Sucked dry by an unforgiving sun, my travel companion and I were badly in need of hydration and nourishment yesterday afternoon. Frankly, I had resigned myself to a day full of headaches and delirium, but then we stumbled across an improbable oasis located miles from nowhere in Israel’s Arava desert.
Once no more than a ramshackle caravan, a pitstop between the developed north and the country’s dry southern expanse, Pundak Neot Semadar has since evolved into a charming all-organic restaurant that also sells jam, soap, dates and other goods produced at the nearby kibbutz.
When it was first established in 1989, the kibbutz was accused of cultish behavior because a self-proclaimed “guru” used to live there. However, among the women who run the restaurant, Yosef Safra is remembered more fondly as a “charismatic man” than any kind of spiritual leader.
He has since passed on to better pastures, we hope, though the kibbutz continues to thrive as a “rustic green corner” in the midst of the desert.
Founded by a group of 80 residents who sought to establish a collaborative and meaningful life more closely intertwined with the cycle of natural life, the community produces an astounding variety of goods.
In addition to fruit trees and vegetables, the kibbutz grows several varieties of native date palms and organic grapes, which are transformed into delicious sulphur-free wines. More than 200 members and volunteers also produce olives that are then pressed into high-quality cooking oils and served with every meal at the restaurant.
Free range goats that graze on organic fields produce excellent milk that in turn is used to make all kinds of cheese and yoghurt. And all of it is for sale.
“We are always trying to grow the place,” said Iris, who is one of the original founders who was running the cash register the day that we randomly popped in. “This used to be a small caravan but we added two containers, put in all of the floors and did of the ironwork ourselves.”
“People are always surprised by the range of our products,” Tessa said with a slight hint of well-deserved pride. Another of the original founders, the chef of the day was born in London and is famous for having a “green thumb.”
And it’s true. In addition to juice and wine – including a delectable desert wine rendered gold by the sun – it is possible to purchase herbal and floral teas in special jars, organic cookies, scented room sprays and even kaleidoscopic glass tops crafted by a talented local artisan.
“Everything on sale was produced on the kibbutz,” Iris says. “But we would like to be even more ecological.”
A mother of two boys who are now grown and off the kibbutz, Iris is referring to clean energy. Although Israel is one of the biggest producers of solar energy, most of their expertise is exported to countries like Spain and the United States.
“The government just isn’t supportive. If we want to have solar energy here, we have to go through a long permitting process. It’s very hard,” she says.
Guests, however, are oblivious to the background challenges.
Seated in a light-infused dining area enclosed by a veritable jungle, we enjoyed creamy “green” tehina mixed with fresh parsley and served with dense brown bread, along with a frothy cappuccino and a hearty bowl of massouka made with eggplant, cheese, potato and spices.
Not only is the space green, fresh and cozy, but it instantly feels like home. A young girl who smashed her finger on the way in was swooped up and cuddled by Maya, a young volunteer who frequently hitchhikes her way around Israel.
There is much more to be said about the restaurant, the people who work there, and the kibbutz itself. But in the meantime, if you’re roaming the desert and need a little lift, be sure to stop by Pundak Neot Semadar in the Arava. Both your belly and your soul will thank you.
All images via Tafline Laylin