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

Making Hay

When I first started researching for my book, I had a conversation with a very distinguished food historian.  As I enthused about the marvels of wheat, she warned me that people who begin to immerse themselves in the history of grain tend to bore everyone around them, as inevitably, no-one finds the subject as fascinating as they do.  How right she was.

Bear with me. I am simply enthralled by the shaggy green-gold grain, thick on the fields and hills around my home.  It is the purest expression of this land in its prime, at the height of spring.

Over the past few weeks, the wheat harvest has been unfolding, as it has year after year for millennia.  Yet unlike in the past, the vast majority of the wheat grown in this part of the Galilee is destined to become animal feed.

Fields of tender green wheat have already been cut for making silage during the Passover holiday. And now, in other fields, wheat shorn by a combine and deposited in long strips lies drying in the sun.  Why is that wheat cut now, I asked Ron, the former dairyman, and left out for days on end?  To make hay, he answered.  It must dry before being collected into bales. Nutritious and easy to store and keep over time, wheat for cows offers many of the same advantages as it does for humans.

The danger, Ron went on, is rain. If the drying grain gets soaked, fermentation and rot can set in, ruining the entire crop. The gathering gray clouds suddenly seemed more ominous.  This, I realized, is the unspoken imperative of why one should make hay while the sun shines.

wheat for hay

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

Forgetting the Bulgar

Learning Arabic is confoundingly difficult.  I have learned languages in my life – Spanish, French and Hebrew – but Arabic is something completely different.   I have never invested so much time and effort, with such meager results, as in my study of Arabic.

The rules of grammar, the vocabulary, the accent – each of them stubbornly elude my grasp.  The other students in my Arabic class, all native Israeli Jews, don’t seem to be progressing any faster, albeit having the advantage of a Semitic mother tongue.  The Tower of Babel comes to mind again and again.

The bright side of Arabic class is the homework – which provides a very good reason to visit my friend Abu Malek in Kfar Manda.   Abu Malek is a retired high school language teacher, and over the years he has patiently worked through my lessons with me, spicing them up with proverbs and tales.

Today we sat on the rooftop porch in the warm winter sun and crafted sentences from my list of vocabulary words – under, over, inside, outside, this far and no more.  Just as we finished our last sentence, Um Malek brought up a tray with lunch – a platter of bright green tabouleh.

tabouleh

I love the way tabouleh is made here, with its overwhelming emphasis on fresh parsley.   Um Malek doesn’t speak Hebrew or English, and I asked Abu Malek to explain to her that in the States, tabouleh is made with more bulgar than parsley. Here, I told her, there is so much green that the bulgar is barely perceptible.  She burst into laughter, and explained that she’d forgotten to add the bulgar.

And we all laughed together because each of us has forgotten the bulgar at some point, and more than once.  On that rooftop this afternoon, we modestly scaled our own Tower of Babel , celebrating what we have in common over what separates us, reaching out to each other through friendship, laughter and a meal lovingly prepared and shared.

Abu Malek

   *** 

  Two auspicious developments regarding my book  “Breaking Bread in Galilee”:

  1.  A review recently appeared in the Jewish Review of Books, putting me in very distinguished company:

http://www.jewishreviewofbooks.com

2.  The legendary Kitchen Arts and Letters bookstore in New York City just re-ordered copies of my book.  I am so pleased.

Breaking Bread in Galilee

I consider it very auspicious timing, that my new book – Breaking Bread in Galilee – A Culinary Journey into the Promised Land – has entered the world during the height of spring.  These days, there is gold everywhere you look, in vast waves of wheat stalks rolling in the breeze, or shorn and flattened in orderly rows, waiting to be collected into bales.

The grain harvest signifies the end of one agricultural season and the opening of another.  Already, the summer fruits are sending out their emissaries – fuzzy green almonds that can be eaten whole, tender grape leaves for rolling and stuffing, luscious pomegranate flowers and fragrant olive blossoms that wreak havoc on those with allergies. 

Breaking Bread is the product of years of exploration, thought and discovery.  I explored the distant corners of the Galilee, navigating along back roads and through villages that I’d never imagined I’d find.  I read the Bible, for the first time, and found common and timeless elements that connect its imagery with my contemporary landscape.  I had innumerous conversations in kitchens, offices, fields and groves.  I met people who opened their homes and their hearts to me, as I came to them with the simple question of “what are you cooking? picking? growing?”   The experiences, insights and joys of this adventure fill the pages of my book. 

