The State of Foraging – Winter 2010

Iman with chibs

 This winter started off on the left foot – first there were an endless string of hot dry days that lingered through December. Then came the disastrous Carmel fire. And then while the embers were still smoldering, came the first real winter storm – 3 days of torrential rain. I couldn’t even begrudge the 26 hours without electricity just thinking of the thorough soaking the parched earth was receiving. 

wheat field fuzz

And now, after a good week of sunshine, the landscape is undergoing its magic transformation – sporting a tender growth of vibrant green.

Two Bedouin women appeared in my yard today looking for fresh leaves of luf, and I knew that the edible wild plant season has begun. 

Tender young luf

I set off this afternoon for a walk to see what I could find.  Where one of my favorite fields used to be is now a new residential neighborhood, and in one of the squares cut out of the sidewalk to support a tree, I found a lone, opportunistic wild spinach plant. 

Scraggly spinach

Down in the cauliflower field, some hubeisa (mallow) and purslane were mooching off the irrigation system, but the shower of pesticide that they shared made me keep my distance. 

In one of the few untouched groves, I ran into Faoud and Iman Sabtan, Bedouin neighbors from Kaabiye, out picking luf with their little girl.  Iman also picked some “chibs”, which is a plant that looks like celery and when you peel away its fibery outer layer, the inside is juicy and peppery like horseradish. 

Iman with chibs

She gave me a stalk to chew on and I continued on my way. 

 

 

 

 

I passed two of my old favorite picking spots – they, too, can now be crossed off the forager’s map.  As picking grounds diminish, herbicide use proliferates and old traditions lose their attraction, you have to be very determined to be a forager these days…

No more gathering here.

    

or here...

On Droughts, Fires and Blogging

Take Israeli society and narrow it down to the sub-set of English-speakers, then divide it further to get those people who blog in English, and then take away another giant slice, to capture those people in Israel who blog in English about food – and you come up with about ten people, all sitting around a table in a Tel Aviv restaurant last night. The invitation to join colleagues who indulge in a similar hobby was appealing enough to make the trip all the way to the big city – leaving the billowing clouds of smoke from the fire on Mount Carmel behind.

I enjoyed meeting Miriam from www.israelikitchen.com, Baroness Tapuzina www.baronesstapuzina.com: , Liz from Café Liz http://food.lizsteinberg.com, and lovely Emily, whose healthy glow makes perfect sense when you read her uplifting blog http://triumphwellness.com/blog, as well as others whose blog addresses I somehow neglected to collect.  I love living in the Galilee, but the occasional trip to Tel Aviv pumps oxygen into the corner of city-girl in my heart.

But back to the catastrophic fire – which was a seemingly inevitable outcome of the horrendous drought/heat wave we are experiencing here. As someone said last night – they don’t remember ever celebrating Hannukah in the summer. There hasn’t been a drop of rain since the beginning of October, and for edible wild plant gatherers this is a disaster. By the beginning of December, we should be gathering the first tender leaves of the season, but at this point, everything is brown and dry as far as the eye can see…. At least this morning there was a small consolation – at the Bedouin vegetable market I found this fresh, green spinach – cultivated of course, but better than nothing!

Cracking Olives

The olive harvest is officially underway here in the Galilee.  At this point, though, relatively early on in the season, most people I know are picking olives for eating – the large scale harvesting to make olive oil will probably begin in another week or so. 

As we do every year, Ron, our good friend Miryam and I carried out our own annual olive picking ritual – from the same reliable tree that was planted here on the moshav by the Templers – the German Evangelical Christians who established a settlement here in the early 1900s.  The tree – of our favorite Tsuri variety – was particularly prolific this year and the fruit was plump and unblemished.

It took about one hour last Friday morning for us to fill a large pail.  Usually we go home and sit on the front stoop and crack each olive – the requisite step before starting the pickling process.  But this year, I decided we should try something different.  I had been in the market in Nazareth two days before – doing a culinary tour with a very lovely couple from Los Angeles – and we saw two women who had brought their bucket of olives to be run through a machine that automatically cracked each one.  What an innovation!

So on Friday afternoon, our olive-making triumvirate set off for Nazareth, to El Babour – my favorite spice store and old-time mill.  Located in a cavernous space near the market, El Babour was originally a wheat mill – it’s name comes from the bubbling sound the mill’s steam-powered engine used to make.  Today, besides the vast collection of spices and dry goods that they sell,  they still have some milling and roasting equipment in their back courtyard area – including an olive cracking machine.  Jarjoura, one of the two gracious brothers who own and operate the store, poured salt over the olives as they were whisked through the wheels of the cracker – and in 30 seconds, the job was finished.  Way too fast, unfortunately, for me to focus my camera….

 

 

 

 

The next day I went to Kfar Manda for my weekly Arabic lesson and out on the rooftop porch sat a broad tray of black olives, sprinkled with salt, curing in the sun.  

