A chef brings an air of French cuisine to the alleys of Old Bethlehem
[Bethlehem] Set aside regional discord for a moment and think instead of regional dining.
Or, better yet, think of regional weekending and foraging.
That’s what Fadi Kattan has been thinking. A month and a half ago, just in time for Christmas, Kattan, 38, a native Bethlehemite who studied cookery and hotel management in France, opened Hosh Al-Syrian Guesthouse , a refurbished gem tucked into a courtyard not far from Manger Square.
Already, it is much more than a hostel: Hosh Al-Syrian, a graceful, ancient building whose renovation was funded by four Tuscan municipalities as part of a municipal scheme to recondition and restore abandoned buildings, some of which have fallen into ruin, hopes to endow Bethlehem with a contemporary cultural hub apt both for locals and for tourists, through which the Palestinian ethos can be experienced without reference to conflict or strife.
To this aim, Kattan has just opened a gourmet locavore restaurant that competes with the best of them, in which, for instance, you can enjoy his loosely reinvented, exuberant iteration of a classic French mille-feuille, that delectable pastry of a thousand crispy layers encasing two fat strata of pastry cream.
Brace yourself, because Kattan’s version is not even sweet; it’s decidedly salty, with mysterious hints of a mellow sweetness, about which more later. And it is not remotely dessert. In fact, it opens your meal.
Kattan’s Palestinian iteration of a mille-feuille goes like this: (recipe below.) Instead of crackly sheets of pastry you have unctuous, neon-red layers of red peppers softened by the roasting flame.
Instead of pastry cream, you have a sturdy but texturally soft sheep cheese. Instead of a glacé topping you have the sheen of olive oil. And in the place of the chef’s prerogative, a little detail that personalizes the pastry such as a crunchy accompaniment of butter crackle or the swirl of a coulis, here you find strewn about famous local star ingredients such as pine nuts and fresh hyssop (zaatar) leaves.
And that mysterious pop of dark sweetness? Some diners have suspected Kattan of sneaking tiny dates in between the layers but no. The plump, delicate globes that spike the creation and give it surprising depth are native Hebron Hills grapes with a skin as delicate as a bubble of soap.
As part of his new tourism initiative, Kattan offers visitors not only accommodation in his twelve sharply appointed rooms but a tour of Bethlehem’s Old City Farmer’s market. “Not everybody is here on a religious quest,” he observed to The Media Line, “or even that politically engaged. Or maybe they are, but even they should find a different way to experience the real land of Palestine.”
It is difficult to imagine a more immediate way to experience the land than through the earthy, inspired dishes created by Kattan, in which, for example, a classic Daube (a beef stew) is adorned and flavored with local black olives and a Galette de Rois, an elaborate pie created to celebrate the Epiphany, ubiquitous in France, in which two layers of golden butter pastry encase a thick slab of frangipane, is perfumed with orange blossom water and bejeweled by green pistachios, still in their crisp pink skins.
Bethlehem, a natural magnet for tourists from around the globe, has paid a heavy price for the drop in visitors since the latest eruption of violence between Israelis and Palestinians started in October.
Ali Qleibo, the Jerusalem artist and social anthropologist, is enthused about what he called the “wonderful project.”
Speaking with The Media Line, he said that apart from Kattan finding an “original and excellent way to express his own identity, ” the entire project, spearheaded by a former student of Qleibo, Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboon, who attended Hosh Al-Syrian’s opening, “shows that Bethlehem is taking care of its own heritage, which is itself praiseworthy, and deeply connected to preserving Palestinian heritage and developing the Palestinian economy.
It had already paid a steep price for the security wall and check point built by Israel to prevent the infiltration of terrorists, that alarmed tourists, dissuading many from visiting altogether and provoking others to visit the pretty West Bank town merely for day trips, while remaining in their Jerusalem lodgings only a twenty minute drive away.
Pope Francis made a point of stopping his motorcade and getting out of his car to pray at the separation wall during his May 2014 pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Known for his conviviality and hearty appetite, it is easy to imagine this pope feasting on Kattan’s sophisticated yet earthy fare.
Mille-feuille de poivrons et fromage de brebis (Red pepper and sheep cheese mille-feuille)
For the roasted peppers
12 medium-sized red bell peppers
2 garlic cloves
1 cup virgin olive oil
4 rosemary sprigs
For the mille-feuille
1 kilo of fresh unpasteurised white cheese
1⁄2 cup of large dried raisins
1⁄2 cup of pine nuts
For the dressing
1 bouquet of fresh zaatar
3 teaspoons of Dijon mustard
100 ml of olive oil
50 ml of lemon juice
1⁄2 cup of pine nuts seeds
1. Place peppers in oven pan, season with virgin olive oil and salt. Place the rosemary sprigs and garlic cloves alongside them. Roast until the pepper skins are charred at 180 degrees C. Remove from the oven, peel the peppers removing their stalks and cut into halves. Drain the pepper juices through a sieve into a bowl.
2. Coat the inside of an ovenproof ramekin with a dash of olive oil. Place the red pepper pieces in the ramekin so that the peeled side is downwards. Then add a layer of the white cheese and sprinkle with pine nuts and raisins. Add another layer of red pepper pieces and one of the white cheese. Finish with a last layer of red pepper pieces.
3. Place the four ramekins in a bain marie in the oven at 80 degrees C for one hour.
4. Remove ramekins from the oven, allow to cool and cover with plastic wrap. Place in refrigerator overnight.
1. Prepare a vinaigrette with the Dijon mustard, olive oil and lemon juice.
2. Toss the fresh zaatar leaves into the vinaigrette.
3. Run a knife around the edge of the millefeuille in the ramekin to make sure it will not stick. Turn over millefeuille onto plate and decorate with the zaatar salad and pine nuts seeds.