Two Weeks into the Omer

farike making 1We are now almost two weeks into the Omer – the 49 plus one days that are counted between Passover and Shavuoth.  In a region that has basically two seasons – winter and summer, the Omer, which bridges between them, has always been a period of tremendous climatic uncertainty, with drastic implications for agriculture.

So far this has been a textbook Omer – Sweltering days followed by drastic drops in temperature. Thunderstorms, lightning and pounding rain, then dust storms that leave a yellow scrim over every surface.

Yesterday we joined Balkees and went to visit our friends who still practice traditional agriculture outside of Nazareth.  They had told her that, although they wouldn’t be out in the fields, we could go on our own and pick the peas that are now in season.  The matriarch of the family, Um S., whose domain is these fields, was home recovering from a torn cartilage, and her absence was obvious when we searched for the rows of peas.

dead peas

Dead peas in the pod

Amidst the undergrowth, all of the pea plants were dried up and dead, the result, Balkees explained, of the heat, followed by rain, followed by more heat – and of course, no greenhouse protection.  We salvaged a small pile of pods, but the peas inside of them, while still green, were bitter.

chickpeas

not yet mature chickpeas

ful

fava beans

Nearby, rows of chickpeas seemed to have withstood the climatic onslaught unscathed.   Heartiest were the thick-skinned fava beans (ful), and we each filled our bags with them.

Following a plume of smoke, we drove across the rutted dirt roads to the wheat field where a man and woman were in the midst of preparing farike.  As I understood it, they had leased the field from our friends and were making their way through the green wheat, harvesting, drying and roasting the green ears at their own pace.

farike making

roasting farike

charred wheat in field

green wheat field and charred wheat

What had all this late rain signified for them, I asked.  For the wheat that’s still in the ground, no problem, they answered.  But for what was cut and laying on the ground waiting to be roasted, getting wet meant disaster.  They had had to spend 1000 Shekels on plastic sheeting to cover the wheat, just to protect their investment.  “I knew the rain was coming.  I look at the 3-day forecast,” the man explained.

We left the farike-roasters and continued to where our friends keep their cattle and goats out on the rocky open hillside.  Abu S. was milking the goats, by hand, taking over for his wife who usually does this work.  I was struck with wonder at the primacy of this way of life, based on unmediated interaction between indigenous animals and foods and intensive human effort, with only the barest traces of technology.  It was absolutely clear to me that this symbiotic and fraught relationship between humans and the land, maintained for thousands of years on these same hillsides, will not endure much longer.

We followed Abu S. back to their family home, where we sat in the living room, Um S.’s foot wrapped in bandages.  Besides the damage to the peas, what did the rains signify for the rest of her crops, I asked.  They are good for the tomatoes, she told me.  This profound soaking of the earth, I could imagine, boded well for summer vegetables that would rely entirely on groundwater for their growth.

The Wheat Harvest

Bucking tradition, I chose Spring to go into hibernation, focusing just about all my energies on my current project, which is researching and writing about wheat as one of the Galilee’s local foods.  And while I was buried in books and traipsing around from one fascinating encounter to another, the culinary landscape made its own dramatic shift.  In the local market in Basmat Tivon, the neighboring Bedouin village, where I purchase all my produce, the winter greens have been replaced by fresh green piles of grape leaves, miniature eggplants and zucchinis for stuffing, and tender baby okra. A pile of long-stemmed malukhiya stands on the counter, the leaves of which the Bedouin women use to make a kind of deep green, mucilaginous dish to dip pita bread in.

In the fields, we’ve enjoyed the ripening chick-pea crop – picking the green pods off the stalks and opening them to reveal perfectly formed blushing-green chick peas that are delicious to munch on.  The sunflowers and corn are pushing skyward at a breathtaking rate, and while I enjoy their vital beauty, they look like interlopers on the landscape…

wheat olives 1

But as I mentioned, it is wheat that consumes my attention this Spring – watching the grain in the fields transform from green to gold – both the cultivated and the wild varieties.  Studying the history of wheat in the Galilee, I’ve learned how fatefully central it was in the lives of the people who lived here since pre-history.  Stone-age men and women collected and ate wild grasses, setting into motion the millennia-long processes that led to their domestication – right here in this part of the Eastern world.  And once wheat could be systematically cultivated in one place, humans were free to shift from wandering gatherers to living  in a settled society.  And the rest is history….

I’ve been clocking countless hours and kilometers, visiting just about every corner of the Galilee to meet people whose lives are in some way connected to wheat.  I’ve been exhilarated by the exquisite beauty of the landscape in the late afternoon light – picking up the gold in the rust colored earth out of which a sea of silvery olive branches wave in the afternoon breeze; by the camel-colored wheat fields, so ripe that they hiss in the wind like rattlesnakes. 

wheat in handThe holiday of Shavuoth, which many people here are observing today, was originally a celebration of the wheat harvest.   My own harvest from this season has been notebooks filled with notes and one very rough draft.  Now I can only wish for the energy, time and inspiration that will leaven this lump of dough into a fine creation.