The Other Side of Paradise

On these late winter mornings, surveying each new day I feel like I am living in paradise.  The weather is so temperate, the landscape lush and forthcoming, the wheat fields exude vitality.  Back west, my family and friends are hunkered down in the cold and snow as I gratefully soak up the winter sun.  The flip side of the coin, of course, is the troubling absence of rain, casting its shadow from an ineffectual gray cloud over the pleasure of a clear blue sky.

This weekend we hosted Abu Malek and Um Malek for an afternoon visit – because they are not mobile on their own, their son brought them, accompanied by his wife and two young sons.  We sat out in the yard and chatted while Um Malek collected pecans under the tree and picked luf, and the boys played on the rope swing.  In the relaxed pastoral mood, Abu Malek declared expansively. “this is paradise”.

Our village used to be like this too – he continued – but now that it has grown so big, there is never any quiet – the traffic is noisy on the narrow streets – the houses are densely built and there is no green landscape.  Butheina, the boys’ mother, told me that in their school, there is no playground, and barely even a yard for the children to play in during recess.

Her quiet, personal testament to the discrimination experienced in Israeli Arab communities passed opaquely between us and the warm afternoon sun.  And even now, the chill of that moment sits in my bones – a rumbling reminder of how far from paradise we really are.

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Rest and Refuel

Ron came home the other day, full and contented after an excellent meal at one of our favorite gas-station restaurants – Nimmer, near Golani Junction. You may be raising an eyebrow, like I did when I first moved to Israel, about the prospect of eating in proximity of gas pumps. But as it turns out, gas station restaurants can generally be counted on for fresh, tasty, if not formulaic, “Middle-Eastern” food.

As I delved into the culinary traditions of this region, I came to understand that gas station restaurants came into being in response to an age-old need to sustain travelers en route. From the time that merchants carried goods from points East to points West, resting stops were established at strategic points along their trade routes. Known in Arabic as “khans”, they offered caravan travelers and their pack animals a place to sleep and refuel. Certain khans continued to function through the beginning of the 20th century, and can still be seen today – one of my favorites is now a parking lot in Nazareth, but there are superlative examples in Akko as well.

And as it turns out, just down the road from Nimmer, covered in overgrowth, are the remains of a khan built during the Mameluke period (around the 16th century?), known as Khan el Tujar, or the khan of the vendors. A friend of mine – a food historian who is studying the evolution of local markets – invited me on an expedition to explore it. She explained that it was built near the junction between two Roman roads and that it had, until the early 1900s, hosted a weekly market. The question she was pondering was what led to its sudden decline.

We clambered over the rubble, peered through exquisite vaulted spaces, and discovered the remains of a well and a mosque. She found a piece of Mameluke-era pottery with its distinctive yellow glaze, and I found a chip of carnelian stone – too smooth and shiny to be just a pebble. We ate tiny dark-brown almonds picked off a stunted tree and cracked open with stones, and chewed on wild fennel seeds collected from the starbursts that topped stalks as high as our shoulders. Then we rested on a pile of stones, filling up on the beauty of Mount Tabor and the rolling olive-covered hills.khan 4

khan 2khan 1

Wild to Cultivated to Wild

What a great pleasure it is to have a hakura, or kitchen garden, next to the house – particularly when its yields peak in mid-winter. Yesterday I stripped the hakura of just about all of the swiss chard to make a crispy filo-layered pie.  Washing and trimming the fleshy leaves, I realized how viscerally I love fresh greens – wild or cultivated.  In fact, new sprouts of waxy luf leaves are unfolding all over the yard, beyond the orderly rows of the hakura.  And even if I haven’t mastered the technique of cooking them, I will soon harvest them and bring them to someone who has.  

The changing of the year has been a time of self-examination, and now, almost two years after my book came out, I’ve decided that I need to return to what I feel is my calling – to research and write about how the local foods are grown, processed and prepared in traditional ways in the Palestinian-Israeli and Bedouin communities of the Galilee.  This time, however, I want to do it in an academic context – to structure my work in an orderly fashion, and to join a community of like-minded people documenting traditional foodways around the world.

