Timeless

Living in the Galilee, I am occasionally gifted with transcendent moments of timelessness – where the landscape and the scene that unfolds within it have more to do with thousands of years of history, than the blink of an eye of the latest decades.

At least once a summer, together with Balkees and Muhammad, Ron and I visit friends at their agricultural field not far from Nazareth.  Their plot is small – just a few acres – planted with tomatoes, okra, fakus, zucchini and black eyed peas – a few rows of each.  We arrive at twilight, after the crushing summer heat – when the various family members are at work, trolling the rows with pails, gathering the ripe produce.

We always help with the work, and each of us sets off, pail in hand, guided by some internal compass to his or her own row.  Again, here is the soft orange light and the distant muted hills, the crumbling dirt and rustle of leaves nudged aside to unveil fakus, dark green and hairy – different and the same, every summer.

The produce in this field is grown “baal” – without any irrigation.  The varieties are adapted for this type of growth, and the owner of the field saves the seeds from season to season.  This is the way this land was farmed since the dawn of agriculture, and our friends are among the last of the local farmers who are still perpetuating it.

And as the sun slips behind the horizon, I wonder if we’ll meet again next year, to participate in this backbreaking labor that, by contemporary standards,  yields so little.  The tomatoes I bring home have flavor that sears the palate, and the fakus are crunchy cool delights.

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PeaceXPeace – an organization that promotes peacebuilding between women around the world, published a piece about my book and work.  If you’re curious, here’s the link:

Breaking Bread in Galilee – Food as a Bridge Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide

Pining for Fakus

Summertime – and fakus are in season.  Fakus are like a downy, zucchini-skinned cucumber but tangier, crunchier and more refreshing than your average cuke.  They are eaten raw, without peeling – their fuzz is as inoffensive as that of a peach.

 I first encountered fakus in the “baal” vegetable field of friends – who grow summer vegetables for small-scale commerce in the local Arab market – without watering.  The fakus were scattered here and there among the tomatoes, okra and zucchini – pale green and snaky.

On a recent visit to Kfar Manda, Um Malek gave me a bag of fakus from her “hakura” (vegetable garden).   With some of them, I made a cold yoghurt-fakus soup, and with the others I scooped out the seeds, mixed them with labaneh, crushed garlic, and chopped mint leaves – then spread the mixture into the emptied insides, like the peanut butter filled celery-stick boats I ate as a child.  This is actually a childhood recipe from Balkees, whose mother used to prepare fakus boats for her and her siblings.

Dr. Harry Paris, who is a scientist at Neve Yaar, our nearby agricultural research station, just published an article about fakus, where he asserts that they are, in fact, the squash that the Israelites so pined for during their desert wanderings.  He draws evidence from Egyptian illustrations, among others, and a description from Yehuda Hanassi, of the process of removing the little hairs from the squash – calling it “fikus”.   The eventual evolution to the Arabic “fakus” is not such a long shot.

The zucchini’s now on the market, he explained, are a variety imported from the Americas, and cucumbers do not have the stripey exterior depicted by the Egyptians.

Life as a “locavore” is always a challenge, but when “local” is the Galilee, there is a special  satisfaction of eating a local food with such a distinguished provenance.

A Meal With What You Have

I believe there is an art to creating a satisfying meal out of what you have in the larder.   The other day, I was fortunate enough to be at my friend and culinary muse, Balkees’s home at lunch time, when she was doing just that.

So what is in Balkees’s kitchen on an early summer day? Eggs. Greens.  Lots of pale green zucchinis, which she sliced into rounds and browned in olive oil (produced from the family olive trees).  Home-made tomato sauce she prepared with the season’s first fresh tomatoes.  Fresh leben (yoghurt) made of goat and sheep milk delivered to her door by a local milkman.  Home-cured olives and pickles from the pantry.

There is a name in Arabic for this kind of meal, Balkees explained to me.  Hawader – drawing from the Arabic word for “what is there”.  For this hawader, she prepared a pile of omelets thick with chopped parsley, mint, onion, garlic, dried coriander and sweet marjoram.  Some of the fried zucchini was put on a plate and mashed with leben and garlic.  A salad of thinly chopped lettuce, onion and chopped tomato and heated pita bread rounded out the meal.

The extra ingredient, of course, that permeates the entire meal, is the loving care she invests in every meal – festive or hawader – for her family to enjoy.  How fortunate I am to be included among them.

PS – If you haven’t already seen it, please have a look at the review of my book, Breaking Bread in Galilee recently published in the Jewish Forward.

http://blogs.forward.com/the-jew-and-the-carrot/157284/tales-of-breaking-bread-in-the-galilee

A Tomato Education

More on the subject of “baal” tomatoes… For some weeks now, I’ve been trying to coordinate with Balkees a time that we could go together to visit our friends where they are growing their waterless summer produce. I’ve been enjoying these amazing vegetables, through her, but there is nothing like visiting the field and picking them yourself.  Balkees has been swamped with orders for her cookies (this is, after all, the height of the wedding season), but yesterday, we took advantage of a lull in the production line and headed out to the fields.

