Winter Does Not Apply

handful of asparagusFebruary is arguably the dreariest month of the year, and at this point my family and friends in the United States and Europe are paralyzed with winter fatigue.  While winters here in the Galilee are generally mild, this past month we’ve been treated to several snowstorms and in recent days I’ve even had to pull out an extra blanket.

But aside from the night chill, the usual associations with winter do not apply here.  For true locavores, this season actually represents the onset of a long and fertile spring.  Since December I have been gathering chicory, wild spinach, mallow and asparagus.  And when the cold sets in, I sip tea steeped with the zaatar and white savoury from my garden, which have come back to life after languishing all summer.

Yesterday, the first really warm and sunny day in weeks, I took a foraging walk and happily discovered that some of my favorite wild edibles have gotten a second wind.  Mallow and chicory grow freely all winter long, but the wild spinach that I’d gathered months ago has just now re-emerged tall and robust.  And the asparagus bushes that were thoroughly harvested by all the local foragers are putting out new stalks yet again.

After picking my one-handful of asparagus limit, I sat down to rest under a scotch broom bush, awash in the fragrance of its sunny flowers, and marveled at the generosity of this land that, from the era of prehistoric hunters and gatherers through to this exquisite winter day, has so graciously sustained the people who understand how to live on and off of it.

feb 26 2015

A Fresh Look at Some Local Foods

I was flipping through some photographs I’d taken recently, and found these three images, all which show interesting ways that indigenous local foods are processed in Galilee Palestinian society.

This is a photograph of luf (arum palaestinum), which was collected this winter during the season it grows wild in the area around Nazareth.

drying luf

I took the picture of the leaves spread out on a white sheet on the sofa of one of the living rooms in my friend Balkees’ mother’s house in Reine. Once they are completely dry – a process that could take at least a month, depending on how damp the winter is – they will be crumbled into a powder and put into capsules. This medication is being prepared for a family member who has colon cancer.

For more posts about luf, see here and here.

And here is a dish of habissa – a sort of pudding dessert made from carob syrup.

habissa

It was served after this exceptionally delicious meal I was fortunate to share with my friends Um and Abu Malek in Kufar Manda, where everything was fresh, locally grown and lovingly prepared.

meal in k manda

We had lubiya (fresh black-eyed peas), which Um Malek grew herself in the fields of the Batof (Bet Netufa Valley), and sautéed hubeisa (wild mallow), which she had collected on her daily early-morning walk. The pickles she had home-cured and the braised meat and leben (yoghurt) were also locally sourced.

Habissa, like another Kufar Manda specialty, malukhiya (jute), is an acquired taste. At this point, I am genuinely delighted to see either one of them set in front of me. The habissa that Um Malek served she had prepared using the carob syrup that she made a few months ago (see post). Habissa originates in a time that both Abu Malek and Um Malek can remember, when carob syrup was one of the few sweeteners available in a rural cuisine that depended almost entirely on locally grown products.

Stand!

sea of hubeisaThere have been several books that have profoundly influenced the way I see the Galilee landscape. One is the Hebrew Bible, and the second is Jarred Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”.

Diamond explains how the confluence of topography, climate and indigenous fauna and flora in the Fertile Crescent gave rise to the transition of hunting and gathering societies to a lifestyle based on agriculture, and a cascade of other developments associated with the rise of Western civilization.

The domestication of wild grains by thousands of years of foragers was central to this process. Anyone who has looked at the kernels of wild wheat can appreciate how much effort must have gone into gathering sufficient grain for human sustenance. But Jarred Diamond points out that these wild grasses tended to grow in vast “stands”, where it was easy to simply wade in and harvest – like dipping a net into a school of fish.

These days, I’ve been thinking about this model of plenty as I walk in the winter countryside. In those few areas where humans haven’t intervened, entire seas of hubeisa (mallow) extend their soft, scalloped leaves up towards the winter sunlight. For the forager, this is the most extraordinarily generous gift from the newly awakened earth – an unending supply of intensely nutritious food.

It will be months before the kernels of grain are developed enough to harvest. But in the interim, thankfully, we are provided for.

The State of Foraging – Winter 2010

Iman with chibs

 This winter started off on the left foot – first there were an endless string of hot dry days that lingered through December. Then came the disastrous Carmel fire. And then while the embers were still smoldering, came the first real winter storm – 3 days of torrential rain. I couldn’t even begrudge the 26 hours without electricity just thinking of the thorough soaking the parched earth was receiving. 

wheat field fuzz

And now, after a good week of sunshine, the landscape is undergoing its magic transformation – sporting a tender growth of vibrant green.

Two Bedouin women appeared in my yard today looking for fresh leaves of luf, and I knew that the edible wild plant season has begun. 

Tender young luf

I set off this afternoon for a walk to see what I could find.  Where one of my favorite fields used to be is now a new residential neighborhood, and in one of the squares cut out of the sidewalk to support a tree, I found a lone, opportunistic wild spinach plant. 

Scraggly spinach

Down in the cauliflower field, some hubeisa (mallow) and purslane were mooching off the irrigation system, but the shower of pesticide that they shared made me keep my distance. 

In one of the few untouched groves, I ran into Faoud and Iman Sabtan, Bedouin neighbors from Kaabiye, out picking luf with their little girl.  Iman also picked some “chibs”, which is a plant that looks like celery and when you peel away its fibery outer layer, the inside is juicy and peppery like horseradish. 

Iman with chibs

She gave me a stalk to chew on and I continued on my way. 

