, she told me, loves baking cakes. She also enjoys watching the television and using the computer, oh, and she drinks a lot of tea! I learnt that her favourite kind is South Africa's top-selling tea Five Roses, so popped a box of the aforementioned brand on to the card, next to the teapot.
Bren was absolutely delighted to receive her special birthday card. I am fortunate enough to often receive wonderful messages of thanks from my customers - which I also did in this case - but in addition I received the following email from the birthday girl herself, all the way from South Africa:
"Dear Lisa,
What a wonderful surprise I got when I opened my letterbox on Friday to find the card from S. and B.
I could not believe how accurate your interpretation of myself was.  I was thrilled with the card and have shown it to my family and friends here in Cape Town.  There were happy smiles all over.
Best wishes,
Bren"
12 year old Talya also loves to bake. She recently celebrated her Bat Mitzvah and my customer requested a card on the themes of arts and crafts, and baking.  Talya also loves the colours purple and pink, so I made sure that there was plenty of those colours on her card.
I know that Talya loved the card because, once again, not only did my customer tell me how thrilled she was when she saw it, but Talya and her Mum - whom I met for the first time at a recent celebration of our mutual friend - let me know too!
Now I probably don't bake or cook to the level of either of these ladies, but I want to share with you a yummy recipe that I made recently which I think others should try. Spicy eggplant in garlic sauce popped up on my Facebook feed recently and so I hopped over to the "From The Grapevine" website to check out the recipe. Described as a "Chinese-inspired dish [that] will wow your guests" this recipe was a little more fiddly than the ones I usually try, but was so worth it! The eggplant dish was sweet and sour, chili-hot and full of garlic. It was perfect served warm over a bed of white rice and so, so delicious. If Oriental recipes are your thing, give it a go.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Jordy and Daniel

We had a lovely Passover break. We went hiking, met with friends visiting from the UK, and went to see the absolutely delightful "Paddington" at the cinema. We definitely did less than previous years, but the boys are getting older and have their own plans. Our one family day out together, hiking along the coast in northern Israel, was just wonderful. I will organise the photos to show you in another post. In the meantime, here are a couple more customised cards made for some recent birthdays.
Sweet little Jordy was turning two. Her Auntie told me that she loves wearing fairy dresses and in fact sent me a photo of the birthday girl wearing this pink and green dress that had once belonged to her big sister. Jordy also enjoys playing with building blocks, and loves the Australian television show Playschool and the Australian children's music group The Wiggles. A few flowers to match the fairy dress, and a big red number 2 finished the card off nicely. 

Daniel was celebrating his ninth birthday. Last year I showed him as a young scientist, with a white coat and test tubes in his pockets. This year Mum revealed that he enjoys basketball, playing the piano, and creating shapes and figures from origami, some of which I integrated into the design of his birthday card. Mum also asked me to show him wearing his favourite grey cap. She later told me that Daniel "loved his card".

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Doves and Daffodils

Chag HaMatzot, the "Festival of Unleavened Bread" in English, or simply Passover, begins on Friday. I have slowly been preparing for the festival, which probably requires more work than any other festival in the Jewish calendar. Preparations for Passover require us to rid our homes of chametz (the Hebrew term for "leavened bread"), to remind us that the Jews leaving Egypt were in a hurry and did not have time to let their bread rise. Some time in the next couple of days I will pack away all our kitchen utensils and bring out ones that we only use during Passover. It is an exhausting job preparing for this particular festival but soon it will all be done and I will be able to relax and enjoy the seven day holiday and all the activity that comes with it. The fun really begins on the intermediate days of the holiday, Chol HaMoed (the non-holy part of the festival when we are permitted to do many activities but should still try to avoid work), and I look forward to showing you photos of some of the fabulous places that we plan to visit during this enjoyable week.
My Passover cards show a Dove of Peace with an olive branch in its beak, hovering near a Star of David placed on a background of Matza (unleavened bread). The festival of Passover commemorates the Jews' exodus from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people’s freedom and independence. The Torah (the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—the first five books of the Bible) describes a story in which a dove was released by Noah after the Great Flood in order to find land. The dove came back carrying an olive branch in its beak, telling Noah that the Great Flood had receded and there was land once again for Man (Genesis 8:11). This story has led to the dove and the olive branch becoming symbols of peace or a peace offering from one man to another, as in the phrase "extend an olive branch". The white dove on my card thus symbolises peace and freedom.
Whilst Jewish people here in Israel and worldwide are busy preparing for Passover, Easter is also approaching. It wouldn't be Easter without some "daffs" (as my flower arranger Mum used to call the sunny, yellow daffodil), and I enjoyed cutting these lovely flowers for my Easter cards.
I would like to wish those of you celebrating Easter a bright and happy holiday, and a "Chag kasher v'same'ach" (חג כשר ושמח) (a happy and kosher Passover) to my Jewish family and friends.

