Back from Oxford

I just returned from my first time participating in the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery – an annual conference of food historians and other professionals and non-professionals who are engaged in food inquiry.  It was an extraordinary experience to be in the company of so many like-minded individuals from all over the globe, in a setting that was edifying, convivial, and simply lovely.

I presented a talk on the El Babour Mill in Nazareth, illustrating that an unmediated, entirely local and personal relationship between the land, the farmer, the miller and the consumer still exists in the Arab communities in the Galilee.  Speaking to an audience that appreciates the value of local and traditional foodways in historical and social contexts, and having the opportunity to hear such a range of fascinating presentations, was a gift.

And now I am back, to my pastoral Galilee setting which is, in its own way, as beautiful as the refined and manicured gardens of Oxford.  From there, the conflict here seemed remote, but from here, it is geographically and personally much closer to home, and the consciousness of it is almost paralyzing.  Trying to make sense of what is going on, I consider this narrative and that one, finally discarding them all in recognition of a complexity that defies individual understanding, and the broad appeal of that lowest common denominator of an eye for an eye.

For respite, I dip into the fascinating book I bought at the Symposium, “Tastes of Byzantium”, written by the eminent food scholar Andrew Dalby, one of the longstanding Symposium participants.  But even through the heady descriptions of the spice trade and markets of Constantinople, the subtext of battle, intrigue and power struggles wafts through, and I am reminded of how tragically little human nature has changed over the millennia.


Thanks to Pamela Sheldon Johns for photo

st catz

Beautiful St. Catz

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.