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

 

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.

Fig Season

Again, the figs are here.  It seems like I’ve been waiting so long.  To squeeze and rend their skins, gauge the sweetness in the filaments of flesh, and pop the delicate seeds between my teeth.  They will consume my attention throughout their brief season.

Ron has draped netting over our fig trees – the birds will get their share, but only after we’ve had our fill.  A neighbor sends a basket of pale green figs from her tree.  Here in the Galilee, who doesn’t have a fig tree in their yard?  Even more fortunate are those in the Western Galilee, where wild fig trees offer the finest flavored fruit.

During fig season, one doesn’t need to bake bread – goes a traditional Arabic saying from these parts.  In a similar version, during watermelon season, there’s no need to cook.  I’ve been pondering the sense behind these wholehearted expressions of seasonal eating.  How healthy is it to subsist for weeks only on figs?

Gary Paul Nabhan, in his book “The Desert Smells Like Rain” asked the same question, as he looked at the traditional diet of the Tohono O’odham people of Northern Mexico/Southern Arizona, which once relied entirely on the seasonal plants of the Sonora Desert (see my previous post).

“…it is difficult to imagine an (O’odham) with a vitamin C deficiency while living in a saguaro-harvesting camp, or lacking calcium for the weeks following a cholla bud pit roast.  The same person, however, may show deficiency symptoms during the ‘lean months’ of late winter before desert fruits reappear.”

The geometry of square meals and nutritional pyramids ensures that all our daily dietary needs are more than covered.  And yet, isn’t there place for a more longitudinal approach to nutrition?  To trust that, over a cycle of seasons, the figs will be back when we need them?

figs

The Hakura

I recently received a telephone call from a man named Adel, from the nearby Bedouin village of Ayedat.  He is in the final stages of submitting his master’s thesis and needed help with editing the English abstract.  I frequently edit English texts on you-name-the-topic, but when he told me the subject of his thesis, I was especially pleased to help.

Adel had researched and written about the changing role of the hakura in Bedouin society in Northern Israel.  A hakura is a kind of kitchen garden that is kept next to the house. In Arab farming communities, maintaining a hakura was once very common.  According to Adel, however, only when the Bedouins here in the north gave up their nomadic ways and settled into villages did they take up the practice of keeping a hakura.

The thesis described what plants and trees were commonly found in the hakura and how they were used.  He explained that no self-respecting hakura was without an olive and fig tree, and the religious significance of those trees related to references in the Koran.

His research concluded that the hakura is a dying practice – that the young generation of Bedouins is quite content to buy their vegetables in the produce store.  The younger women he interviewed told him that they were too busy to work in a hakura.  I asked him if he felt that that answer really reflected the entire picture.

Look at my hands, he said, holding them out in front of me.  They were rough and etched with black lines.  The women teachers at my school always comment on my hands – do you think they want to ruin their fingernails working in the dirt?

Abu Malek told me that, in the old times, after a man plowed the ground for the hakura, all the rest of the work – planting, weeding, harvesting – was done by women.  How understandable that women today prefer to pay a few shekels over this backbreaking work.

The hakura may soon be a thing of the past, but Adel told me that one of the projects he plans to initiate is to circulate a questionnaire in Arab schools, asking children to interview their parents and grandparents about their experience with these home gardens.  At least another generation will maintain the hakura in their living memories.

*****

My book, Breaking Bread in Galilee, was reviewed in the current (Winter) issue of Lilith magazine.  You can read it here:

http://galileecuisine.co.il/data/images/LILWi12_final_BreakingBread.pdf

Defying Closure

Looking out my window at the full-grown green olives weighing down the branches of our tree, I am reminded that the Jewish New Year does not begin neatly at the end of one traditional agricultural year and the beginning of another.  These olives, last of the summer fruit to ripen, will only be harvested in another month or two, after the extended series of holiday celebrations are behind us. 

Perhaps in the earliest days of Jewish ritual, the final fall harvest did coincide with the new year, and it is  global warming that has knocked us out of whack.  In ancient times, rabbis examined the ripeness of the grain crop to decide whether an extra month should be added to ensure that Passover was observed in the month of Aviv.  Now we stick to our calendars, while holidays and harvests diverge into separate spheres.

