Living Lightly

handful of asparagusIt was probably the most beautiful day of the most beautiful season in the Galilee that I revisited my favorite wild asparagus stalking grounds. That March afternoon I was closing a chapter that extended over half my life, during which I was immersed in learning the timeless ways of this land, from the land itself and the people who know it so well.

There were so many asparagus, it took no time to fill my handful quota. I planned to prepare them my favorite way – roasted with olive oil and salt. But I ate several as is, just to savor the fresh bitterness and life-energy still in the stalks.

Unlike domesticated crops, beholden to humans for their propagation, as long as their environment is not disturbed, edible wild plants will generally appear in their season, year after year, whether someone comes along and snaps off their tips or not.  And as sad as I felt that day, this realization brought with it some solace.

I found myself identifying with countless generations of pastoral nomads who found sustenance in these Galilee hills, and then continued on their way. Now on my own nomadic journey, I felt the bittersweet unraveling of my desire to cling to this place and possess it.

If my travels bring me back to the Galilee in early spring, the wild asparagus will await me with gracious indifference. And I will know where to find them.

This Passover, I extend my best wishes for life lived lightly on this earth.

Abbie Rosner

 

 

Winter Does Not Apply

handful of asparagusFebruary is arguably the dreariest month of the year, and at this point my family and friends in the United States and Europe are paralyzed with winter fatigue.  While winters here in the Galilee are generally mild, this past month we’ve been treated to several snowstorms and in recent days I’ve even had to pull out an extra blanket.

But aside from the night chill, the usual associations with winter do not apply here.  For true locavores, this season actually represents the onset of a long and fertile spring.  Since December I have been gathering chicory, wild spinach, mallow and asparagus.  And when the cold sets in, I sip tea steeped with the zaatar and white savoury from my garden, which have come back to life after languishing all summer.

Yesterday, the first really warm and sunny day in weeks, I took a foraging walk and happily discovered that some of my favorite wild edibles have gotten a second wind.  Mallow and chicory grow freely all winter long, but the wild spinach that I’d gathered months ago has just now re-emerged tall and robust.  And the asparagus bushes that were thoroughly harvested by all the local foragers are putting out new stalks yet again.

After picking my one-handful of asparagus limit, I sat down to rest under a scotch broom bush, awash in the fragrance of its sunny flowers, and marveled at the generosity of this land that, from the era of prehistoric hunters and gatherers through to this exquisite winter day, has so graciously sustained the people who understand how to live on and off of it.

feb 26 2015

No Rain, No Luf

It is dry here.  So dry.  By this time of year, we could have expected several serious bouts of rain, and at least a stirring of growth in the brown earth.  Instead we get the vaguest of clouds and downpours of thirty seconds that barely darken the sidewalk.

On a walk last weekend in the somnambulant hills, even the asparagus were suspended in barren, bare tangles of thorns.   Crossing the vineyard, Ron searched through the dried leaves to glean clusters of raisins, sweet and chewy – more seeds than fruit.  They are like the black olives* I cured this year, their desiccated bitter flesh barely covering the pits, which I keep only out of sentiment for the loving attention invested in them.

raisins 1

Yesterday I visited Abu Malek in Kfar Manda.  Abu Malek is retired and spends much of his time visiting friends in the village.  Some of them, like Abu Ali, are not well and homebound.  Abu Ali has diabetes and for months he languished, with no appetite, and I heard periodic reports of cures investigated, here and in Jordan.  At this point, Abu Malek told me, his appetite has returned, but there is only one thing he craves – luf.

Luf is that edible wild plant that requires special cooking to neutralize its toxins, and is commonly acknowledged in the Arab communities of the Galilee to have extraordinary medicinal qualities.  Luf is one of the first plants to appear with the winter rains – in an ordinary year, my yard would now be full of them.

Abu Ali asked us if we have any luf in the freezer, Abu Malek told me.  But a few weeks earlier, Um Malek needed room in the freezer and she took out the old luf she had and tossed it.  A pity.  At Abbie’s there’s plenty of luf, Um Malek noted.  But no rain, no luf.

So we have no choice but to wait.  For the rain, for the luf, and for relief from the bone-dryness that has bedeviled countless generations whose livelihood here depended on the benevolent communion of rain, earth and new growth.

***

*In fact, the original plan was to cure green olives (see this post)  When we got to the trees, however, there was barely a green olive to be found.  But plenty of beautiful black ones.  Following the signs can lead down a circuitous path…

Wild Asparagus Yet Again

*This post was written a day before the Hannukah miracle occurred and usurped it’s posting.  So here it is, a little late but hopefully still fresh….

Once again, the wild asparagus season is here.  How many times have I written about this moment?  And why is it that year after year, I never tire of celebrating it? 