Looking for a potential home at the University of Haifa, I have spoken to several faculty members from different departments.  With Prof. Guy Bar-Oz in the Archaeology Department, who is a specialist in pre-historic and ancient foodways in this region, I had a particularly fascinating conversation.  When I told him my interest in foraging and the process of domestication of edible wild plants that I observe to be happening in our times, he countered with something that stopped me in my tracks.   How do you know that the wild mallow that you collect wasn’t once domesticated as a crop some time back in history, and just fell out of use over time and reverted back to a wild state?  How do I know indeed!  Clearly, there is so much to learn, and I am eager to dive in.

A few days ago, driving home from an exhausting day at a job that is more draining than I’d bargained for, I saw at the edge of the hills an older Bedouin man walking with three frisky little boys, presumably his grandchildren.  In his hands were two plastic bags full of freshly gathered luf.  My first urge was to pull over on the side of the road and follow him, to ask him about his foraging habits and what he had planned for that luf – his evening meal or perhaps to share with an ailing family member or friend.

But I drove on, more determined than ever that by foraging season next year, I’ll be able to ask those questions not just to satisfy my own curiosity, but to make their answers accessible to anyone who shares an interest in hearing them.  And I know that there are many, indeed.

stripped chard

Stripped Chard

 

jan luf

Wild Cousin Luf

What You Can Count On and What You Can’t

Let’s start with what you can’t.  Here in the Galilee, you can’t count on the rain.  You know, or at least you hope, that after what feels like an interminable, hot dry summer, eventually, the seasonal rains will make their dramatic appearance.  And usually, by mid-October or early November, they comply.  This year, our faith was challenged.  By the first week of December, my East-Coast American family was bundled up for snow, and we walked around in t-shirts, on edge in the brittle heat.  Then finally, the skies opened in all their splendor – rain, hail and snow – power outages, flooding.

And now to what you can count on.  That monumental soaking, followed by days of brilliant sunshine, has worked its magical re-appearing act.  Now you see brown, dry earth, now you don’t – replaced by rolling hills of tender, brilliant green filaments of wheat.  What a soothing sight that is.  And how unique for us here, that the advent of winter signals the start of our most primal, fertile season.

I can only imagine what it was like during the millennia when farmers of this land had no recourse to a water pipe.  The existential threat of rain that doesn’t come could wipe out entire clans or send them wandering, all the while trying to make sense of what you can count on and what you can’t.

Which brings me to my holiday wishes –new green that in  the year to come, may you  find  balance between the unpredictable and what can be relied upon – the regenerative cycle of the seasons and the transformative power of love, as welcome as  clouds on the horizon.

No Rain, No Luf

It is dry here.  So dry.  By this time of year, we could have expected several serious bouts of rain, and at least a stirring of growth in the brown earth.  Instead we get the vaguest of clouds and downpours of thirty seconds that barely darken the sidewalk.

On a walk last weekend in the somnambulant hills, even the asparagus were suspended in barren, bare tangles of thorns.   Crossing the vineyard, Ron searched through the dried leaves to glean clusters of raisins, sweet and chewy – more seeds than fruit.  They are like the black olives* I cured this year, their desiccated bitter flesh barely covering the pits, which I keep only out of sentiment for the loving attention invested in them.

raisins 1

Yesterday I visited Abu Malek in Kfar Manda.  Abu Malek is retired and spends much of his time visiting friends in the village.  Some of them, like Abu Ali, are not well and homebound.  Abu Ali has diabetes and for months he languished, with no appetite, and I heard periodic reports of cures investigated, here and in Jordan.  At this point, Abu Malek told me, his appetite has returned, but there is only one thing he craves – luf.

Luf is that edible wild plant that requires special cooking to neutralize its toxins, and is commonly acknowledged in the Arab communities of the Galilee to have extraordinary medicinal qualities.  Luf is one of the first plants to appear with the winter rains – in an ordinary year, my yard would now be full of them.

Abu Ali asked us if we have any luf in the freezer, Abu Malek told me.  But a few weeks earlier, Um Malek needed room in the freezer and she took out the old luf she had and tossed it.  A pity.  At Abbie’s there’s plenty of luf, Um Malek noted.  But no rain, no luf.

