Living Lightly

handful of asparagusIt was probably the most beautiful day of the most beautiful season in the Galilee that I revisited my favorite wild asparagus stalking grounds. That March afternoon I was closing a chapter that extended over half my life, during which I was immersed in learning the timeless ways of this land, from the land itself and the people who know it so well.

There were so many asparagus, it took no time to fill my handful quota. I planned to prepare them my favorite way – roasted with olive oil and salt. But I ate several as is, just to savor the fresh bitterness and life-energy still in the stalks.

Unlike domesticated crops, beholden to humans for their propagation, as long as their environment is not disturbed, edible wild plants will generally appear in their season, year after year, whether someone comes along and snaps off their tips or not.  And as sad as I felt that day, this realization brought with it some solace.

I found myself identifying with countless generations of pastoral nomads who found sustenance in these Galilee hills, and then continued on their way. Now on my own nomadic journey, I felt the bittersweet unraveling of my desire to cling to this place and possess it.

If my travels bring me back to the Galilee in early spring, the wild asparagus will await me with gracious indifference. And I will know where to find them.

This Passover, I extend my best wishes for life lived lightly on this earth.

Abbie Rosner

 

 

Advanced Arabic

It’s hard to believe its been almost a year since I registered for an Advanced Arabic course.  My original intention was to improve my communication skills with the many friends I made over the course of my research on the local foods of the Galilee. I wish I could say that I retained even half of all that I learned over those very intense fourth months.  One of the unanticipated outcomes of the program, however, was the inspiration to write about the process. Happily, Naamat Women Magazine decided to publish that piece, which I share with you here, fresh from the latest summer issue.

salim shows me

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 First, First Fruits of Spring

20150403_114715Early on in Arabic class, we learned the names for the seasons of the year, and one of the topics for discussion was, “what is your favorite season?”   Visiting in Kufar Manda to practice my lessons, I took up this conversation with Abu Malek and Um Malek. I like winter best, I told them. The Arabic name for winter, “shitta“, is a synonym for rain, and I related how I wait all year long for the onset of winter rains that call up a plethora of edible wild plants.

Um Malek got a dreamy look in her eyes and said, “Spring”.  Since she is one of the most energetic wild plant foragers I know, I was interested to hear her choice, and asked her to explain.  Because of the zaatar, she said.

For those of us who associate winter with hibernation and spring with reawakening and new growth, these seasons have a very different significance here in the Galilee.  Winter, with its life-giving rainfall, is the time when local plants emerge, grow and mature. Zaatar has been evident on the hillsides all winter long, but now its soft, hairy leaves are large and suffused with potent essential oil, ready to be gathered, dried, crushed and mixed with sesame seeds and sumac to make dukka.

Other local foods, however, just reach an initial stage of maturity with the coming of spring.  In the market in Nazareth this past weekend, I saw soft green almonds on sale.  And on my walks in the fields, the wheat is tall and robust, loaded with fat, mature kernels of soft green grain.  Green almonds and wheat – as well as the new chick peas that will soon be appearing – are a delight to eat in their fresh, spring state, or in the case of wheat, ready to be harvested and roasted to produce farike, but their main harvest will only come later, when they are dry and more utilitarian.

By Passover, the wheat in the fields and the flowers on the fruit and olive trees give the traditional Galilee farmer an indication of harvests yet to come, assuming they can survive the upcoming, volatile 49 plus one days of the Omer, with their alternating thunderstorms and blistering hamsin (Arabic for “fifty”) winds.

In the meantime, as we retell yet again the Passover story of exile and liberation, we can also recall that this was once a harvest holiday, charged with promise and trepidation, and that first fruits can ripen in successive stages.

Extending my best Spring Holiday wishes!

Abbie

pre pesach wheat field

 

The Limitations of Cultural Identity for Food

pat out bread

Baking hubez saj in Fassouta

I recently visited my old friend Ayoub in Fassouta up near the Lebanese border in the Western Galilee – one of the few Arab villages populated almost, if not entirely by Christians. Ayoub’s wife likes to use a certain kind of rennet for making cheese from the goat’s milk from their herd, and I had brought some back for her during my last trip to the US.

One of the formative experiences I had when researching for my book was a morning spent with Ayoub’s sister and sister in law as they baked bread in the baking room next to their house. Working in splendid coordination, the two women baked about 200 “hubez saj“, huge, wafer-thin flatbreads, on a concave metal surface called a saj, heated over a wood fire.

I thought about that morning during a conference I attended last week on Israeli food studies at the University of Haifa. One of the speakers, a professor in the Land of Israel Studies Department, challenged the audience with an Israeli food trivia quiz. A section of the quiz was devoted to “Druze Cuisine” and one of the questions was “what is a saj?”

While my knowledge of Israeli snack foods history was insufficient to answer most of the questions, I do know what a saj is. And I also know that it is not necessarily Druze. Sitting in Ayoub’s living room, sipping herb tea and savoring his sister’s ethereal honey-drenched semolina cake, I asked him if the saj has any particular association with the Druze, whose communities are centered in the Galilee and adjacent Lebanon and Syria.

