Tipping the Seasonal Scale

In the Galilee the year is divided about equally into two seasons.  The first, which starts in the fall, can be called the rainy season, although it is more accurately described as the period during which rain may or may not come.  In the second season, quite surely it will not.

As one would expect in nature, there is no single point where one season ends and the other takes over.  Instead, there is a substantial, liminal period of erratic weather between the two. This interval roughly coincides with the seven weeks plus one day between Passover and Shavuoth – which ended this past Wednesday.

The day broke hazy and hot, and by afternoon the temperature outside topped one hundred (40 Celsius).  Even after sundown, the heat persisted and at one point the wind picked up, sending blasts of burning air through the darkness.  The next morning was thirty degrees cooler, but the air was thick and yellow.  By noon, a pathetic sprinkle of rain made the briefest appearance.  Then the sky cleared back to blue.

All this is to show that the long, hot and dry half of the year is imminent.  Yet even in the traditional agricultural landscape of the Galilee, dry does not mean desiccated. Moisture from the underground water table and morning dew will sustain the second season’s grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and baal vegetables – even without the benefit of irrigation, until the next cycle.

Perhaps we can find in this last act of climatic theatrics, a reminder to appreciate the extraordinary environmental equilibrium that is about to be restored.

pomegrantes to come

 

Wheat, and Zaatar, to the Mill

I’ve started to research in earnest for the paper I’m going to present at the Oxford Symposium this summer.  The subject of the symposium is markets, and I will talk about the market in Nazareth as a site of pilgrimage, not just for Christians visiting the site(s) where the Annunciation is believed to have taken place, but also for the local fellaheen and their descendants, who brought, and still bring, their wheat to be ground at the El Babour mill*.

The cavernous rooms of El Babour’s Ottoman-era stone building, that once housed massive flour milling machinery, are now filled with orderly sacks and shelves of grains, pulses and local dry goods.  The milling machines that still operate are relegated to the building’s stone-cobbled back courtyard, where villagers and their pack animals once waited for their turn at the mill.  Yet for all the modern adaptations, this place continues to function as a living mill and I am fascinated by its enduring place in Galilee Arab society in our times.

In the past few weeks I have spent many hours at El Babour, where the kind and gracious owners, Tony and Jarjoura Kanaza, patiently answer my questions and reminisce about the mill around which their family’s history has revolved for several generations.  I waited to interview people who are bringing bulgar or farike to be milled, to document a ritual that has been practiced in this part of the world for millennia. But one after the other, the customers who came for milling services brought bags of zaatar,  not wheat.   This is the season for zaatar, and instead of crushing the dried leaves through a sieve to achieve the consistency needed for the eponymous spice mixture, a machine at El Babour does the job in seconds.  This concession to time-saving is not the only adaptation to the eminently local and politically loaded practice of producing zaatar that I have seen (for more on this subject, see the chapter on zaatar in my book, Breaking Bread in Galilee).

For the second year, now, an enterprising Palestinian-Israeli farmer has leased a field on which he cultivates rows of zaatar, where you can “pick your own” without risking a fine (wild zaatar is now a protected plant, and illegal to pick).  The field’s many patrons attest to a desire for control over every step of the zaatar-making process, starting at its roots, that has not been entirely eclipsed by (among others) the ready availability of commercial zaatar mixtures.

Back at the Haifa University library, delving into the literature on food anthropology, a reference to a “short food chain” struck me as a precise, if not laconic, summary of traditional Galilee Arab foodways.  And remarkably, with all the pressures and diversions of modern life, these traditions adapt and endure.

* More on the fascinating history of milling in Nazareth in a future post…

milling zaatar at El Babour

Milling zaatar at El Babour  

Pick your own zaatar

Pick your own zaatar

Relating to Wheat

These spring days, the roaring of combines rumbles in the background – rending thick fields of wheat into neat rows of shorn stalks.  In the pre-industrial order of local agriculture, not only would this method of harvesting be unfathomable to a farmer watching from the side, but also the timing.  Why would anyone cut down their good wheat almost two months ahead of time, just as the grains in the ears were maturing (unless they were planning to roast it, but such a large portion of the crop?).

The reason, of course, is that all this wheat is being cut as hay, destined to feed the thousands of cows whose milk supplies Israel’s burgeoning dairy industry.  It may be hard to imagine, but until the German Templers came to Palestine in the late 19th century, there was no cow-based dairy industry here, let alone any practice of growing a food crop as fodder.

Yet now, we feed wheat to the cows, and at the same time, more and more people are developing allergies to the ubiquitous gluten-heavy grain which has been bred specifically to meet the needs of industrial food processing.

The relationship between wheat and human subsistence – once so elegantly straightforward – has become complicated in our times.   I find this to be especially perplexing here in the western curve of the Fertile Crescent, where the symbiosis between humans and their staple grain is so deeply and locally rooted.