In the cool twilight, we joined the family members who were trolling the rows, pails in hand, gathering what had ripened since the previous day’s harvest. We joined in the work – and I felt almost ashamed of the joy I derive from what for them is tedious toil. There is no romance of heirloom growing, or local food magic here. Just hard work and precious little compensation.

We picked okra until my hands and arms itched from their little hairs, and then moved to the tomatoes. We picked until the sun went down on one side of the sky and a full moon rose on the opposite end. I took home a small bag of okra and two bags of tomatoes – green and red. The red, Balkees instructed, are for making tomato sauce and the green are for eating.

Today I cleaned and cut up the red tomatoes and put them in the food processor. Then I strained the tomato crush through a sieve, pushing out every bit of moisture as I’ve seen Balkees do. I washed and trimmed the okra, and the oversized ones that I once might have rejected as being too tough, I cut into pieces since Balkees said that those are her father-in-law’s favorites.

I sliced some garlic, sautéed it for a minute in olive oil, then added the okra – and after a few minutes of stirring, poured in the tomato juice, for a good long simmer.  The father-in-law was right…

Tomorrow we will have the green tomatoes for breakfast.

Tomatoes Without Watering

It’s tomato season and all of a sudden these quintessential summer fruits have taken center stage. First, through Slow Food Movement connections, I recently had the good fortune to meet Roberta – a lovely US ex-pat who gave up city life to live on a farm in the Po Valley, learn Italian cooking and raise heirloom tomatoes. In Israel for a social event, she was taking advantage of the time to check out the cutting edge in tomato cultivation, meeting with agricultural researchers and growers.

I told her about my own angle of interest – trying to find farmers who are still practicing ancient foodways – and in this case, growing vegetables in the summer without watering. In the Hebrew Bible, the promised land is described to the Israelites as a place where, unlike in Egypt where the fields were “irrigated by foot as in a vegetable garden” (Deuteronomy 11:10) – that is, drawing water from the Nile – there, they would find a “land of mountains and valleys that drinks water from heaven”.

In fact, the climate and topography in the Galilee are such that agriculture can be practiced with water coming only from rains and morning dew. For millennia, grain and legumes were grown in the winter and vegetables and fruits in the summer, in this way. These days, pumped water reaches the vast majority of agricultural land. Yet here and there are pockets of land that are still being cultivated without external irrigation.

One such plot of farmland belongs to friends – a family of “fellaheen” who are practicing the type of farming they know from previous generations – and among the few Arab farmers left in the Galilee for whom traditional agriculture is their sole livelihood. And these days, those fields are producing tomatoes – glowing green and red and folding over and into themselves – each a delightful sculpture.

Balkees, my friend and partner in food exploration, explained to me that in Arabic, crops that are grown with only the water from the rains and dew are called “baal”. This is not to be confused with “baladi” – which refers to vegetables that are raised traditionally – without the benefit of new varieties and greenhouse growing conditions. Baladi vegetables can be found in most Arab produce markets – the “baal” tomatoes are rare indeed.

Bedouin Hospitality

Emna's fresh sheepsmilk yoghurt

Emna's fresh sheepsmilk yoghurt

Thank goodness some relief has come from the monotony of these long, hot summer days.  Ramadan begins today and a few days ago I paid a pre-holiday visit to my good friends Maryam and her sister Emna, in the neighboring Bedouin village of Basmat Tabun.  I haven’t seen them for some time – they used to walk across the nature reserve for exercise, but lately, they tell me, it’s been so hot and they are too busy – getting the children ready for the school year and preparing for the holiday.  Also, summer is wedding season and there had been several weddings in the family, each one involving days on end of celebration.  Emna brought out to show me the dresses she bought in Nazareth for the weddings – long elegant tunics worn over matching pants, decorated with beads and matched with contrasting head scarves.

The conversation inevitably turned to cooking, and the sisters told me that one of their favorite foods for breaking the daily Ramadan fast is a salad of finely chopped tomato and cucumber, mixed with the  fresh sheeps-milk yoghurt that Emna makes (she has a herd that she keeps, with the help of her teenage son, in a plot of land near the house), and sprinkled with garlic powder.  Both Emna and Maryam have daughters who are finishing high school, and we talked about their plans – they want to do some kind of national service – through the one-year program for post-high-schoolers,  and get their driver’s licenses.  When I left, Emna insisted on giving me a bucket of fresh yoghurt, and Maryam, a case of plum tomatoes her husband had just gleaned (he’s a truck driver who works in agriculture).  Yesterday Ron and I dunked them in boiling water, peeled, chopped, cooked and pureed them and made this lovely tomato sauce, destined for the freezer.  

Fruit of our labor

Fruit of our labor