Um-Malek brought out greenolives from this year’s harvest – less than two weeks in their brine – bitter, meaty and delicious. 

Sukkot

The holiday of Sukkot, for those of you who are not familiar, originally celebrated the late summer harvest, with a pilgrimage to the Temple bearing offerings of the season’s yield. In commemoration of the local practice during Biblical times, Jews are commanded to build a “Sukka” (booth, tabernacle) – a makeshift outdoor structure that recalls those temporary shelters used by the ancient farmers to guard over their fields during harvest time.  And indeed, in yards and porches all across the country stand Sukkot (plural of Sukka) – cladded in sheets and topped with palm fronds.

Yesterday, the day before Sukkot began, Ron and I set out to document these harvest structures in the original sense.  At this point in late September, after a cataclysmically hot summer, the crops of vegetables growing in the Bet Netufa Valley are pretty well depleted.  But as we drove over a rutted dirt road between the Arab villages of Tur’an and Rumat el Heib, a flat expanse that is entirely agricultural, we saw dozens of these harvest shelters – some still being used and others in disarray.

At this Sukka, I found a gentleman sitting and waiting for his friend, the owner, to arrive.  I explained to him my interest and why I wanted to take a picture, and he explained that this is a fellah sukkah (referring to the Palestinian farmer).  

Next to a neighboring Sukka was another solitary farmer, weeding in his field.  He showed me the okra and black eyed pea plants that were still yielding produce, and another area he’d planted with cucumbers.  If they survive, he said, then he is in luck.  Inshallah

Bagels With a Twist

Every family has their Yom Kippur fast-breaking tradition, and ours involves a spread of bagels, cream cheese, smoked salmon, pickled herring, etc. This is a nod to the tradition that I grew up with in the United States, and homage to my grandfather, who was in the deli business, and whose dining room table never lacked these good things.

But real bagels are not easy to find in the Galilee, so my husband Ron, the intrepid baker, has learned to make them himself – the real way – without skipping the boiling water immersion. His bagels are excellent.

My friend Balkees from Nazareth, who is an extremely accomplished baker, was very interested when Ron told her about his bagels, so one morning she came to our house and they prepared them together, step by step.

Ron's Bagels

The next time I visited Balkees, she proudly displayed her own freshly-baked bagels. Everything that Balkees prepares, she adds her own little twist, and these bagels were no exception. Into the dough she added zaatar spice mixture – giving the bagels a slight green color and a wonderful, local flavor. So this year, at Yom Kippur, we feasted on one bowl of regular onion bagels, and one with zaatar.

Happy New Year!

Fig Season in the Western Galilee

I spent last weekend doing research for my book in the Western Galilee – an area of tremendous natural beauty which is quite off the tourism track, with villages that have long and illustrious histories yet are still relatively isolated from mainstream Israeli life. The foodways I was fortunate enough to encounter during this trip were so remarkable and impressive that ten blog entries could not describe them all. And the people who shared them with me – practitioners of the local food concept in the most authentic sense – were gracious beyond description.

In the Druze village of Hurfeish, we had lunch at the home of Nimmer Nimmer, a distinguished writer and translator. After our meal, he served us seven varieties of figs, explaining the names and characteristics of each one – including one “Bukkrati”, whose namesake, Hippocrates, invokes the medicinal properties of this particular variety.

7 varieties of figs

When we spoke of the Biblical text describing every man under his vine and fig tree, Mr. Nimmer related the fig to another Biblical metaphor – pointing out that ripe figs drip both milk and honey.

In the village of Jish (Gush Halav), we met with M., a young schoolteacher with a strong ideological commitment to maintaining his family’s culinary traditions (along with a deep aversion to publicity), his wife and their five children. Jish is known for its figs, particularly the local variety known as “biyatti” – from the Arabic word for white (green figs – as opposed to purple figs, which are “black”), which survive and thrive with relatively little water.

Drying figs on the roof

M. and his family collect figs from the many trees growing around the village, and prepare dried figs pressed into cakes – an ancient preservation technique – syrup made out of figs, called “dibess” – so close to the Hebrew word “dvash” for honey – and “mahoud” – a kind of fig jam that is thick with sesame seeds and walnuts (all locally grown) – which they say is outstanding in both flavor and nutritional value – for that I will return to taste in September.

Biyatti figs and a bowl of dibes

I came home with a cake of figs and a bottle of dibes. The fig cake is served in thin slices – with a flavor that only remotely resembles that of the dried figs from Turkey. And the dibess, following his wife’s suggestion, I will mix with tehina to make a fresh summer halva dip for sliced fruit.