So we have no choice but to wait.  For the rain, for the luf, and for relief from the bone-dryness that has bedeviled countless generations whose livelihood here depended on the benevolent communion of rain, earth and new growth.

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*In fact, the original plan was to cure green olives (see this post)  When we got to the trees, however, there was barely a green olive to be found.  But plenty of beautiful black ones.  Following the signs can lead down a circuitous path…

Long-lost Relations

Last week I got a call that was entirely unexpected, from a man inquiring about a culinary tour.  Nothing unusual about that.  But then he went on to explain that we are, in fact, related – that my mother’s grandmother and his father’s grandmother were sisters.  My mother does not have a large family, and I certainly knew nothing about a third cousin who lives in Tel Aviv.

The more we spoke, the more excited I became.  There is something almost magical about discovering a new member of your family – like the most intimate of gifts.

I have often experienced a similar sensation with my friend Balkees, who readers of my book and blog surely remember.  In fact, it happened just yesterday when we sat together in her living room in Nazareth, savoring a long-awaited visit.  She told me about the olive harvest she’d just finished with her family.  Their 100 trees had yielded 21 jerrycans of oil – in spite of the fact that there were very few olives this year.   Few olives, but full of oil – of the best Suri variety.

I asked her about the word “leket” – the Hebrew word for gleaning which I wrote about in my previous post.  As I recalled, there was a similar word in Arabic.  “Lakat”, Balkees confirmed, means to pick – as in fruit.  As in olives.

Allocating a part of the harvest as an act of charity is also mandated in Islam, she reminded me – as it is in Judaism. And I recalled one year helping out in the harvest of olive trees planted around a mosque, where all the pickers were local villagers of little means.

Tasting fresh oil

Tasting this year’s fresh oil

Even as so much emphasis is placed on what divides Jews and Arabs, I am reminded time after time of how much we share in common.  And over our little cups of coffee and date cookies shaped like olive oil jugs, Balkees felt to me like my long-lost sister.  A woman of this land, eager to share her love of it with a kindred spirit.

Green or Black?

Living by Galilee Seasonality is full of ritual – with the same tasks carried out year after year under a delightfully never-exhausted series of circumstances. Now, after the drenching of our first substantial rain, it is time to harvest olives.

The first green olives are for curing, and later on, when the fruit ripens and the trees are about half green and half black, is the best time to pick for making oil. Or to prepare black olives…

Every year we pick and cure our own olives. Sometimes when we are ambitious and energetic, we also pick enough to make our own oil. But a season does not pass without a close encounter with at least one or two olive trees – to collect the ripe fruit that, for all its profusion, in our world of plenty is most often left to ripen and rot.

On a week of vacation from work this past week, Ron has already picked several buckets of our favorite Suri olives, and packed them away into jars. IMG_2822

While he was enjoying a leisurely harvest, I have been running around frantically putting things in order for my own vacation next week – at long last, I am about to visit Istanbul for the first time!

Before I leave, I’ve been wondering if there is time for my friend Miryam and me to squeeze in our own annual harvest – when we roll up our sleeves, get the ladder and the bucket and spend a few hours doing what people have been doing here in this part of the world during this time of year for thousands of years. Or should we just wait until after I get back?

If we pick now, we’ll make green olives. If we wait, they will have to be black.

Green or black?

I was pondering these options when I stepped out on the front porch this morning, still in my pajamas, to breathe in the fresh, fall morning. And with a racket of squawking, 6 bright green parrots landed on the telephone line, right above my head!  Now I know what I’ll be doing this weekend…

parrots

The Garden of New Year

How confusing to celebrate two New Years each year.  Can I pledge allegiance to one of them, or at least find some resonance beyond the occasion for a holiday meal or a midnight kiss?

Because I live in the Galilee, from whose agricultural landscape the practice of declaring a New Year at the end of summer originated, I search around me for hints of inherent rationale.

Intuitively, from an agricultural point of view, the New Year might more logically coincide with the new growth of spring. But this betrays a persistent world-view from my East-Coast upbringing, of snowy winters, April showers and May flowers.  In fact, it is in winter here in the Galilee when the excitement of new growth bursts forth – something I marvel at every year anew.