Friday, 27 March 2015

The Ayalon Canada Park

The almond trees, the first of the fruit trees in Israel to wake from their winter 'sleep', were in full bloom when I recently visited the Ayalon Canada Park. The trees pinkish white blossoms are always a sign that Spring is around the corner, and they were truly a sight to behold.
The Ayalon Canada Park, located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, covers an area of 7,000 dunams and is filled with wooded areas, walking trails, water features and archaeological sites. Trees in the park include olive, carob, pomegranate, pine and the aforementioned almond. The area is also home to a range of wildlife from lizards and turtles, to grey ravens and blue jays. Historical ruins on the grounds of the park include burial caves, an aqueduct, agricultural installations, a Roman bathhouse, a Hasmonean cemetery, and a Crusader fortress. Two Second Temple-era ritual baths were also discovered there.
My tour of the park with the Eretz HaHashmonaim Centre for Study and Tours gave me the opportunity to see things that I have never noticed before, even though we have picnicked in the park many times over the years. We drove through the park, stopping several times to see historical ruins and to hear about the various battles that took place in the area. Joshua fought there against the Canaanite king. There were also fierce battles in the Ayalon Valley between the Hasmoneans and the Seleucids in the 2nd century BCE. In the first stage of the Arab occupation of the land of Israel in the 7th century CE, this valley served as a centre for their forces. Many fierce battles also took place here, between the Israel Defense Forces and the Jordanian Arab Legion, during the War of Independence. We learnt that Ariel Sharon, Israel's 11th Prime Minister, was shot in the area, in the First Battle of Latrun. His brigade suffered 139 deaths. Sharon survived because he was helped by a 16 year-old soldier under his command who virtually carried him through the field, surrounded by Arabs, relying only on Sharon’s flawless sense of direction to guide them to safety. From then on, it was declared that an Israeli soldier would never be left in the field, no matter how badly injured.
Battles aside, we stopped to see an ancient wine press carved in the rock, where grapes were pressed to make the grape juice that was fermented into wine, and enjoyed the stunning panoramic views from Derech HaTamar (Tamar Trail) at the eastern edge of the park. Shvil HaMa'ayanot (the Valley of the Springs) was our next stop. The valley is around 1.5 kilometres long, and alongside it are interesting remains from the water system of the Roman city of Emmaus-Nicopolis. The aqueducts in the valley were built in the Late Roman period (3rd and 4th centuries CE). Along the trail were what seemed like thousands of blossoming almond trees, as well as fig and pomegranate trees, all surrounded by beautiful terraces built for farming. Especially notable along the trail was the Roman Tomb, a grave site of a family that lived here 1,800 years ago, carved in the rock (bottom photo).
The Ayalon Canada Park is a favourite destination for off-road bikers, hikers and picnickers who enjoy the scenery and the weather, but few know the story of the former Palestinian villages on whose land the park now sits. Until 1967 the Arabs were able to endanger the old Tel Aviv – Jerusalem highway by taking advantage of the hills around the Ayalon Canada Park and their commanding view of the valley. The mobilisation of Egyptian forces along the Israeli border in the Sinai Peninsula was the start of the Six Day War, and the Israeli Army captured the region in which the Ayalon Canada Park is located on the second day of the war. Israel annexed the land as part of strategic plans to widen the Jerusalem corridor. Four Palestinian Arab villages were razed and the Ayalon Canada Park was established on the lands of two of the villages, Imwas and Yalo. The villagers were offered compensation but were not allowed to return.
Thanks to the generous support of Canadian friends of KKL-JNF (Jewish National Fund), the Ayalon Canada Park was completed in 1984. JNF Canada continues to fund the upkeep of the park through donations received for this purpose. In the middle of the park is a forest planted to commemorate over 300 American and Canadian Jews who died in Israel's wars or were victims of terror.

Monday, 23 March 2015

(They're) Leaving on a Jet Plane

Liora was turning 21. She loves the colour purple, collects elephants, and has got the travel bug! She was heading off to Thailand the week after her birthday, so my customer wanted me to feature it on her birthday card. I have shown her with a travel bag slung over her shoulder. An aeroplane soaring through the clouds can be seen in the background, and a palm tree in front of a bright yellow sun sets the scene.
This cute little elephant was only 5 cm wide. My kids think that I should put one on every card!
My customer's parents were soon to be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. She sent me a photo of the couple and told me a little about them. They are enjoying playing bridge together in their retirement - thus the fun oversized playing cards -  and also they have four daughters and a number of grandchildren in four continents: Israel, South Africa, Australia and the USA. This means that they travel quite a bit! I added the flags of each of these countries to the card, along with a gold 50, since gold is the precious metal associated with the 50th wedding anniversary.
My customer told me that she thought the cards were amazing!

