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.

The First, First Fruits of Spring

20150403_114715Early on in Arabic class, we learned the names for the seasons of the year, and one of the topics for discussion was, “what is your favorite season?”   Visiting in Kufar Manda to practice my lessons, I took up this conversation with Abu Malek and Um Malek. I like winter best, I told them. The Arabic name for winter, “shitta“, is a synonym for rain, and I related how I wait all year long for the onset of winter rains that call up a plethora of edible wild plants.

Um Malek got a dreamy look in her eyes and said, “Spring”.  Since she is one of the most energetic wild plant foragers I know, I was interested to hear her choice, and asked her to explain.  Because of the zaatar, she said.

For those of us who associate winter with hibernation and spring with reawakening and new growth, these seasons have a very different significance here in the Galilee.  Winter, with its life-giving rainfall, is the time when local plants emerge, grow and mature. Zaatar has been evident on the hillsides all winter long, but now its soft, hairy leaves are large and suffused with potent essential oil, ready to be gathered, dried, crushed and mixed with sesame seeds and sumac to make dukka.

Other local foods, however, just reach an initial stage of maturity with the coming of spring.  In the market in Nazareth this past weekend, I saw soft green almonds on sale.  And on my walks in the fields, the wheat is tall and robust, loaded with fat, mature kernels of soft green grain.  Green almonds and wheat – as well as the new chick peas that will soon be appearing – are a delight to eat in their fresh, spring state, or in the case of wheat, ready to be harvested and roasted to produce farike, but their main harvest will only come later, when they are dry and more utilitarian.

By Passover, the wheat in the fields and the flowers on the fruit and olive trees give the traditional Galilee farmer an indication of harvests yet to come, assuming they can survive the upcoming, volatile 49 plus one days of the Omer, with their alternating thunderstorms and blistering hamsin (Arabic for “fifty”) winds.

In the meantime, as we retell yet again the Passover story of exile and liberation, we can also recall that this was once a harvest holiday, charged with promise and trepidation, and that first fruits can ripen in successive stages.

Extending my best Spring Holiday wishes!

Abbie

pre pesach wheat field

 

Relating to Wheat

These spring days, the roaring of combines rumbles in the background – rending thick fields of wheat into neat rows of shorn stalks.  In the pre-industrial order of local agriculture, not only would this method of harvesting be unfathomable to a farmer watching from the side, but also the timing.  Why would anyone cut down their good wheat almost two months ahead of time, just as the grains in the ears were maturing (unless they were planning to roast it, but such a large portion of the crop?).

The reason, of course, is that all this wheat is being cut as hay, destined to feed the thousands of cows whose milk supplies Israel’s burgeoning dairy industry.  It may be hard to imagine, but until the German Templers came to Palestine in the late 19th century, there was no cow-based dairy industry here, let alone any practice of growing a food crop as fodder.

Yet now, we feed wheat to the cows, and at the same time, more and more people are developing allergies to the ubiquitous gluten-heavy grain which has been bred specifically to meet the needs of industrial food processing.

The relationship between wheat and human subsistence – once so elegantly straightforward – has become complicated in our times.   I find this to be especially perplexing here in the western curve of the Fertile Crescent, where the symbiosis between humans and their staple grain is so deeply and locally rooted.

During Passover, when the “luxury” of leavened products is set aside, it is worthwhile considering the price we pay for soft, air-filled bread, and if we are truly and healthfully sustained by foods produced using methods that are environmentally and humanely questionable.

pesach 2014

From my Galilee home, during this season steeped with spiritual significance, I extend best wishes to you all for the spring holidays!

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

Farike Season

The season for producing farike has officially opened here in the lower Galilee.  If you see puffs of smoke in the middle of agricultural fields, like we saw yesterday, it’s a pretty sure sign that someone is making farike. 
For those of you who haven’t heard me go on (and on, and on) about this subject, farike is roasted green wheat, which is a highly valued ingredient in local Arab cuisine.  Roasting wheat is an ancient system for processing this grain – and roasted grain is described numerous times in biblical texts.

Farike is made when the grains are fully developed but still green and soft – about a month before they turn dry and golden on the stalk if left to continue to ripen uninterrupted. Only the tops of the wheat are cut – the “shibboleth” in Hebrew – by hand with a sickle.  Then they are left to dry in the sun for 2 days and after that, are lit on fire.  The outer, dry parts char and turn black, while the grains inside their husks are roasted.  The whole black pile is then threshed, to separate the roasted grains from the chaff.  

This is the second season that we went with Balkees to visit Abu S. and his family as they were in the middle of the intensely demanding work that is involved in making farike.  Not only does the wheat have to be harvested by hand, but the entire process that follows is extremely time consuming and labor intensive.   I am full of awe over the spirit, strength and cooperation among this remarkable family, and honored to count them as my friends. 

We rubbed the charred heads of grain between our hands and blew away the chaff to eat the chewy, smoky green kernels.  My friend Balkees recited the Arabic equivalent of the “Shechyanu” prayer that is said when tasting a new fruit for the first time in the season.