 

 

 

 

I passed two of my old favorite picking spots – they, too, can now be crossed off the forager’s map.  As picking grounds diminish, herbicide use proliferates and old traditions lose their attraction, you have to be very determined to be a forager these days…

No more gathering here.

    

or here...

A Foraging Celebration

Hussein's daughter with zaatar

Yet another rainy day and we can’t believe our good fortune – this has been the wettest winter for years and the landscape is celebrating.  The hills are lush and bright with wild flowers.  And of course, for foragers, there is a bounty of edible wild plants to pick.  We started the wild asparagus season early and enjoyed several meals of them, including an excellent asparagus soup. 

With my culinary tours I brought a group to the Bedouin village of Kaabiye.  Our host, Hussein took us to see edible plants in two surroundings – forest and field.  In the forest we found luf, zaatar, asparagus and saina (large bumpy leaves of the sage family), and at the periphery of an agricultural field, we found hubeisa (mallow), selek (wild beet greens), humeida (sorrel) and a thorny plant that we peeled and ate the stalk of. 

Saina - the winter alternative for stuffed grape leaves

Afterwards, his wife Riba prepared a meal for us of ftayir, which are pastry turnovers filled with a mixture of wild beet greens, zaatar and hot pepper, saina leaves stuffed with rice, and the greens which we had learned about. 

Everyone enjoyed tromping around and learning about the different plants, and of course the meal. But one of the participants told me that the highlight was being a guest in a local Bedouin home, which makes me realize that my culinary tour idea focusing on home hospitality has serious potential.

Why Can’t We Cook Together?

These past weeks I’ve been feeling too disheartened to write, but the outings I had yesterday and today, investigating places for my culinary tours, did much to lift my spirits.  I started Thursday morning at Lavona Grove, on an exceptionally beautiful slope overlooking the Sea of Galilee. That morning, missiles from Lebanon had hit sites in the north, and my heart sunk to my feet at the prospect of the war spreading to a northern front. But I decided to stick to my plan, and head north to the Sea of Galilee to a site I’d been wanting to investigate. Two brothers – farmers from a nearby moshav – converted a piece of land between their mango and olive orchards too rocky and steep to cultivate, into a grove of exotic fruit trees grown from seedlings which they collected around the world. The older brother, Shimon, believes the trees thrive there because of the salubrious climate and the fact that this land was never used for agriculture. In fact, there was an astonishing variety of trees and fruit and I could only marvel at the ingenuity and creativity of nature.

            Shimon leads tours of the grove, tasting whatever fruit happens to be in season. I sampled some small brown berries that reminded me of banana, something white and cottony that was very sweet, and other things which I don’t remember (negligently not taking notes…). At the end of his tours, some kind of snack or meal is served – Shimon is, from what I have gathered, a very talented chef and caterer.  He gave me a bottle of olive oil seasoned with Persian zaatar and one of vinegar infused with raspberries – both made by him from fruits of the grove.  The place is an oasis of beauty, tranquility and sensory delight and I can’t wait to bring guests there.

What did he call this fruit?

What did he call this fruit?

            A half hour drive took me to the Bedouin village of Husaniya where I met with Zahiya and Fawzia Suaid. They are young women in their late thirties – sisters-in-law and neighbors – who have started a business leading edible wild plant picking tours. They were written up in the weekend section of one of the newspapers and I wanted to meet them to see if I could work with them for my tours, and to talk to them about the growing interest among the Jewish Israeli public in this aspect of Arab home cooking.

            Zahiya is animated and dynamic and we talk about the challenges of starting a new business. I mention the unfortunate timing – just when there is such a deep economic crisis. “But that’s not a problem at all” Fawzia interjects. “When people don’t have money, then it’s the perfect time to go pick wild plants.”  Both Zahiya and Fawzia talk about how important it is to them to maintain the traditional foodways they were brought up with. Outside in the valley, now green after the winter rains, a shepherd herds his flock of sheep and I hope I can return to this pastoral setting to pick and cook with these lovely and modestly ambitious women.

            Today, Friday, a group of friends, Ron and I went to Acco – that beautiful, Crusader port town – for a cooking tour with a local guide named Abdu Matta.  Abdu is a 10th generation Acco resident – and a colorful, ebullient and very knowledgeable fellow. We met him first thing in the morning and he escorted us through the narrow stone streets to his parents’ home – a 400-year-old structure with an inner courtyard.

In the small kitchen, his step-mother – a warm, diminutive and energetic woman – prepared with us a typical Acco Arab meal – vegetarian this time. We chopped hubeisa (mallow) and ellet (chicory) – local wild greens – and sautéed them with plenty of onion and olive oil. Then we made soup with orange lentils and bulgur dish cooked in a tomato base. 

 

Cooking hubeisa

Cooking hubeisa

While the food was cooking Abdu took us out to the old market of Acco which is one of the most colorful and exciting markets in Israel. We bought spices and friki (roasted green wheat), wonderful hard biscuits with anise seed that I love with my tea, katayif pancakes, and fresh vegetables for Friday night dinner. Everyone greets Abdu and walking in the market with him, you almost feel like a local yourself.  He took us to an ancient-looking bakery where the old baker slid fresh pita slathered with zaatar and olive oil into an enormous wood-burning oven, then pulled them out and served them to us – indescribably delicious.

oven1

Back at the house, the table was set and we dug into the soup, scooping up the greens with pita.  We finished with tea and the special cake made of farina wheat soaked in syrup called harisa.  Afterwards, one of the group commented on how comfortable and at ease she felt with Abdu and his family, and I was reminded yet again how cooking together bridges gaps – age, culture, religion. How badly we need this kind of activity in these awful times.