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Dancing Girl

A new customer asked me to make a Bat Mitzvah card for a young lady called Ariella. Ariella, she told me, is the eldest of four children so, despite her age, she is a bit of a superhero when it comes to childcare, cooking and babysitting. She really loves ballet and recently got her first pair of pointe ballet shoes, so my customer was keen for me to show those on the card too. She also goes to the Scouts, likes reading and, according to her Mum, "of course she likes watching rubbish television!"
I have shown the Bat Mitzvah girl balancing on her toes in her new pointe shoes in the centre of the card. She is surrounded by all the things she enjoys in life: cooking pots and utensils, a television, books and the badge of the Hebrew Scouts Movement in Israel. I added a Magen David (Star of David) and the number 12, since that is the age that a girl becomes a Bat Mitzvah and is considered an adult, according to Orthodox Jewish law.
I heard from Mum that the card was Ariella's favourite!
I haven't blogged about anything food related for quite some time but, since I have mentioned Ariella's love of cooking, I thought I'd show you the chocolate brownies which I made recently, and which I think deserve a mention. I enjoy baking but have never really managed a decent chocolate brownie. I have tried several brownie recipes over the years - some because they were simple and quick to make, and others because they just sounded delicious - but I never got them quite right. Some time ago I spotted Margo Sugarman's Lush Chocolate Brownies recipe on her blog, "The Kosher Blogger". I used to work with Margo in my previous life as a graphic designer at a news magazine, and now I enjoy following her cooking adventures through Facebook. She describes these brownies as "the Holy Grail of brownie recipes and everything a real classic brownie should be." She's not wrong! The brownies came out chocolaty and rich, and were wolfed down at speed, even though I had doubled the recipe (I do have a teenager and a preteen in the house!). I won't be looking any further for a good brownie recipe.
An interesting aside, brownies were invented by a prominent Chicago socialite, Bertha Palmer, whose husband owned the Palmer House Hotel. Bertha asked a pastry chef for a dessert suitable for ladies attending the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. She requested a confection smaller than a piece of cake, though still retaining cake-like characteristics, easily eaten from boxed lunches. The first brownies featured an apricot glaze and walnuts, and are still made at the modern hotel according to the original recipe.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Shivta

The ancient archaeological site of Shivta, located in the north of the Negev, close to the border with Egypt, reminded us very much of our visit to Pompeii. A Nabataean city that was first settled in the Early Roman period, in the 1st century BCE, Shivta grew prosperous in the Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries CE). The city was part of the Nabataean Spice Route, transporting frankincense, myrrh and other spices from Oman and Yemen, crossing Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and ending at the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean, for export to the Classic world of Greece and Rome. Along the way are forts, caravansaries, springs, cisterns and milestones, as well as the ancient cities of Mamshit, Avdat, Haluza and Shivta, built in order to support and protect the Spice Route.
Shivta was abandoned following the Muslim conquest in the 7th century CE but, unlike most cities in the Negev, it was not destroyed, possibly because it was too far away to be pillaged. Over time many of the structures have collapsed and have been restored by archaeologists. Walking through the ruins really gave us the feeling of walking through what was once a real live city.
Shivta differs from the other Nabataean cities in the Negev in that it is not located on a main commercial route. It was also unwalled, and so may be regarded as a large farming village. Two magnificent churches dating from the 4th century CE, when most of the residents adopted Christianity, can be seen in the village, as well as residential areas, large courtyards and public squares, oil presses, wine presses, water cisterns and impressive water collection pools. A mosque was added in the 8th or 9th century CE. The construction of the mosque was carried out with care not to damage the church's baptistery, and so it seems that both communities of Christians majority and the Muslim minority lived peacefully together.
Since Shivta has no natural water sources, its residents, who were mainly farmers, carefully collected every rare drop of rain. The streets leading from the northern part of the city drain into large collection pools in which "notes" written on pieces of pottery were found, with confirmations as to the cleaning of the pools, which was part of the city’s residents responsibility. No water was wasted amid the harsh desert conditions.
It was not until the 20th century that archaeologists rediscovered Shivta and began excavating. An attraction in the national park is the Colt house, used by the team of archaeologists led by H. Colt (son of the famous American gun manufacturer), who dug at Shivta from 1933 to 1934. Over the entrance is an inscription in ancient Greek which translates, "With good luck. Colt built (this house) with his own money."
Studies and restoration of Shivta began in 1958, but seem not to have been completed. Signs identify the main buildings, but wandering through the deserted city I was fascinated but honestly a little bit clueless about what I was seeing until I did some further reading at home.
In 2005 Shivta was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In an unusual arrangement, a family now lives in the Colt house. They operate a unique restaurant preparing typical desert fare, as well as a guest house. They can also provide visitors with information about the site and about human life in the desert in the past and present, though we did not know this on the day we visited. A modern-day orchard north of the site utilises ancient methods to grow various fruits.
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