He answered by way of a story, telling me that his sister’s saj was getting rusty and they wanted to buy a new one. After searching in all the villages and towns in the area, they eventually ended up travelling all the way south to buy one in Hebron, a city that is far from any Druze community and whose Arab population is predominantly Muslim.

Ayoub’s wife then related that their daughter, who is the only Arab employee in a high tech company, once brought some fresh hubez saj to share with her colleagues at work. “Druze pita” they told her, based on their familiarity with the Druze men and women who sell hubez saj baked on portable, gas-heated sajs at fairs and stands in shopping malls. But we’re not Druze, she explained.

Attaching ethnic identities to foods may be convenient, and in certain cases appropriate. But in this little slice of the Middle East, I think it has already caused way too much trouble. Flat breads in their various forms, farike and bulgar, and even hummus and falafel for that matter, are what people who live in a traditional relationship with this Levantine land and its local foods consume, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. The defining relationship, I believe, is between the earth, the farmer, the miller and the cook, not any religious or national orientation.

pile of elrif

Whose flat breads are these?

 

I could make ftayir myself

ftayer 1I have the recipe and all the ingredients. But preparing these little wild spinach filled pastries is one of those tasks that is more fun with a friend, and so I took the two bags of greens I’d gathered and went to visit one of my most esteemed culinary mentors, Um Malek, at her home in Kufar Manda.

In traditional local Arab cuisine, ftayir is the default application for wild spinach. The shapes and seasonings may vary, but the theme is same – a chopped spinach filling encased in savory dough. All of the cooks that I know here in the Lower Galilee prepare their ftayir in triangles. The coinciding of ftayir-making and Purim was too auspicious, and I was thrilled to have them as my three-cornered holiday treat.

I have never known anyone who is more connected to the land, the seasons and the local foods as Um Malek. For months now, she has been preparing meals for her and Abu Malek from the greens and mushrooms she gathers on her daily walks. And plenty of ftayir.

I hand over the spinach to Um Malek, which she expertly chops and seasons in one bowl; in another, she mixes the dough. Except for yeast and cumin, everything she uses – from the flour made of wheat grown and milled in Kufar Manda, to the sesame seeds, olive oil and zaatar – is locally sourced.

I could have made ftayir myself, but then I wouldn’t have sat opposite Um Malek, filling the circles of dough as she rolled them out, communicating more or less in my tentative Arabic, at peace in her company as she was in mine. It seems there is no currency to measure the value of the wild-spinach filled pastries I took home with me that evening, or the quality of grace that emanated from our hands.

chopping spinachmaking filling

Winter Does Not Apply

handful of asparagusFebruary is arguably the dreariest month of the year, and at this point my family and friends in the United States and Europe are paralyzed with winter fatigue.  While winters here in the Galilee are generally mild, this past month we’ve been treated to several snowstorms and in recent days I’ve even had to pull out an extra blanket.

But aside from the night chill, the usual associations with winter do not apply here.  For true locavores, this season actually represents the onset of a long and fertile spring.  Since December I have been gathering chicory, wild spinach, mallow and asparagus.  And when the cold sets in, I sip tea steeped with the zaatar and white savoury from my garden, which have come back to life after languishing all summer.

Yesterday, the first really warm and sunny day in weeks, I took a foraging walk and happily discovered that some of my favorite wild edibles have gotten a second wind.  Mallow and chicory grow freely all winter long, but the wild spinach that I’d gathered months ago has just now re-emerged tall and robust.  And the asparagus bushes that were thoroughly harvested by all the local foragers are putting out new stalks yet again.

After picking my one-handful of asparagus limit, I sat down to rest under a scotch broom bush, awash in the fragrance of its sunny flowers, and marveled at the generosity of this land that, from the era of prehistoric hunters and gatherers through to this exquisite winter day, has so graciously sustained the people who understand how to live on and off of it.

feb 26 2015

A Fresh Look at Some Local Foods

I was flipping through some photographs I’d taken recently, and found these three images, all which show interesting ways that indigenous local foods are processed in Galilee Palestinian society.

This is a photograph of luf (arum palaestinum), which was collected this winter during the season it grows wild in the area around Nazareth.

drying luf

I took the picture of the leaves spread out on a white sheet on the sofa of one of the living rooms in my friend Balkees’ mother’s house in Reine. Once they are completely dry – a process that could take at least a month, depending on how damp the winter is – they will be crumbled into a powder and put into capsules. This medication is being prepared for a family member who has colon cancer.

For more posts about luf, see here and here.

And here is a dish of habissa – a sort of pudding dessert made from carob syrup.

habissa

It was served after this exceptionally delicious meal I was fortunate to share with my friends Um and Abu Malek in Kufar Manda, where everything was fresh, locally grown and lovingly prepared.

meal in k manda

We had lubiya (fresh black-eyed peas), which Um Malek grew herself in the fields of the Batof (Bet Netufa Valley), and sautéed hubeisa (wild mallow), which she had collected on her daily early-morning walk. The pickles she had home-cured and the braised meat and leben (yoghurt) were also locally sourced.