Pure Gold

One Friday morning a few weeks ago, I arrived at Kfar Manda for my weekly Arabic lesson, and as I climbed the stairs to my teacher, Malek’s apartment, on the porch/roof I noticed piles of wheat laid out on a canvas drying in the sun (where was my camera when I needed it?).  Um Malek (Malek’s mother) had made bulgar – which meant that she had acquired sacks of wheat from her brother – one of the few traditional farmers left in the Galilee – right after the harvest in June, taken it home and immersed it in a huge pot of boiling water for about an hour, then spread the grains out on the rooftop to dry.  After that, she would take the parboiled wheat to the mill in the village to grind it – coarsely for mejadra and finely for kubbe. 

Um Malek always joins us in our lesson at some point and she explained to me the bulgar-making process.  Um Malek is always busy, and her husband, Abu Malek assures me that that is what keeps her vital and healthy.  And last Friday, when I left my lesson, she was sitting at a table plucking the maluhiya leaves off their stems to make the soup that every home in Kfar Manda has for lunch on that day.  But before I could pass by, she reached down to her lap and handed me a bag of bulgar that she had clearly prepared for me to take home. 

I don’t know what this looks like to you, but as far as I’m concerned, it is pure gold.

A Circassian Find

The Circassian community in Israel is very small and not well known.  Originally from a mountainous region in the Caucuses near the Black Sea, they were brutally driven out of their land by the Russians in the 19th century, then embraced by the Ottoman Turks, who settled them throughout their empire.  The men were famed as fierce, horse-back riding warriors, and the women, for their exceptional beauty.  Today there are two Circassian villages, both in the Galilee, where the residents enthusiastically preserve their language and culture. 

I have long wanted to include a Circassian village in one of my culinary tours, but they are a notoriously reserved people and I was never able to find a family that was interested in hosting visitors.  But this weekend there was a Circassian festival and home hospitality was featured in the program – so today my husband Ron and I made our way to Kfar Kama for lunch.  

Our hostess, a lovely young woman named Tina, served us a meal of salads, with the centerpiece being their famous Circassian cheese – both plain and smoked.  They also make two types of cheese-stuffed dough – one that is boiled, like pierogi – called “Mataz”, and the other which is fried, called “Khawajh”.   

We enjoyed our meal sitting outside on the porch of Tina’s modest home, while her two young daughters – both exceptional beauties – played nearby, murmuring to each other in their shushy-sounding language.   I can’t wait to bring my first group to Kfar Kama.

I’ll Have Mine Baladi

For those who are interested in fresh local produce, “baladi” is the term for vegetables that are not raised industrially in greenhouses, but are grown in the old, traditional way.  The word comes from “balad” which in Arabic means village.  Baladi vegetables can usually be found in the produce markets in Arab villages and are valued for the intensity of their flavor.

My good friend Balkees from Nazareth is growing her own baladi vegetables this summer on a plot of land outside the city and I joined her yesterday in the late afternoon to go do some weeding and picking.  The okra was still tiny and there was very little to pick, but there was a profusion of zucchini to be harvested – particularly since Balkees likes to pick them when they are still only the length of a finger.  This is the perfect size for making stuffed zucchini – so that they can be piled up into a pot together with stuffed grape leaves – for a favorite summer meal.

What is amazing about these baladi vegetables is not only that they are not sprayed or fertilized, but that they are grown entirely without watering. 

   how the leaves collect dew

Balkees explained that they get their water from the dew, and showed me how the leaves are specially shaped to maximize the collection of every drop of moisture. 

I’m going to prepare my baladi zucchini tonight using another technique Balkees taught me – to slice them and sautee them in plenty of olive oil until they get brown – then drizzle a mixture of garlic and lemon juice on top.  I can’t wait!

 

Baking with Balkees

Balkees and her candied pumpkin

One of the most felicitous outcomes of my research on the local foods of the Galilee has been the friendship that has developed between me and Balkees Abu Rabieh of Nazareth.  Balkees is one of the most gifted cooks and bakers I’ve ever met and the love that she invests in each of her creations enhances their flavor immeasurably.   Her outstanding baked goods are in high demand for weddings and celebrations, and when I sat at her dining room table this morning, she was working on an order for a cookie called Ghreibe – the dough based on flour to which she added a silky mixture of butter, powdered sugar and rosewater.  She pulled off little clumps of the stiff dough and formed them into half egg-shell-like cups, which she filled with a teaspoon of finely chopped pistachios.  These were pinched closed and shaped into cookies with an elegant twist at each end. 

ghreibe under bowl of pistachios

She also showed me a pot of candied pumpkin she’d made for the same wedding and just taken off the stove – one of the more unusual and delicious local specialties.  The technique for making it is especially intriguing – the pumpkin (the local, large white-skinned variety) is peeled and soaked in a mixture of water and what I believe translates to lime (i.e. whitewash) for 2 days – then carefully rinsed. Then the pieces are soaked again in water with lemon juice for another half day. Finally they are cooked in a syrup made with a little of that lemon water and sugar, seasoned with lemon geranium leaves.  The result is crunchy and refreshing.  I guess that’s what the lime is for….