When the scales will tip

These are grim times here, where a disproportionate number of innocent people are enduring great suffering because of the actions of a few.  Nothing new about that, and yet it is heartrending every time.  In the pastoral Palestinian town of Arrabe in the Galilee near the Bet Netufa Valley, they are mourning a 14 year old who happened to be too close to the Syrian border as he accompanied his father to work on the first day of school vacation.  Another victim, another family’s tragedy.

I was just in Arrabe and neighboring Sakhnin last week, tagging along with a small delegation of bakers from France who are seeking local farmers to grow ancient varieties of wheat for them.  As we opened the day at the Towns Association for Environmental Quality, an NGO  in Sakhnin doing education and research on sustainable agriculture, the challenges of communication across the cultural divide were fascinating to observe.  The idea that these visitors actually wanted to grow wheat which produces significantly lower yields than the usual varieties was counter-intuitive, in spite of their assurances that they were prepared to pay significantly more than the market value in recognition of the quality of the product.

examining wheat varieties

examining wheat varieties

One of the bakers pulled out his Ipad to show the farmers photos of the artisanal breads he bakes, unaware that the elegant loaves on the screen did not correspond at all to the local perception of what bread even looks like.  But good will, courtesy and respect go a long way in overcoming these obstacles, and the groundwork was established for future cooperation.

After visiting the epic expanse of the Bet Netufa valley for a close-up look at the wheat fields, we came back to Arrabe, to the restored stone building that houses Afnan AlGalil, a non-profit for empowering local women.  Our hostesses served us a lunch prepared entirely from products grown in and around the Valley – bulgar in mejadre (with lentils) and shulbata (with vegetables and tomato sauce), farike, okra in tomato sauce, labaneh, stuffed grape leaves and zucchini and fresh, whole wheat pita.   The room was suffused with pride, dignity, generosity and hospitality – and we came away uplifted in body and spirit.

I just wonder when the scales will tip, and the forces of universal tolerance, respect and love will set the regional agenda.  IMG_3441afnan algalil


The “Batof”

A Day in Deir el Assad

By happy coincidence, a friend invited me to join a cooking class she was going to, to be held by a woman living in Deir el Assad, an Arab village that is built into the mountains opposite Carmiel, in the Upper Galilee. And just as fortuitously, I happened to be free this morning, and able to attend.

Kamla and Rim checking the Mejadra

Our hosts were Kamla and Rim, two enterprising sisters and gifted cooks who established a catering company specializing in traditional Arab cuisine. They also do cooking courses in their industrial kitchen, which is perfectly appointed for this purpose, and there were baskets of fresh vegetables and herbs, and piles of spices waiting when we arrived.

We were five people in the class and Kamla very quickly put us to work – we chopped onions, zucchini, cauliflower and carrots – gave them a quick bath in boiling oil and set them into a pot – then covered them with browned noodles mixed with rice, cumin, cinnamon, salt and pepper, to make “Makluba”. Then we chopped more vegetables that went into a tomato sauce (home-prepared pureed fresh tomatoes), along with coarsely ground bulgar (which the sisters make themselves out of fresh wheat) for the “Shorbata”. We sautéed onions and celery to season a red lentil soup (no soup powder!), and sautéed onions in a profusion of olive oil, which were added to small dark lentils and bulgar, to prepare the requisite Mejadra.

While the pots were simmering, we set off to the house next door, where in the back yard, another sister was baking fresh pita on a wood-burning tabun. We brought balls of labaneh with us, and zaatar mixed with olive oil, and spread it on the fresh dough, which went into the oven. These are culinary experiences that are unforgettable.

 Note the “gefet” in the bucket at her feet – left over from the olive press – excellent fuel

When we went back to the kitchen, we finished up our salads – parsley-rich Tabbouleh, a salad with “Gargir” – a local green that is peppery like rocket, and a salad of whole fresh, soft zaatar leaves with olive oil and ground sumac. Need I say more? I hope to return to Kamla and Rim soon – and lucky are those who join me!

Fresh and healthy

Culinary Tours of the Galilee Launched!

How pleased I am that Culinary Tours of the Galilee has been officially launched, and in such an auspicious way.  Over one week, I led two groups, both through the US Embassy, thanks to my wonderful new colleague and friend Bob, who is officially in charge of the general wellbeing of the embassy staff, but whose generous spirit extends far beyond that.  

Our first tour was a Bedouin Picnic – a day emphasizing the local edible wild plants which are so abundant in this rainy winter season.  We started at a spice farm where we sipped hot fruit tea and  learned about, tasted and smelled many different local spices and spice mixtures.  After that, we drove over to a nearby field where we met our picnic hosts – the Sabtan family, who are Bedouins from the neighboring village of Kaabiye.  Nadya Sabtan has been teaching me about gathering edible wild plants for many years now and she was happy to share her knowledge with our group. 

While her mother, Bahiya, tended the fire, Nadya let us on a walk in the fields and identified hubeiza (mallow), egeda (chicory), something Nadya called “camel’s neck”, which could be eaten after peeling the fibery outer stalk and which she said was good for the knees, and a few stalks of wild asparagus.  We also encountered a large and shiny brown snake (that fortunately had as little interest in making contact with us as we had with it), and saw the tops of ancient burial caves and grape presses carved into the limestone boulders. 

Nadya’s mother cooked the finely chopped hubeiza with plenty of chopped onion and olive oil over the fire and we had that, along with cooked chicory, Mejadra, a dish of bulgar and lentils that is a Galilee Arab staple, the rice and chicken dish known as Maklouba, tabouleh salad with plenty of fresh parsley, and fresh pita with zaatar which were cooked over the fire.   Fortunately, dining al fresco builds up an appetite because there was so much delicious food!  Between the beautiful weather, the gorgeous setting, the convivial group and the gracious hosts, as well as the bounteous spread, everyone had an excellent time.


bed-picnic1The Bedouin Picnic was my “Tour of the Month” for February – part of my plan to feature a different tour each month emphasizing a particular seasonal food or theme.  Now let’s see what I can come up with for March…