I am grateful that my inspiration to write this book coincided with the revolution in the publishing world that makes it so much easier to introduce a book into the world.  Even if agents and publishers may not consider it a profit-maker, I believe one-thousand-percent in the value of its message.  With great pride and joy, I invite you to partake of it. 

At this point, for readers in the US, the book is available either through amazon, or on my own “e-store”, accessible at: https://www.createspace.com/3847258

If you are in Israel or elsewhere, send me an email and I’ll send you a book – 50 NIS plus 10 NIS postage.  info@galileecuisine.co.il

Hubs el Tabun

As I put the final touches on my soon-to-be-published book – Breaking Bread in Galilee – A Culinary Journey into the Promised Land – bread seems to be looming large in my consciousness.   Yesterday, on a particularly enjoyable visit with the Murad family in Kfar Manda, I was lucky enough to watch Samakh baking hubs el tabun.   Hubs is Arabic for bread, and the tabun is the sheet-metal oven in the front yard upon which the hubs is baked. 

The beauty of Arab village life is not generally found in picturesque vistas, but in modest, authentic domestic scenes.  The rocks Samakh has scattered on the round baking surface, that keep the heavy dough from sticking to it, are a direct continuation of this most ancient baking tradition.  This bread is a product of wheat grown in the fields below their home and ground into flour in the mill down the street.   It is dense and chewy, lumpy and full of flavor.  Samakh bakes as she learned from her mother, with heat fueled by a wood fire.  Watching her work the dough, I want to etch this timeless scene into my memory.  

Samakh gave me two platter sized breads to take home and I think that there is nothing more valuable than this exquisite gift.

Pure Gold

One Friday morning a few weeks ago, I arrived at Kfar Manda for my weekly Arabic lesson, and as I climbed the stairs to my teacher, Malek’s apartment, on the porch/roof I noticed piles of wheat laid out on a canvas drying in the sun (where was my camera when I needed it?).  Um Malek (Malek’s mother) had made bulgar – which meant that she had acquired sacks of wheat from her brother – one of the few traditional farmers left in the Galilee – right after the harvest in June, taken it home and immersed it in a huge pot of boiling water for about an hour, then spread the grains out on the rooftop to dry.  After that, she would take the parboiled wheat to the mill in the village to grind it – coarsely for mejadra and finely for kubbe. 

Um Malek always joins us in our lesson at some point and she explained to me the bulgar-making process.  Um Malek is always busy, and her husband, Abu Malek assures me that that is what keeps her vital and healthy.  And last Friday, when I left my lesson, she was sitting at a table plucking the maluhiya leaves off their stems to make the soup that every home in Kfar Manda has for lunch on that day.  But before I could pass by, she reached down to her lap and handed me a bag of bulgar that she had clearly prepared for me to take home. 

I don’t know what this looks like to you, but as far as I’m concerned, it is pure gold.

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.

Pick While It’s Not Hot

The last meeting of our edible wild plants class took place on one of these rare, cool spring days before the oppressive heat sets in, bringing out the snakes and making foraging in the tall grass seem like not such a good idea.  We convened up on Mount gilboa-iris3Gilboa, where we were treated to a humbling display of wild flowers – including the famous and elusive Gilboa Iris. 

And with our gaze focused at our feet, we picked wild garlic flowers which we put in our salad, a plant called duck’s foot which made a filling for turnovers, nettles for the soup, and some wild relatives of the arugula family, whose pretty pale yellow flowers were just as peppery-delicious as the leaves. 

One of the group, an intense young archaeologist named Zacki, had driven up from Jerusalem, and stopped on the way in the hot dry Jordan Valley to pick leaves from a plant whose name simply translates as “salty”.  He took those pale green, brittle leaves and

Salty leaves

Salty leaves

 

fried them in oil, to make the most outrageously delicious chips I’ve ever eaten. 

 

 

 

 

Zacki, it turns out, has a passionate interest in the agricultural origins of the Jewish holidays. And since I have been immersed in research on wheat as a local food of the Galilee, and since the wheat (and barley) harvest are very much a part of the original observance of Passover, we had much to talk about.

In the Old Testament, there are numerous descriptions of wheat, with specific names for different levels of ripeness, and if the wheat is roasted – or “parched” in many translations.  We were veggies-on-tabun1roasting vegetables on the outdoor stove, and added some of the wild barley and oats that were growing nearby, to no great success.  But I am determined to see the harvesting and roasting of green wheat to make the local Galilee specialty called “fariki”, which is the modern-day equivalent to the parched wheat written about in the scriptures.  This I will document, hopefully in my next entry…