Habissa, like another Kufar Manda specialty, malukhiya (jute), is an acquired taste. At this point, I am genuinely delighted to see either one of them set in front of me. The habissa that Um Malek served she had prepared using the carob syrup that she made a few months ago (see post). Habissa originates in a time that both Abu Malek and Um Malek can remember, when carob syrup was one of the few sweeteners available in a rural cuisine that depended almost entirely on locally grown products.

Jordan Chickpeas

jordan chickpeasChristmas in mainstream Jewish Israel is a non-event, but in the Galilee, where 50% of the population is Arab, it’s another story.  In those Arab cities and towns where there is a Christian population, Christmas lights and decorations light up the evenings, and nighttime Christmas bazaars attract visitors, regardless of religion, over the weekend before the holiday.  This year thousands flocked to the Christmas market in Nazareth to see a performance by the winner of last year’s Arab Idol – a young Palestinian singer from Gaza.

We, on the other hand, were invited by our friend Akram to attend a more low-keyed Christmas market in his home town of Shefar’am.   A lesser known Arab city than Nazareth, Shefar’am has its own thousands of years of history, including settlement by Canaanite, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druze communities.  The city still retains an ethnically mixed population, with many Muslims, fewer Christians, even fewer Druze, and no Jews.  At the Christmas market, crowds of Shefar’am’ites filled the narrow streets that lead to the historic center of town, which is shared by a mosque, church and defunct synagogue.

In front of the Orthodox Church, we passed two unorthodoxly thin and youthful Santas posing with children on their laps, then left the bustle and noise behind us. Inside, we reveled at the church’s exquisite beauty, somber eastern icons and a soaring performance by a choir from the neighboring Jewish anthroposophic community. There was a guest of honor in the audience, an archbishop from Lebanon in a tall black hat and black robes, who extended his hand to be kissed by a group of earnest young nuns.

From the stalls in the Christmas market, we collected black coffee and zaatar mixture give-aways. I bought a Palestinian needlework pillowcase and a bag of traditional anise-scented Christmas cakes, and we snacked on steamed lupine seeds and fava beans sprinkled with cumin.  Akram’s relatives greeted us with sips of Black Label cheer at an open-house in one of the historic buildings the family owns in the heart of the city.  While vendors of grilled meat were everywhere, in consideration of Muslim sensibilities, it was decided that the pig on the spit that was part of the previous year’s market menu would not be repeated.

Before we left, Akram gave us a bag of white and pink candies, freshly made for Christmas, to take home.  They had the same sugar-shellac coating like the Jordan Almonds which were once my movie theater candy of choice – but the shape was different – these were small, round and bumpy.  The surprise was what was inside – a roasted chick pea.  My kind of Christmas candy!

With my best wishes for a Happy 2015!

My Name is Arum

fresh lufAfter my culinary memoir “Breaking Bread in Galilee” was published, I realized I had neglected to include the scientific names of the edible wild plants along with their colloquial ones.   If it is ever re-issued, I will remedy this oversight, and may even sketch each plant to fill out the picture, so to speak.

In the meantime, the seasonality of edible wild plants continues to be a consuming passion, and with the bountiful rain we have already had this autumn, it is thrilling to watch another cycle of new growth unfold in all its verdant splendor.  True to form, precocious luf, earliest of the forageable greens , is already sporting its shiny arrow-shaped leaves in lawns and thickets.  Because of its toxic load of oxalic acid, and the culinary mastery required to render it edible, I don’t generally prepare luf.  But I am happy to pick luf for friends who appreciate its gastronomic and health-inducing qualities, and yesterday was pleased to greet a Bedouin woman and her daughter who were gathering luf in the neighborhood.

The scientific name of luf is Arum Palaestinum.  A reader from Italy once wrote me to confirm that luf is indeed Arum, and that in Italy the local species of the plant is also consumed and considered to have medicinal properties.  The Oxford Companion to Food – an encyclopedic account of every consumable under the sun – relates arum to the more commonly known – and inedible- funeral lilly, and actually cites the “instructive account” of my book when describing how to prepare it.

With the unpleasant tingle of luf still fresh in my memory, I can only recommend expert forager Uri Mayer-Chissik‘s recipe for preparing luf – with the emphatic disclaimer to prepare it at your own risk…

Cooked Luf Salad – from “Wild Edible Plants”,  Uri Mayer-Chissik, 2010, Mapa Press (in Hebrew)

Chop 1 bunch of young, tender luf leaves, central spine removed first, then wash carefully.

Saute one large chopped onion in olive oil on low heat till browned.

Drain the washed luf leaves and add to the pot.

Add chopped wild sorrel leaves (about 1/4 of the amount of the luf) to the pot (optional).

Cook for about half an hour, stirring every few minutes.  Make sure that there is enough liquid, and add water if necessary.

Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and cook for another 30 minutes.

In order to ensure that the luf is ready, it is recommended to taste a bit to see that the leaves don’t cause a burning sensation.