Before you click that next link, hear us out: In Israel, a road trip to find an unusual mint (coming soon to a bakery, restaurant, or distillery near you) will take you into the heart of the country’s wild Galilee region. Lior Lev Sercarz, the Israeli owner of New York’s La Boîte spice shop, explains why it’s a trip worth taking.
“I grew up in the Galilee, the countryside two and a half hours north of Tel Aviv, and as a kid, I spent 10 percent of my time indoors and the rest outdoors. Running around as a child, one of the wild plants I encountered was zuta mint. It’s one of my first scent memories. The mint has a captivating smell—like a white flower meets a pine tree—that you couldn’t escape, especially after it rained. As kids, we would gather the mint and bring it home, or we would start a bonfire and make tea using river water. Even today, smelling zuta takes me home in a minute.
“Later on, after I started cooking professionally, I learned to love zuta even more. It’s used in Israel as a tea—it’s believed to have therapeutic benefits—but it can also be mixed with oil as a dip for bread, and sometimes it’s ground and added to za’atar spice blends. I believe it has even greater culinary potential. It’s not just your regular mint—no offense to spearmint. Zuta is more complex. It’s like lemon balm with pine and resin notes. I’ve always had the herb at home, and it was one of the first spices I imported when I opened La Boîte 10 years ago. At La Boîte, we consult with more than 130 chefs around the world, and every year we get more and more people interested in zuta for savory or sweet dishes or for cocktails. There’s even a distillery called Cardinal Spirits in Indiana that makes a gin called Terra, with a zuta blend we developed for them.
“But to see the mint in its natural habitat is truly special. It grows in the fields and hills of the Galilee. A lot of people compare the region to Tuscany, and it’s true; the Galilee does have a similar landscape, with its hills and pines and cypress and olive trees. If you go to Israel and you skip the Galilee, you are missing out on a big part of the country. There are so many archaeological sites: You can visit a 5th-century Hellenistic temple. You can bird-watch in a nature preserve. You can eat labne balls and pita bread in the many Arabic and Jewish villages and towns. And you can make a stop at Al Alim, the farm that we work with, which grows 200 different plants, including zuta, and has a store on-site. Traveling to find zuta will get you to the Galilee, which will reveal itself to you.” —as told to Aislyn Greene