WILD AT HEART
A conversation with Nura (Nurit) Hertz, a passionate forager, culinary tour guide and talented chef, on nature, food, culture and connection.
Words by Nomi Abeliovich
Photos by Dan Perez
Before we begin, could you tell me about your background and what led you to foraging?
I live with my husband and three children on Moshav Mata in the Judean hills. I grew up in Kvutzat Yavne, a religious kibbutz near the city of Ashdod where my relationship with food can be split into two categories: the food I encountered (and refused to eat) in the Kibbutz communal dining room and the food that grew outside in the wild. Like all kids growing up on a kibbutz, I spent my days outdoors picking and eating everything that grew on trees. So, in a sense I think I have always been a forager.
Nura’s culinary path began in the kibbutz’s commercial kitchen, where she worked for seven years, starting from the age of 13, in what is the extreme opposite end of her present-day culinary practice. The only constant throughout her life, she notes, is her love for cooking.
Has motherhood had an impact on your path?
With the birth of each one of my children, I too was reincarnated. My path adjusted and transformed. When I became a mom for the first time, 11 years ago, I turned my focus mostly to culinary tourism while deepening my knowledge of the local foodscape, and thus my fascination with foraging.
Eight years ago, after I had my second daughter, I decided to open my first restaurant. Once a week I cooked Indian food in my backyard. My dish won 1st prize in a competition held by the Indian Embassy. It wasn’t long before word got out and people began flocking from all over the country.
Then, when I became pregnant with my youngest, I suddenly could not stand the smell of Indian food. I would cook dinner for 150 people and had to rely on my sous chef to taste everything for me.
When my son was born, the transformation was finally complete and everything fell into place. I realized all I wanted to cook was food that originates here and use only local produce, spices, techniques, and flavors expressive of the land and the changing seasons.
What brought on this realization?
Sometimes you have to go as far as possible just to realize the answer was right in front of you all along. My path led me in three very different directions. After growing up in a house where the only ‘spice’ found in my mother’s kitchen was powdered chicken bouillon, I was drawn to Indian cuisine which, in many ways, is the exact opposite end of the spectrum. Each dish is an explosion of flavors made up of dozens of different seeds and spices, whole and ground, fresh and toasted. In contrast, the food I cook today is gently seasoned and is not covered up in spices- instead, I use fresh and dried, local and seasonal aromatic herbs and seeds that grow in the forest. I had to take the long way around before ending up right here; it simply did not make any sense to be cooking dishes belonging to another food culture from a faraway land with the forest a three minute walk from my kitchen and the huge vegetable patch in the backyard.
What does a day in your life look like?
Today, I focus all of my attention on foraging and cooking locally grown, seasonal and foraged food. I offer year-round culinary tours, cooking workshops, and a seasonal menu, while also furthering my professional knowledge of foraging. I spend some of my days foraging in the forest and on others I am in the kitchen preserving, preparing, and cooking.
Do you have favorite foods to forage?
Wild mulberries are the love of my life. They arrived here in the 6th century BCE, with the return of the Babylonian exiles who brought back many fruits and nuts such as apricots, citrus trees, and walnuts upon their return from what is now known as Iraq.
Mushrooms are always a delight and, being a vegetarian, tracking them down comes closest to the energy levels of a hunt. I also love the summer seeds, like fennel and mustard seeds. Along with wild hyssop, sage and thyme, these form my culinary fingerprint.
They are tiny finds but they pack a punch and during the summer I can incorporate them into any dish, sweet or savory.
As a forager, do you feel the impact of global warming?
Growing up I remember the first rainfall would always come at the end of September. But, now we can expect it around the end of November. The wet season is late and short, while precipitation is more extreme. Just last year we had a three-week heatwave in January which caused everything to dry out. It’s a constant reminder that I am not a solo player- nature has a key role and since I rely on its offerings, I’ve got to surrender and accept that things can radically change from one day to another.
Do you have any tips, advice or general guidelines for responsible foraging practices?
The most important thing to remember is to only eat plants you recognize. I believe foraging should be practiced mindfully and out of respect for nature. It is critical to remember supply in the wild is limited, and so only taking what we need and minimizing our footprint is essential. I think connection is the key word here. When you feel connected to a place, you realize you are not separate from it. But, rather, you are it.
For more information on culinary tours, workshops and meals visit Nura’s website