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

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

What to Expect from the Heavens

In the broadest of strokes, there are basically two seasons in the Galilee, a brief verdant winter that melds into a vast spring- summer-autumn stretch of dry heat.  Yet at the cusp between the two – as those who have lived here throughout time have come to understand, one never knows what to expect from the heavens. wheat field shavuoth

This year is no exception.  A little over a week ago we lit our woodstove and snuggled under duvets as storm clouds darkened the sky. Then, having shed jeans and sweaters for shorts and flip-flops, I hung the hammock out on the back porch, sure that the rains were behind us. Settling into the new routine of walks postponed to the late afternoon, the last of the ripe loquats and mulberries sweetened the depressing prospect of life in a blast furnace for the months to come.  And yet…this morning, just as I hung out the laundry, the wind picked up and for a brief minute, fat drops of rain fell in blotches on the damp fabric.

The harvest holiday of Shavuoth is now just around the corner – official herald that the wheat season has reached its climax.  Even these last smatterings of showers probably won’t wreak havoc on the harvest.  And in perfect accord, I marvel to watch mechanical combines shear fields of grain so tall, dense and golden, it seems almost plausible that the water miraculously walked upon was actually a sea of wheat.

***

My days are busy, tying up so many details before a much-anticipated trip to the US – for family visits and to give a talk at the 92Y Tribeca.  For those who plan to be in the New York area on June 3rd at 3:00, I warmly invite you to attend.  Engagements in Arizona are also in the works…  So if you happened to read my book and felt short-changed because there were no photos, this is a chance to catch a glimpse of the world I have delved into, in living color.

Even as I gear up for the intensity of the coming weeks, the anticipation of long afternoons relaxing in my hammock is a reminder that summer offers its joys as well.

A Preview of Pomegranates to Com

A Preview of Pomegranates to Come

Making Hay

When I first started researching for my book, I had a conversation with a very distinguished food historian.  As I enthused about the marvels of wheat, she warned me that people who begin to immerse themselves in the history of grain tend to bore everyone around them, as inevitably, no-one finds the subject as fascinating as they do.  How right she was.

Bear with me. I am simply enthralled by the shaggy green-gold grain, thick on the fields and hills around my home.  It is the purest expression of this land in its prime, at the height of spring.

Over the past few weeks, the wheat harvest has been unfolding, as it has year after year for millennia.  Yet unlike in the past, the vast majority of the wheat grown in this part of the Galilee is destined to become animal feed.

Fields of tender green wheat have already been cut for making silage during the Passover holiday. And now, in other fields, wheat shorn by a combine and deposited in long strips lies drying in the sun.  Why is that wheat cut now, I asked Ron, the former dairyman, and left out for days on end?  To make hay, he answered.  It must dry before being collected into bales. Nutritious and easy to store and keep over time, wheat for cows offers many of the same advantages as it does for humans.

The danger, Ron went on, is rain. If the drying grain gets soaked, fermentation and rot can set in, ruining the entire crop. The gathering gray clouds suddenly seemed more ominous.  This, I realized, is the unspoken imperative of why one should make hay while the sun shines.

wheat for hay

Green Anew

How does one mark the arrival of spring when the entire winter is full of flowers?  With more flowers for one thing, and the late-night fragrance of citrus blossoms teasing into my bedroom window.  But there are other reminders that, over the thousands of years when survival for the people living in the Galilee was linked to agriculture, the advent of spring had more compelling developments.

In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond explains how the Mediterranean climate in the Fertile Crescent, in whose gracious curve the Galilee is set, created the conditions for the development of its indigenous plants.  Adapting for survival in the short, unreliably rainy winters and long, reliably hot, dry summers, these plants invested their energies into producing robust seeds encased in durable coverings that would protect them for as long as necessary until a sufficient rainfall called them into action.  The prehistoric hunters and gatherers of the area learned to pluck the nutritious kernels that were hidden in ears of grain, starting a millennia-long process of cultivation with ramifications far beyond this blog-scope.

Spring is the time when the seeds of many of these indigenous plants come into their own.  In the fields, the grains of wheat are fully developed, yet still green and soft – ready to be harvested to produce farike.  And the almond trees, whose blossoms settled like snowflakes just a few weeks ago, are showing their tender, fuzzy green seeds, which can be eaten whole, sour and refreshing.

In the months to come, the grains and the almonds will dry and harden, to re-enter the cycle in whatever form is their destiny.  But for now, we can savor their vibrant, green potential – encapsulating the miracle of rebirth in yet another spring.

Please accept my warmest wishes for a wonderful Passover, Easter and/or Spring.

green almonds