Back to the Batof

Last June, and seemingly a decade ago, I visited the cities of Sakhnin and Arrabe, for meetings with two NGOs.  At the time, I learned about the work being done by the Towns Association for Environmental Quality on behalf of the Arab farmers of the Bet Netufa Valley.  I was also treated to the wonderful hospitality of the women of the Afnan AlGalil Association for Social Development and Family Support, and had a very difficult time choosing among the beautiful traditional Palestinian embroidered handcrafts the members produce to raise funds for their organization.

Yesterday I returned to both places, determined that the grief, frustration and despair that hung so heavy in this summer’s air would not prevent me from confirming my commitment to maintaining an open, loving and productive relationship with my neighbors.

The Bet Netufa Valley – Sahel Batof in Arabic – is the grandest natural monument in the agricultural landscape of the Galilee.  An aerial map in the Towns Association offices shows the vast expanse of the Valley, demarcated into hundreds of small, rectangular and odd-shaped plots – the majority of them privately owned. On this land,  local Arab fellaheen and part-time farmers practice small-scale agriculture, growing wheat, vegetables, olives – the same crops have been cultivated in this intensely fertile land for thousands of years.  For me, this quiet, historic narrative of local subsistence is the most compelling story around.

One of the goals of the Towns Association is to provide professional and environmental guidance to the Valley farmers, while helping them preserve the traditional relationship between the land, climate and local plants – both cultivated and wild.  Hopefully, I will be able to contribute to this effort.

*****

See the article from Haaretz about my presentation on El Babour at Oxford

In Hebrew

embroidery

What I brought home from Afnan Al Galil. Thanks to Nabila Naamneh for the lovely visit.

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

 

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

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.

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

What You See

A few days ago, Balkees and I spent the day with a journalist from Israel’s top food magazine, as she prepared an article about the edible wild plants that are now in season.  We started the morning in the village that Balkees grew up in, tromping through the lush greenery in the vast field behind her uncle’s house.  The oats he’d planted were just starting to show up green, the space between rows of lemon trees was planted with fava beans, and thriving in peaceful coexistence with these cultivated crops was a profusion of edible wild plants – chicory, mallow, wild spinach, luf.  This is paradise, Balkees stated.

The generosity of this season always strikes me as something sacred – the earth puts forth such a bounty of what can sustain us – simply there for the taking.  No sweat off the brow.  In fact, in the phrase from Genesis that is usually translated as “your food shall be the grasses of the field”, the actual word in Hebrew “essev” – basically means not “grasses”, but weeds –simply what grows.

A few weeks ago, just at the end of the olive season, Ron and I joined our friend Tzvika to check out a neglected stretch of olive orchard to see if it was worth the effort of a last minute harvest.  Between the rows of trees grew the most healthy, huge-leaved mallow, spinach and chicory that I’d ever seen.  I was thrilled, planning my return the following day with my bag and kitchen knife.  Yet the next day, as Ron and Tzvika were picking their olives, the owner of the trees arrived with his herbicide sprayer and systematically decimated the “weeds”.   That’s how farmers keep their area clean, Ron explained to me.

I have a neighbor who is never home and I am grateful for the benign neglect he shows to his yard, where I happily forage.  The other day I was picking wild spinach and another neighbor walked by, bringing her little brother home from nursery school.  What are you doing, he asked me.  I’m picking wild spinach I told him.  I’ll take it home and cook it.  He pondered that for a minute.  That’s gross, he said, and walked off.

ewp 1

ewp 2

A Time to Pick Olives

Once again the olive harvest.  I like to speculate that not an autumn has passed since they were first cultivated, back in obscure pre-history, that people haven’t gathered olives here in this place that I live. Taking part in this ritual makes me feel like the tiniest link in a very long chain.

But the analogy goes further, or wider. A few days ago I joined my friend Balkees’ family as they harvested their olive grove in the village of Kfar Reine, outside Nazareth.  About ten men and women – Balkees’ brothers, sisters and sisters-in-law were at work when I got there mid-afternoon. They pulled tarps from under one tree to another and we circled the branches, pulling down their olives till they rained down onto the canvas.  The children ran from tree to tree, collecting olives in buckets, climbing in the branches, and sifting out leaves in an improvised sieve – the screen of an electric fan.  Everyone chatted, joked and laughed, all in Arabic, and I understood only a small fraction.

But that didn’t matter.  The conversation accompanied my work like the most pleasant background music while I focused on the olives – black, green and purple, fleshy and lean, plump and wrinkled, intact and bruised. I heard the muezzin calling and the children shouting. I felt the heat of the sun ease as the day wore on and the shadows of the trees grew longer.  I sipped a small glass of thick, black, cardamom-scented coffee, then returned to the olives.

But most of all, I felt a part of something larger – like I was woven into the fabric of village life that still endures in the Galilee.  Where the community depends on the contribution of each person’s hands, and rewards that effort not only with a year’s supply of olive oil, but with a sense of place, value, belonging and accomplishment.

How few are the opportunities in our modern lives to experience this.  I think my sister, who just pounded miles of pavement on behalf of the Obama campaign, knows the feeling well.

An ingenious sifter