Because it is always the same and always wondrously fresh and surprising – the matchless way that each stalk presents itself to the world – its unique color, girth, curve –  solo or in a cluster –  endlessly varied.   And because of the exquisite beauty of their setting, in my favorite oak grove, at this early stage of winter – where I am torn between focusing on the complex pattern of the green carpet underfoot, and the undisturbed expanse of trees and boulders in this discreet and magical place. 

a stalk of wild asparagus

I wanted to see if we could find mandrakes, and we found dozens, at this point with their leaves grand and shiny, and at their heart, a burst of purple blossoms.  I saw my first cyclamen of the season.  We crossed paths with two rabbits. 

mandrake flowers

And no matter how many times I encounter those carvings in the limestone – steps leading down into a burial cave, a shallow, sloping grape press, or a simple 90 degree angle hewn into a stone by someone for some purpose we can never know – I am thrilled to stand on that same spot, just as they did perhaps two thousand years ago.  And to imagine that they enjoyed the wild asparagus of this season as much as we do. 

entrance to a burial cave

A Foraging Celebration

Hussein's daughter with zaatar

Yet another rainy day and we can’t believe our good fortune – this has been the wettest winter for years and the landscape is celebrating.  The hills are lush and bright with wild flowers.  And of course, for foragers, there is a bounty of edible wild plants to pick.  We started the wild asparagus season early and enjoyed several meals of them, including an excellent asparagus soup. 

With my culinary tours I brought a group to the Bedouin village of Kaabiye.  Our host, Hussein took us to see edible plants in two surroundings – forest and field.  In the forest we found luf, zaatar, asparagus and saina (large bumpy leaves of the sage family), and at the periphery of an agricultural field, we found hubeisa (mallow), selek (wild beet greens), humeida (sorrel) and a thorny plant that we peeled and ate the stalk of. 

Saina - the winter alternative for stuffed grape leaves

Afterwards, his wife Riba prepared a meal for us of ftayir, which are pastry turnovers filled with a mixture of wild beet greens, zaatar and hot pepper, saina leaves stuffed with rice, and the greens which we had learned about. 

Everyone enjoyed tromping around and learning about the different plants, and of course the meal. But one of the participants told me that the highlight was being a guest in a local Bedouin home, which makes me realize that my culinary tour idea focusing on home hospitality has serious potential.

Edible Wild Plants Class

 

Uri with a sorrel leaf

After several drizzly days, Friday morning’s brilliantly clear skies were made to order for my edible wild plants class outing.  Our little group met at the entrance to the Bet Keshet Forest, an expanse of wooded hills that stretches from Mount Turan to Mount Tabor and the hills leading down to the Sea of Galilee. 

At this point in mid-November, there have been enough rains to bring up a wonderful assortment of winter growth, and our teacher, Uri Mayer-Chissick, pointed out several varieties of edible plants growing right at our feet.

 We gathered mustard greens which grew everywhere, sorrel, wild asparagus and several plants which I only know the Hebrew name for.  Many of these are bitter, and Uri told us that in the past, bitter was a much more common flavor in peoples’ diets – and bitter foods were considered to be good for the liver.  A meal would optimally be composed of foods that were sweet, salty, sour and bitter. 

on the tabun

After making a little campfire, Uri mixed up some dough with spelt flour, olive oil, salt and water and each of us grabbed a hunk and rolled it out into a flat circle.  In the middle we placed  chopped onion and a little pile of the plants we’d picked – then folded the dough over and pinched it shut – then set our little “empanada” on the “tabun” – a concave metal cooking surface that is traditional in these parts for making pita bread and other baked goods. We also roasted Tabor oak acorns which were bitter and not at all tasty.

With the roasted acorns supplying the bitter element and the sorrel its sourness, a little salt sprinkled on the greens mixture, and quarters of sweet orange – we ended our class in a perfectly rounded way. 

 

 

Asparagus Season at Last

 

Enough rain has finally fallen to summon the long-awaited winter growth that transforms our Galilee hills.  Ron and I set out on our afternoon walk and to our surprise and pleasure were immediately greeted by a fresh new growth of wild asparagus.  Most of the stalks were too young and thin to pick so we left them to add to their girth.  But just the sight of those graceful purple-green stems poking up out of the earth was enough to put joy in my heart.

There are few things I would rather do in life than gather wild asparagus.  The bushes grow under the oak and pistachio trees that cover the hills around our home here in the Galilee. But not every bush conceals an asparagus stalk and it takes a carefully trained eye to spot them as they are well camouflaged.  After so many years, my eye is quite developed, although Ron usually sees the ones I miss. 

asparagus-1Asparagus season begins just after the first rains of winter – this year in mid-November – and ends around March or April.  At that point, when the rains stop falling and the heat brings the snakes out of hibernation, our walking route moves from the hills to the paths crossing the cultivated fields. 

It is a quiet, meditative activity – trolling the grassy hills for those elusive stalks, seeing but not seeing the rich variety of winter growth coaxed to life by the first rains of the season.  Here and there, half hidden in the overgrowth, are pieces of limestone hewn into shallow grape and olive presses – evidence of the people who lived here in ancient times.  I am determined this year to find out more about their origins.

Snapped off stems show that people have been gathering before us.  We take only the amount we plan to eat the same day – as many as we can each hold in one hand.   This first batch we prepared steamed in salted water, drizzled with olive oil, lemon juice and salt.  Well worth the 8 month wait.