During Passover, when the “luxury” of leavened products is set aside, it is worthwhile considering the price we pay for soft, air-filled bread, and if we are truly and healthfully sustained by foods produced using methods that are environmentally and humanely questionable.

pesach 2014

From my Galilee home, during this season steeped with spiritual significance, I extend best wishes to you all for the spring holidays!

Spring Fodder

How to catch an acute dose of spring fever – open the bedroom window at 4 AM; when the chill, citrus blossom-drenched air surges into the room, inhale deeply until intoxicated. 

Winter is my favorite season here – the magical emergence of new seasonal growth that we experience from December, in other parts of the world is most commonly associated with spring.  So if winter here is like spring, then the real spring is a riot!  By mid-March, the crazy blooming and blossoming of flowers, undergrowth, and trees is simply out of control.

I recently read about spring as it was experienced here about a century ago, in the first volume of Gustav Dalman’s “Work and Culture in Palestine”, written in German in the 1920s, and recently translated into English.  It is an extraordinary work that documents traditional life in this place as it was practiced more or less since antiquity, just before European and global intervention led to its almost total demise.

The first volume (of 8 in all), focuses on the seasons, and it was very exciting to consider Dalman’s account of spring with all its commotion in the background.  He explains that the wild growth in spring, which at this point is almost waist-high (and which I tended to look at only for its culinary qualities) represented a celebration of fodder for the animals of farmers and herders.  From a fellaheen saying that he quotes (and I paraphrase), the shepherd before spring needs to be smart, but when spring arrives, he can sit back and relax.  Fattened up on the bounty of fresh greens, the cows, goats and sheep give rich and abundant milk – a true expression of the fat of the land.

Dalman speaks of the sap rising in the trees during this season – the expression is familiar, of course, and in my more “interconnected” moments, I’ve visualized trees surging with life energy, but I never understood it in such a visceral way.  These days, I feel like I am tapping into these same energies of growth and renewal for my new academic pursuits.  To my great surprise and delight, a proposal I submitted to the prestigious Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery was accepted, so I will be talking about the wonderful wheat mill in Nazareth, El Babour, in England this July.

In the meantime, if spring is all around, or just around the corner, I hope you enjoy the rising sap as well!

fodder

fodder cut from my neighbor’s yard

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.

***

*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.

Gone Gleaning

Leket (or the verb Likut) is the Biblical Hebrew word for gleaning.   Leket Israel is a non-profit  that collects produce and food that would otherwise go to waste from farms, restaurants, stores and caterers, and distributes it to those in need.

The organization contacted me recently in connection with a new project they have initiated– posting commentaries on each weekly Torah portion, written by food scholars and chefs, and supplemented with recipes.   As a longtime gleaner and food culture observer, they asked me if I would be willing to supply a recipe.

Looking at Leket’s website, I saw they were hosting a morning of gleaning in honor of World Food Day at a farm not far from where I live.   On the spur of the moment, I decided to forego my cherished leisurely Friday morning routine of yoga, errands, coffee and newspaper, to join the gleaners.

What would we be gleaning, I wondered, as I drove past the fields and towns of the Jezreel Valley.  Olives, of course!  What else is being harvested this time of year?  Arriving at the field, I was given a bucket, and joined about a hundred school-kids, families and other locals, picking turnips.

There is plenty of time for rumination when you pick turnips.  As it turned out, we were not technically gleaning, since the entire field was leased and planted by Leket and all of its contents were destined for its distribution.  What was the rationale, I wondered, behind the decision to grow turnips?  Beyond pickling and adding them to soup, what other qualities do they offer?

They are easy to harvest, for one thing.  Pulling them out of the earth requires remarkably little energy – the fat cream and magenta globes yield to the slightest tug – remarkably clean of mud.  For a team of non-professional harvesters, this was certainly an advantage.  And they are hearty and nutritious, and don’t require refrigeration or special handling.  The turnip greens themselves weren’t saved – and the remorse I felt in tossing them aside was lessened by the fact that they were so very raggedy.

But I was also happy to see plenty of mallow and the first wild spinach of the season – getting an opportunistic head start thanks to the field’s irrigation.  Interesting that these edible wild plants grow only on the outside borders of the harvested field – the traditional area sanctioned for gleaners.  And how gracious is the land here, that even these “weeds” that appear unbidden offer up such a generous supply of sustenance.

We picked and loaded our buckets, depositing their contents into large containers, as a forklift busily made the rounds, collecting and replacing them.   It was hard, physical work, crouching down to pick, then standing up to lift that heavy bucket, tromp across the muddy field littered with greens and hoist the bucket to the rim of the container.  I came home exhausted, aching, crusted in mud – and ready for the next Leket gleaning.

turnip2

* Because of a technical screwup, my turnip photos didn’t come out.  So thanks to Ann at piercewholenutrition.blogspot.com for her photo of  turnips.

 

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