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.

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.

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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.

Back from Oxford

I just returned from my first time participating in the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery – an annual conference of food historians and other professionals and non-professionals who are engaged in food inquiry.  It was an extraordinary experience to be in the company of so many like-minded individuals from all over the globe, in a setting that was edifying, convivial, and simply lovely.

I presented a talk on the El Babour Mill in Nazareth, illustrating that an unmediated, entirely local and personal relationship between the land, the farmer, the miller and the consumer still exists in the Arab communities in the Galilee.  Speaking to an audience that appreciates the value of local and traditional foodways in historical and social contexts, and having the opportunity to hear such a range of fascinating presentations, was a gift.

And now I am back, to my pastoral Galilee setting which is, in its own way, as beautiful as the refined and manicured gardens of Oxford.  From there, the conflict here seemed remote, but from here, it is geographically and personally much closer to home, and the consciousness of it is almost paralyzing.  Trying to make sense of what is going on, I consider this narrative and that one, finally discarding them all in recognition of a complexity that defies individual understanding, and the broad appeal of that lowest common denominator of an eye for an eye.

For respite, I dip into the fascinating book I bought at the Symposium, “Tastes of Byzantium”, written by the eminent food scholar Andrew Dalby, one of the longstanding Symposium participants.  But even through the heady descriptions of the spice trade and markets of Constantinople, the subtext of battle, intrigue and power struggles wafts through, and I am reminded of how tragically little human nature has changed over the millennia.

talk

Thanks to Pamela Sheldon Johns for photo

st catz

Beautiful St. Catz

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

batof

The “Batof”

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 You Can Count On and What You Can’t

Let’s start with what you can’t.  Here in the Galilee, you can’t count on the rain.  You know, or at least you hope, that after what feels like an interminable, hot dry summer, eventually, the seasonal rains will make their dramatic appearance.  And usually, by mid-October or early November, they comply.  This year, our faith was challenged.  By the first week of December, my East-Coast American family was bundled up for snow, and we walked around in t-shirts, on edge in the brittle heat.  Then finally, the skies opened in all their splendor – rain, hail and snow – power outages, flooding.

And now to what you can count on.  That monumental soaking, followed by days of brilliant sunshine, has worked its magical re-appearing act.  Now you see brown, dry earth, now you don’t – replaced by rolling hills of tender, brilliant green filaments of wheat.  What a soothing sight that is.  And how unique for us here, that the advent of winter signals the start of our most primal, fertile season.

I can only imagine what it was like during the millennia when farmers of this land had no recourse to a water pipe.  The existential threat of rain that doesn’t come could wipe out entire clans or send them wandering, all the while trying to make sense of what you can count on and what you can’t.

Which brings me to my holiday wishes –new green that in  the year to come, may you  find  balance between the unpredictable and what can be relied upon – the regenerative cycle of the seasons and the transformative power of love, as welcome as  clouds on the horizon.

Green Anew

How does one mark the arrival of spring when the entire winter is full of flowers?  With more flowers for one thing, and the late-night fragrance of citrus blossoms teasing into my bedroom window.  But there are other reminders that, over the thousands of years when survival for the people living in the Galilee was linked to agriculture, the advent of spring had more compelling developments.

In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond explains how the Mediterranean climate in the Fertile Crescent, in whose gracious curve the Galilee is set, created the conditions for the development of its indigenous plants.  Adapting for survival in the short, unreliably rainy winters and long, reliably hot, dry summers, these plants invested their energies into producing robust seeds encased in durable coverings that would protect them for as long as necessary until a sufficient rainfall called them into action.  The prehistoric hunters and gatherers of the area learned to pluck the nutritious kernels that were hidden in ears of grain, starting a millennia-long process of cultivation with ramifications far beyond this blog-scope.

Spring is the time when the seeds of many of these indigenous plants come into their own.  In the fields, the grains of wheat are fully developed, yet still green and soft – ready to be harvested to produce farike.  And the almond trees, whose blossoms settled like snowflakes just a few weeks ago, are showing their tender, fuzzy green seeds, which can be eaten whole, sour and refreshing.

In the months to come, the grains and the almonds will dry and harden, to re-enter the cycle in whatever form is their destiny.  But for now, we can savor their vibrant, green potential – encapsulating the miracle of rebirth in yet another spring.

Please accept my warmest wishes for a wonderful Passover, Easter and/or Spring.

green almonds

Winter in Eden

In my last post, I talked about the “hakura” – the Arabic term for a kitchen garden next to the home, which was once traditional in rural Arab villages in the Galilee (and is, like so many other such traditions, becoming a thing of the past).

Now I’d like to report on our own hakura, here on this first day of March.  For many of you reading this, harvesting broccoli and lettuce at this time of year may seem anachronistic.  But then who would think of winter as being the most agriculturally fruitful time?  But when precipitation is rain and not snow, and every drop is a gift, and when the dark skies give way to brilliant sun-soaked days that draw up the growth from the rich, heavy earth like a magnet, then vegetables grow, even in the winter.

Growing on rainwater only

Growing on rainwater only

These days, in addition to lettuce and broccoli, we are stepping out the back door to bring in fresh radishes, green onions and chard leaves.  Soon there will be potatoes and maybe even some artichokes.  The carrots are taking their sweet time.

These days, my biggest dilemma is whether to eat from the hakura or to go out and forage.

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I will be coming to the US at the end of May and will give a presentation on Tracing the Local Foods of the Galilee to the Sources at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca in New York City on June 3rd.  If you can think of an audience that would enjoy such a presentation (with beautiful slides), why don’t you let me know?

Kareh-ah: Another waterless wonder

For lack of a better name, I call these “bottle squash”.  Their name in Arabic is “kareh-ah”, where the last syllable is pronounced as if you just received a gentle blow to the stomach.  They are a summer vegetable that is commonly found in Arab produce markets here.  Until I started spending time in the Nazareth kitchen of Balkees, my friend and culinary guide, I was clueless about them.

Kareh-ah’s container-like shape makes them perfect for stuffing, which is how I generally have eaten them at Balkees’ house – filled with a mixture of rice and chopped meat.  After they are cooked, you cut them open in your bowl and pour some of the tomato sauce in which they were cooked over the filling.    

Yesterday Balkees offered me some of the “baal” bottle squash she’d brought from Um Salekh’s field (see last few blog entries for more about “baal ” vegetables).  I declined, explaining that I didn’t want to do the whole stuffing thing.  But there is more than one way to cook a bottle squash, and she promised to teach me, sending me home with two big specimens in a bag with a few tomatoes for good measure. 

First I was to peel them and cut then lengthwise in quarters.  Then I should cut away the seeds before chopping the squash into bite-sized pieces.  I was expecting the interior with the seeds to be woody and inedible but when I took a tentative taste, surprise surprise, it was delicate and lemony – like a soft and delicious cucumber. 

I had chopped and sautéed some onion in olive oil for a few minutes, then added the squash.  According to Balkees’ instructions, it was supposed to cook until all the liquid evaporated, but no liquid was coming out so I hoped I was doing things right.  Then I had to peel the tomatoes – yes, no shortcuts – before chopping them into pieces, saving all that flavorful juice.  When the squash was soft, I added the tomatoes and juice and cooked it all for another few minutes.   A perfect summer dish – soft and soothing, yet intense with summer flavors.

So now, if you run across those lovely, pale bottle squashes, you know an easy way to cook them.  And if you can pronounce them in Arabic, more power to you. 

 

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.