Then why late summer?  I found an answer just the other day, watching Ron fixing the soil for our hakura – the kitchen vegetable garden we keep next to our house.  He cleaned out the last shreds of dried green onion and chard, turned over the earth and spread compost.  We began to discuss what we would plant this year.

On the road, I saw a large tractor with clumps of earth still clinging to a giant rake-like plow, and passed roughly combed brown fields which now wait – like all of us – for the rains that will set a new agricultural cycle into motion.

The new year spreads out before us like the field and the garden – and what will emerge depends in large part on the intention, effort and nurturing we invest in it.  The rain, when it comes, is beyond our control – as are bugs, hail and heat waves.  But overall, at the threshold of this New Year, it serves to keep in mind the timeless truth – that we reap what we sow.

And as the clouds gather and a welcome chill promises relief in our summer-weary days, let me extend this New Year’s wish: that in the coming year, you envision, cultivate and harvest the finest yields your heart and imagination can dream of.

With love – Abbie Rosner

prepared field

House Blend Herb Tea

On these roasting summer days, one can never drink enough, and I try to keep a pitcher of chilled herb tea in the fridge at all times.   Very auspiciously, the path leading to my front door is lined with herbs – starting with rosemary, followed by zaatar (Syrian marjoram), lemon verbena, thyme, zuta  levana (white savoury), lemon grass, sage and tarragon.

Making the tea is simple enough – just put a bunch of fresh herbs in a tea pot and cover with boiling water.  I leave the pot to steep on the counter until the tea is tepid – then pour it into the pitcher and put it in the refrigerator.  The teapot is constantly being replenished with my daily harvests.

Typically, I start with the lemon verbena, breaking off four tender branches of new growth just where they generously yield without pulling.  After that, I select two long sprigs of zuta and then reach down into the depths of the lemon grass to tear off one scratchy leaf.  Finally I look for two large and handsome sage leaves, eponymously green and furry, and pluck them as well.  This carefully assembled combination, I just realized, composes my house blend.

I recently read a book by Elliot Cowan called Plant Spirit Medicine.  The author describes how he communicates with particular plant spirits, and how they guide him in his work as a healer.  Since then, I have begun to approach each of my herb plants with new respect.   I whisper thanks to its spirit for so generously sharing its growth for my refreshment, and I run my hands over its leaves in appreciation.

For the time being, the only response I’ve received is the continued blessing of my delightful cold tea.  And that, believe me, is recognition enough.

herb garden

 

Roots are What Sustain Us

At this point in my life, birthdays are an opportunity to indulge in whatever I desire, and this year, not surprisingly, it was to spend time in the Western Galilee.  Maybe I was a Crusader in a previous life, or a farmer whose world view was bound by sage-redolent hills and the shining expanse of Mediterranean Sea.  Something about that landscape calls me back again and again.

We stayed in an extraordinarily lovely bed and breakfast place, where the owners treated us to home-made liqueur made from the green outer casing of walnuts, and their own excellent wine, distilled from Tempranillo grapes that they planted on the nearby slopes, and produced only for the pleasure of sharing with their guests.

We visited the Christian Arab village of Meilia and stopped at a small, family-run arak factory, where the chief distiller, who mastered his trade in his native Lebanon, carried more sorrow in his eyes than a sea of arak could erase. arak

At the peak of the village, among the crumbling walls of an ancient citadel, we picked figs and looked for signs etched in the stones.  

 stone carvings

figs in meilia

By the most fortuitous circumstance, we spent an afternoon exploring the nearby Arab city of Tarshiha with Amnon Gofer, one of the most knowledgeable guides in the Galilee.  Following his lead through the narrow alleyways of the deserted old market, where ironworkers once repaired the local villagers’ farm tools, he showed us fat swaths of tobacco leaves, picked ripe from nearby fields and hanging out to dry.  tobacco

From a lookout at the top of the city, our guide pointed to the crest of mountains that cuts off the Western Galilee at the border with Lebanon. This is not the natural border that delineates this region, he explained; historically and culturally, it is the Litani River in Lebanon.

The grapes for making arak and wine are harvested on either side, as are the Tsuri olives likewise cured and pressed.  For the Arab communities of the Western Galilee, whose ethnic and cultural ties are closer to their neighbors across the unbreachable border, at least the local foods they share in common are within their reach.