Celebrating First Fruits

The holiday of Shavuoth is fast approaching – a festival which was celebrated in the Old Testament days to mark the wheat harvest.  Specifically, the tribes of Israel were mandated to take the first sheaves of the harvest and bring them as a sacrificial offering to the Temple in Jerusalem.  The term for this offering in Hebrew is “bikurim”, which roughly means, first born or by extension – first to ripen.

But what happens when a plant has two different stages of ripening?   Take wheat for example.  Wheat can be fully ripe but still green – at which point it can be a very flavorful snack eaten raw (think of Jesus and his disciples in the wheat field), or even more flavorful when roasted (think Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor). 

But what I’m thinking about these days is chickpeas!  The chickpeas are now green and ripe and it’s a celebration in the Arab communities in these parts.  Eating green chickpeas straight from the stalk is a favorite snack – in Kfar Manda this weekend I saw kids who had set up a stand on the side of the street – just like I used to do when I sold lemonade – although they were selling stalks of chickpeas. 

They are lovely raw, but I’ve also heard of them being soaked in salt water, or roasted in olive oil and salt. 

I just came back from the chickpea field below our house and here is what I found.  Within days they will all be brown and dry, and the chickpea inside will be dry and hard – just like they’re sold in the store. 

 

    

 

 

 

Have you ever seen a chickpea plant?

Farike Season

The season for producing farike has officially opened here in the lower Galilee.  If you see puffs of smoke in the middle of agricultural fields, like we saw yesterday, it’s a pretty sure sign that someone is making farike. 
For those of you who haven’t heard me go on (and on, and on) about this subject, farike is roasted green wheat, which is a highly valued ingredient in local Arab cuisine.  Roasting wheat is an ancient system for processing this grain – and roasted grain is described numerous times in biblical texts.

Farike is made when the grains are fully developed but still green and soft – about a month before they turn dry and golden on the stalk if left to continue to ripen uninterrupted. Only the tops of the wheat are cut – the “shibboleth” in Hebrew – by hand with a sickle.  Then they are left to dry in the sun for 2 days and after that, are lit on fire.  The outer, dry parts char and turn black, while the grains inside their husks are roasted.  The whole black pile is then threshed, to separate the roasted grains from the chaff.  

This is the second season that we went with Balkees to visit Abu S. and his family as they were in the middle of the intensely demanding work that is involved in making farike.  Not only does the wheat have to be harvested by hand, but the entire process that follows is extremely time consuming and labor intensive.   I am full of awe over the spirit, strength and cooperation among this remarkable family, and honored to count them as my friends. 

We rubbed the charred heads of grain between our hands and blew away the chaff to eat the chewy, smoky green kernels.  My friend Balkees recited the Arabic equivalent of the “Shechyanu” prayer that is said when tasting a new fruit for the first time in the season.

Farike

On the last day of Passover, which this year coincided with Easter Monday, I got the call. Friends of my friend Balkees – farmers in the village of Mashhad, just outside Nazareth – were making farike and we were invited to join.

Farike – for the unfamiliar – is wheat, harvested when the kernels are fully developed but still green, roasted over a fire, threshed, dried and ground, with the end result looking like a green-ish bulgar. In Biblical times, roasted grain was one of the agricultural products sanctioned for sacrifice at the Temple. Today it is a beloved staple of Galilee Arab cuisine.

Because agriculture in the Arab sector in Israel is on a steep decline, much of the farike that is sold in stores is imported from Turkey. But if you are fortunate enough to know a local farmer who happens to still undertake the extreme toil of raising wheat and producing farike, then you can buy it from him and enjoy the true “local food”. I was even more fortunate, and was invited to come and take part in the process.

In the rich agricultural plateau between Nazareth, we faced a wheatfield that was green on one part and golden on the other – the latter being a different variety and intended for producing flour.

yellow field next to green

 It would be harvested with a combine, while the relatively small field for farike had to be harvested by hand…

The two sons of the farmer, Abu Salach – strong young men in their early twenties – handed us short, wooden-handled sickles, and showed us how to wrap the curve of the blade around a bunch of wheat stalks, then holding just below the ear, to pull sharply.

Within an hour we filled several large cloth bags with the green ears of wheat – yet we covered just a fraction of the entire field.

At the nearby threshing floor, the ears of wheat picked on the preceding days were drying on tarps in the sun. In order for the exterior parts of the wheat to burn properly, the ears have to be dried for two days. The brothers spread a thick layer of wheat over a metal frame and lit the pile, tossing it with a pitchfork to spread the flames. When they were all charred, they went to another tarp for an additional drying before threshing in a machine that would be attached to the family tractor.  The cleaned grains would be dried again, this time in the shade so as not to fade their green color, before being stored in sacks.

This April has been unseasonably cool, and this morning there was even a short rainfall. All I could think of was all that wheat out on the tarps, getting wet – the product of so much difficult labor perhaps destroyed. With so much at stake, one can understand how compelling was the promise from Deuteronomy: ‘If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. (Deuteronomy 11:13-14).’

Through the Grainfields

Fully ripe wheat - so dry it will break your teeth!

I recently received a question from a reader of my blog which was particularly timely. He referred to a passage from the Book of Matthew that goes something like:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. Matthew 12:1

The questioner wanted to know if I could tell him what kind of grain this could have been and during which months this might have occurred. After spending so much time investigating the history of grains and particularly wheat here in the Galilee, I was so pleased to be able to give him a coherent answer.

We are now approaching Passover and Easter – a time when the grain fields are still ripening, and when this particular state of ripening of barley and wheat, during the time of Matthew, determined when Passover would be celebrated. Wheat is usually harvested around the beginning of June – historically corresponding with the holiday of Shavuoth – Feast of the Pentacost. But sometime in April, when the heads of the wheat are still green  and haven’t turned golden and dry yet, the wheat kernels become plump and soft, full of protein and sugar, and this is the only time that they can be eaten raw. After that, when the kernels are fully ripe and dry, they must be cooked – roasted, ground, boiled, whatever, to be comestible.

And about which grain it was, my guess would be wheat, since barley in antiquity was considered less palatable than wheat, and bread made from it was considered inferior eating.

So, in answer to my reader’s questions, we are rapidly approaching the time for collecting green wheat. Which, by the way, is still done today by a few local Arab farmers here in the Galilee. They pick the green wheat, then roast it and it becomes a local delicacy called farike. So when you read about parched corn in the Bible, this is what is actually being referred to – because corn is a New World product that wasn’t known in this region during antiquity.

I will be following the progress of the wheat farming closely this year and will report, with photos, right here!