Still, the change of seasons that marks the New Year is unmistakable, in the splitting pomegranates, the waning figs and the clouds piling up on the horizon.  Just the olives, firm and green, defy any sense of closure.

This is the time to extend my wishes for a new year full of gracious endings and fresh beginnings, all across the seasons, each in their time, whenever that may be.

Breaking Bread in Galilee

I consider it very auspicious timing, that my new book – Breaking Bread in Galilee – A Culinary Journey into the Promised Land – has entered the world during the height of spring.  These days, there is gold everywhere you look, in vast waves of wheat stalks rolling in the breeze, or shorn and flattened in orderly rows, waiting to be collected into bales.

The grain harvest signifies the end of one agricultural season and the opening of another.  Already, the summer fruits are sending out their emissaries – fuzzy green almonds that can be eaten whole, tender grape leaves for rolling and stuffing, luscious pomegranate flowers and fragrant olive blossoms that wreak havoc on those with allergies. 

Breaking Bread is the product of years of exploration, thought and discovery.  I explored the distant corners of the Galilee, navigating along back roads and through villages that I’d never imagined I’d find.  I read the Bible, for the first time, and found common and timeless elements that connect its imagery with my contemporary landscape.  I had innumerous conversations in kitchens, offices, fields and groves.  I met people who opened their homes and their hearts to me, as I came to them with the simple question of “what are you cooking? picking? growing?”   The experiences, insights and joys of this adventure fill the pages of my book. 

I am grateful that my inspiration to write this book coincided with the revolution in the publishing world that makes it so much easier to introduce a book into the world.  Even if agents and publishers may not consider it a profit-maker, I believe one-thousand-percent in the value of its message.  With great pride and joy, I invite you to partake of it. 

At this point, for readers in the US, the book is available either through amazon, or on my own “e-store”, accessible at: https://www.createspace.com/3847258

If you are in Israel or elsewhere, send me an email and I’ll send you a book – 50 NIS plus 10 NIS postage.  info@galileecuisine.co.il

Fig Season in the Western Galilee

I spent last weekend doing research for my book in the Western Galilee – an area of tremendous natural beauty which is quite off the tourism track, with villages that have long and illustrious histories yet are still relatively isolated from mainstream Israeli life. The foodways I was fortunate enough to encounter during this trip were so remarkable and impressive that ten blog entries could not describe them all. And the people who shared them with me – practitioners of the local food concept in the most authentic sense – were gracious beyond description.

In the Druze village of Hurfeish, we had lunch at the home of Nimmer Nimmer, a distinguished writer and translator. After our meal, he served us seven varieties of figs, explaining the names and characteristics of each one – including one “Bukkrati”, whose namesake, Hippocrates, invokes the medicinal properties of this particular variety.

7 varieties of figs

When we spoke of the Biblical text describing every man under his vine and fig tree, Mr. Nimmer related the fig to another Biblical metaphor – pointing out that ripe figs drip both milk and honey.

In the village of Jish (Gush Halav), we met with M., a young schoolteacher with a strong ideological commitment to maintaining his family’s culinary traditions (along with a deep aversion to publicity), his wife and their five children. Jish is known for its figs, particularly the local variety known as “biyatti” – from the Arabic word for white (green figs – as opposed to purple figs, which are “black”), which survive and thrive with relatively little water.

Drying figs on the roof

M. and his family collect figs from the many trees growing around the village, and prepare dried figs pressed into cakes – an ancient preservation technique – syrup made out of figs, called “dibess” – so close to the Hebrew word “dvash” for honey – and “mahoud” – a kind of fig jam that is thick with sesame seeds and walnuts (all locally grown) – which they say is outstanding in both flavor and nutritional value – for that I will return to taste in September.

Biyatti figs and a bowl of dibes

I came home with a cake of figs and a bottle of dibes. The fig cake is served in thin slices – with a flavor that only remotely resembles that of the dried figs from Turkey. And the dibess, following his wife’s suggestion, I will mix with tehina to make a fresh summer halva dip for sliced fruit.