Two Weeks into the Omer

farike making 1We are now almost two weeks into the Omer – the 49 plus one days that are counted between Passover and Shavuoth.  In a region that has basically two seasons – winter and summer, the Omer, which bridges between them, has always been a period of tremendous climatic uncertainty, with drastic implications for agriculture.

So far this has been a textbook Omer – Sweltering days followed by drastic drops in temperature. Thunderstorms, lightning and pounding rain, then dust storms that leave a yellow scrim over every surface.

Yesterday we joined Balkees and went to visit our friends who still practice traditional agriculture outside of Nazareth.  They had told her that, although they wouldn’t be out in the fields, we could go on our own and pick the peas that are now in season.  The matriarch of the family, Um S., whose domain is these fields, was home recovering from a torn cartilage, and her absence was obvious when we searched for the rows of peas.

dead peas

Dead peas in the pod

Amidst the undergrowth, all of the pea plants were dried up and dead, the result, Balkees explained, of the heat, followed by rain, followed by more heat – and of course, no greenhouse protection.  We salvaged a small pile of pods, but the peas inside of them, while still green, were bitter.

chickpeas

not yet mature chickpeas

ful

fava beans

Nearby, rows of chickpeas seemed to have withstood the climatic onslaught unscathed.   Heartiest were the thick-skinned fava beans (ful), and we each filled our bags with them.

Following a plume of smoke, we drove across the rutted dirt roads to the wheat field where a man and woman were in the midst of preparing farike.  As I understood it, they had leased the field from our friends and were making their way through the green wheat, harvesting, drying and roasting the green ears at their own pace.

farike making

roasting farike

charred wheat in field

green wheat field and charred wheat

What had all this late rain signified for them, I asked.  For the wheat that’s still in the ground, no problem, they answered.  But for what was cut and laying on the ground waiting to be roasted, getting wet meant disaster.  They had had to spend 1000 Shekels on plastic sheeting to cover the wheat, just to protect their investment.  “I knew the rain was coming.  I look at the 3-day forecast,” the man explained.

We left the farike-roasters and continued to where our friends keep their cattle and goats out on the rocky open hillside.  Abu S. was milking the goats, by hand, taking over for his wife who usually does this work.  I was struck with wonder at the primacy of this way of life, based on unmediated interaction between indigenous animals and foods and intensive human effort, with only the barest traces of technology.  It was absolutely clear to me that this symbiotic and fraught relationship between humans and the land, maintained for thousands of years on these same hillsides, will not endure much longer.

We followed Abu S. back to their family home, where we sat in the living room, Um S.’s foot wrapped in bandages.  Besides the damage to the peas, what did the rains signify for the rest of her crops, I asked.  They are good for the tomatoes, she told me.  This profound soaking of the earth, I could imagine, boded well for summer vegetables that would rely entirely on groundwater for their growth.

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

 

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

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?

The Wheat Harvest

Bucking tradition, I chose Spring to go into hibernation, focusing just about all my energies on my current project, which is researching and writing about wheat as one of the Galilee’s local foods.  And while I was buried in books and traipsing around from one fascinating encounter to another, the culinary landscape made its own dramatic shift.  In the local market in Basmat Tivon, the neighboring Bedouin village, where I purchase all my produce, the winter greens have been replaced by fresh green piles of grape leaves, miniature eggplants and zucchinis for stuffing, and tender baby okra. A pile of long-stemmed malukhiya stands on the counter, the leaves of which the Bedouin women use to make a kind of deep green, mucilaginous dish to dip pita bread in.

In the fields, we’ve enjoyed the ripening chick-pea crop – picking the green pods off the stalks and opening them to reveal perfectly formed blushing-green chick peas that are delicious to munch on.  The sunflowers and corn are pushing skyward at a breathtaking rate, and while I enjoy their vital beauty, they look like interlopers on the landscape…

wheat olives 1

But as I mentioned, it is wheat that consumes my attention this Spring – watching the grain in the fields transform from green to gold – both the cultivated and the wild varieties.  Studying the history of wheat in the Galilee, I’ve learned how fatefully central it was in the lives of the people who lived here since pre-history.  Stone-age men and women collected and ate wild grasses, setting into motion the millennia-long processes that led to their domestication – right here in this part of the Eastern world.  And once wheat could be systematically cultivated in one place, humans were free to shift from wandering gatherers to living  in a settled society.  And the rest is history….

I’ve been clocking countless hours and kilometers, visiting just about every corner of the Galilee to meet people whose lives are in some way connected to wheat.  I’ve been exhilarated by the exquisite beauty of the landscape in the late afternoon light – picking up the gold in the rust colored earth out of which a sea of silvery olive branches wave in the afternoon breeze; by the camel-colored wheat fields, so ripe that they hiss in the wind like rattlesnakes. 

wheat in handThe holiday of Shavuoth, which many people here are observing today, was originally a celebration of the wheat harvest.   My own harvest from this season has been notebooks filled with notes and one very rough draft.  Now I can only wish for the energy, time and inspiration that will leaven this lump of dough into a fine creation.