Aara, northern Israel – To get to Daietna, you have to wind your way through narrow streets and empty fields up the hill Aara is built on. When the dry terrain unexpectedly gives way to lush greenery at the top, and the faint sound of goats bleating breaks the silence, you’ll know you’re there.
Walking into Daietna feels like walking into a little Garden of Eden.
This gem of a Palestinian restaurant was built by hand by Akel Mamon, 47, a gardener-turned-chef who set it up a little at a time in a corner of his family olive grove.
Here, the distinction between garden and restaurant blurs. There is a table and chairs in every nook, always an easy reach away from some zaatar or some mint that you can pick yourself to sprinkle on your meal.
Climb some metal stairs to get on top of the shed, where live goats and chickens rest in the shade, and you’ll get an awe-inspiring view of Aar’ara. The sight of the Palestinian town nestled into a hill in the distance calls to mind the way Daietna coexists with the nature that surrounds it.
There is even a table and chairs atop the goat shed for guests who are willing to trade shade for the stunning view.
Daietna is a family affair. On a busy day, children run along the garden paths while Mamon and his daughter fire up shakshuka and manoushes, bread often topped with a savoury mixture of tangy zaatar and olive oil, for their guests.
The manoushes are the highlight of the menu and also come topped with cheese or potatoes. Side salads and traditional cheese are offered as well.
Mamon describes the food as “simple and authentic”, which is reflected in the homey freshness of each dish.
Guests here aren’t just customers, they become a part of the family. If Mamon is short on hands, he comes to a table and asks politely: “Hey, can you help me bring your food to the table?”
Daietna is a word from Levantine Arabic that refers to a self-sufficient, sustainable village, a reflection of the philosophy of the garden-restaurant, explains Mamon.
Many of the ingredients, such as the olive oil and herbs, are sourced from within the restaurant grounds, and guests are encouraged to walk around the garden to see where the flavours for their meal are grown.
As you walk, the fragrance of all different kinds of mint, zaatar, and flowers wafts around you and, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that you are not alone. Bees buzz, busily collecting pollen from the vast variety of native flowers.
For Mamon, the garden is the most important part of Daietna, and the food is a sort of accompaniment to complete the atmosphere.
In fact, what he likes most about being at Daietna is that he gets “to teach people about the plants and nature, what each one is called, how different plants can be used to make tea or food, and how they can connect people to past generations when people spent more time outside in nature”.
Mamon says that the goal of Daietna is to create a place where people can enjoy the outdoors and eat healthy food. Mamon estimates that his restaurant is “90 percent garden and 10 percent seating”.
After guests have eaten, Mamon encourages them to stay and explore the winding garden paths.
The plants he grows in Daietna are native to the region and when he can take a break from the kitchen, he even gives tours of his garden and the nature that surrounds it.
With more than 30 years of gardening experience, Mamon is an excellent resource on all things plant related, explaining “how to interact with and be affected positively by plants” to people on his tours.
He’s even happy to answer more mundane questions like how to care for your houseplants.
Towards the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Mamon was laid off from his job as a gardener. His mind swarmed with anxiety for his daughter’s future. To get a breath of fresh air, he would come up to his olive grove, a family heirloom that has been passed down for generations, and enjoy the view.
Three years ago, before the vision for Daietna even crossed Mamon’s mind, he just wanted to do something about his hunger on these retreats. Missing the aromas of his grandmother’s bread, Mamon decided to build a taboon, a traditional Palestinian oven made from clay and straw.
But in order to build a kitchen like the ones he grew up around, Mamon had to find someone who remembered practical details, like how to build a taboon.
Today, no one makes traditional clay taboons in Aar’ara, says Mamon. “The tradition disappeared from our area.”
Mamon asked Latifa, a 90-year-old woman who used to make all the local taboons, for help. He recounts that she was quite surprised by his request since no one nearby uses traditional taboons anymore.
The retired taboon maker showed Mamon where to find special clay perfect for making taboons. After three months of trial and error, Mamon had a “taboon asli”, an authentic oven.
Since learning how to build a traditional taboon, Mamon has taught others how they’re made. For example, during Heritage Day at a neighbouring kindergarten, Mamon explained to the children how the oven is made and helped the teacher make one for the children to use.
After building his own taboon, Mamon realised a sink would be useful to wash his hands after meals on his nature retreats, so he carved one out of an abandoned log. Slowly, he kept building and perfecting until he realised that he had something that he would like to share with his community.
Daietna opened its doors to the public about eight months ago with an inaugural meal only his family was invited to. But now, Mamon says people have come from all over the world to eat there.
Reviving traditional Palestinian foodways
Mamon says the inspiration for his restaurant comes from his childhood. The hand-crafted fountains, which bubble pleasantly in the background of the restaurant’s atmosphere, remind Mamon of the spring he used to fetch water from as a kid.
The earth and lush colours of the gardens are the same colours of nature that he remembers from his childhood and that he has worked in the midst of as a gardener.
In the open-sided kitchen, Mamon hangs his pots and pans like his grandmother did in her kitchen.
Not everything is like it was in the past. The manoushe, the highlight on Daietna’s menu, is a modern adaptation of Mamon’s grandmother’s manoushe, which he grew up eating every morning.
Mamon says the recipe for manoushe that he had as a child was used to give new life to day-old bread. Without freezers to keep bread fresh, Mamon remembers his grandmother dipping day-old bread in water, adding zaatar and olive oil, and reheating it in the taboon.
Today, Mamon makes his dough from scratch and sources his ingredients from Daietna’s garden. The olive oil is made from the olives from his grove and the zaatar baladi is hand-picked from the garden.
Mamon says that, in his eyes, Daietna is only 10 percent complete.
He has built the structure, which is all he plans to build. “Now it’s just a matter of time,” he says, envisioning nature taking over, filling the place with fruits, vegetables, and herbs that he and his guests can pick and eat straight from the vine.