For anyone who sees travel as a doorway into the best food of a region, Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich are living the dream. Their new book, Chasing Smoke, is part luxurious homage to the food of the Levant region in the Middle East cooked for flavour over the grill, and part foodie-travel diary summarising a decade of travel in the area.
And the husband and wife duo really do love food. That much is clear from even a brief chat with the pair behind London’s Honey and Co restaurant, deli and grill house family, both of them lighting up recalling stacks of specialty pistachios, the joy of decadent truffles during their short season, the ceremony of slow-cooked lamb served with yoghurt, or the fragrant seasoning of lemon oil common throughout.
Looking for similarities in the region, with beguiling snapshots from city breaks in Egypt, Greece, Jordan, Israel and Turkey, Srulovich says they noticed something he calls “hyper seasonality”.
“I’m thinking in particular about Egypt and Jordan. That part of the world where you still go to market,” he says. “Everything is hyper seasonal, so it’s not like ‘maybe I should avoid asparagus today because it’s from Bolivia’, it just doesn’t exist, you know?”
For Packer, who trained in various London restaurants including Ottolenghi’s Nopi before setting up Honey & Co with Srulovich in 2012, it revealed a deep connection with where food comes from for the people in this region, something she says is often lacking in the UK’s food culture. “There’s a strong excitement about seasons. It’s just part of the psyche that you wait for strawberry season, you wait for broad bean season. Even for us growing up, I remember this distinctly; you live your life knowing that for certain things you wait.
“These countries show a huge propensity for what they actually grow, and huge pride,” she says. “It’s about local exciting produce and being really proud of it, and I think that’s very removed from food life in the UK.”
That’s not to say Srulovich and Packer don’t rate British produce; they’re religious visitors to their local farmers’ market in Oval, south London, and while Packer admits they’re “Mediterranean souls who need their good tomatoes and crunchy cucumbers”, Srulovich happily waxes lyrical about fresh British-grown winter celeriacs.
Putting their passion for travel on hold like the rest of us, in the last year Honey & Co have adapted like any other business as Covid restrictions closed down their restaurant. The deli stayed open throughout and a fledgling online service expanded to sell anything, Srulovich, recalls, particularly flour “when no one could get flour”, but they are delighted to be once again welcoming restaurants to their Warren Street HQ.
Chasing Smoke feels like a pure celebration of flavour, culture and texture, bringing the places and food from this region to life. Although sourcing is important, there’s no sign of the restraint that comes as people grapple with the impact of diets, and which has begun to typify a new era of food books. In a nod to this, Srulovich says wryly: “I think there’s a few sesame seeds that you’re allowed to eat without feeling guilty.”
But the provenance of their food is clearly something prized by the pair, who have built a good connection with a Welsh lamb farmer, a cheese producer making Middle Eastern yoghurts and cheese, and buy from male goat meat supplier Cabrito.
And while flavour rather than ethical eating is top of the agenda, when it comes to cooking over a grill the pair are bang on trend. Smoking, grilling, carmelising: these are the verbs du jour for any 2021 food writer and they are par for the course in Chasing Smoke – and not just in terms of meat.
“This whole aspect of vegetables and putting them on a on a fire just makes them so much more exciting. They develop all these complexities of flavour with a bit of smoke and a bit of caramelisation,” says Srulovich.
“And it makes vegetables into an extremely substantial meal, and you can see that you don’t have to use your grill just for a piece of meat. I think it’s an exciting time. I hope a lot more people start grilling vegetables and fruits.”
At a time when we’re all starved of the joy of travel, and the sights, smells and tastes of a new destination, listening to Srulovich and Packer’s accounts of their travels fills a much-missed hole. There’s the stories from southern Turkey, which Srulovich paints as an untapped foodie haven where fertile lands combine with a deep cultural love of food, resulting in abundant produce and rapturous appetite.
“It does feel like southern Turkey is such an amazing food region that you feel it should be more on the map,” he says. “The produce is out of this world. The nuts, the vegetables, the meat and the fish. It’s so rich and abundant and they really know what to do with it as well. A couple of years ago, all the foodies went to San Sebastian or to Tokyo, and I think southern Turkey should be on that beat as well.
Another country included in the book is Israel, which at the time we speak is in the news for a wholly different reason to its food culture, namely its conflict with Palestine. As their home country, the couple have a deep understanding of the different food traditions within Israel, and in a tacit nod to the conflict say what they hope to provide is evidence of the perhaps understated similarities across the region.
“We don’t want to get political in any of these things. What we want to show is that there’s massive culture in the region,” says Packer. “There’s massive similarities in how you entertain and how you eat together. Also in the flavours themselves, and hopefully that reminds people that there is a lot to celebrate. I think that’s what we try and show.”
Srulovich adds that he sees food as a “different conversation” and talking about what the couple found to be distinct about Israel’s rich food culture, he says: “We don’t see it as Israeli food, what we see is a country that formed not that long ago, only 70 years ago, from lots of immigrants. So in one in the building you would have Jews from Poland, from Russia, from Morocco, from Yemen, from Egypt and also from Spain.
“It’s such a mishmash of flavours and traditions, and as people started living together and sharing food, then they started to mix, and that’s what’s distinct; it is a melting pot of food, much more than southern Turkey for example. There they have massive pride in their food, but it’s local.”
Both Srulovich and Packer’s understanding of food seems to come as much from the stories and people behind it, as it does from the ingredients themselves. Their podcast Honey & Co: The Food Talks takes this interest into the world of media and sees them chat to influential people in food about their lives and careers, often stretching far beyond simple questions about what to eat.
The link with the people behind the plates is also where the pair credit their route to any food traveller’s holy grail: where do the locals go to eat?
“Our two best travel tips are as follows,” reveals Srulovich. “When we land somewhere, we always take a cab from the airport, which is a little bit of an extravagance. But you get so much value out of it because we grill the cabbie. Where to go? What to do? This is the pot of gold because cabbies really know everything.
“The second tip is, if you see an old lady with a shopping basket, follow her. Chase the lady with the little trolley; she knows where to go. If the trolley is empty, follow her. If it’s full, go to where she came from.”
As they followed the tips of the locals, in a year of boundaries and restrictions, staying local and buying sensibly, so do Srulovich, Packer and Honey & Co invite you to break free, and once again revel in the colours, flavours, traditions, and above all, the sheer joy of food.
Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, founders of Honey & Co will be at The Riverford Field Kitchen on 28 July.