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

Wheat, and Zaatar, to the Mill

I’ve started to research in earnest for the paper I’m going to present at the Oxford Symposium this summer.  The subject of the symposium is markets, and I will talk about the market in Nazareth as a site of pilgrimage, not just for Christians visiting the site(s) where the Annunciation is believed to have taken place, but also for the local fellaheen and their descendants, who brought, and still bring, their wheat to be ground at the El Babour mill*.

The cavernous rooms of El Babour’s Ottoman-era stone building, that once housed massive flour milling machinery, are now filled with orderly sacks and shelves of grains, pulses and local dry goods.  The milling machines that still operate are relegated to the building’s stone-cobbled back courtyard, where villagers and their pack animals once waited for their turn at the mill.  Yet for all the modern adaptations, this place continues to function as a living mill and I am fascinated by its enduring place in Galilee Arab society in our times.

In the past few weeks I have spent many hours at El Babour, where the kind and gracious owners, Tony and Jarjoura Kanaza, patiently answer my questions and reminisce about the mill around which their family’s history has revolved for several generations.  I waited to interview people who are bringing bulgar or farike to be milled, to document a ritual that has been practiced in this part of the world for millennia. But one after the other, the customers who came for milling services brought bags of zaatar,  not wheat.   This is the season for zaatar, and instead of crushing the dried leaves through a sieve to achieve the consistency needed for the eponymous spice mixture, a machine at El Babour does the job in seconds.  This concession to time-saving is not the only adaptation to the eminently local and politically loaded practice of producing zaatar that I have seen (for more on this subject, see the chapter on zaatar in my book, Breaking Bread in Galilee).

For the second year, now, an enterprising Palestinian-Israeli farmer has leased a field on which he cultivates rows of zaatar, where you can “pick your own” without risking a fine (wild zaatar is now a protected plant, and illegal to pick).  The field’s many patrons attest to a desire for control over every step of the zaatar-making process, starting at its roots, that has not been entirely eclipsed by (among others) the ready availability of commercial zaatar mixtures.

Back at the Haifa University library, delving into the literature on food anthropology, a reference to a “short food chain” struck me as a precise, if not laconic, summary of traditional Galilee Arab foodways.  And remarkably, with all the pressures and diversions of modern life, these traditions adapt and endure.

* More on the fascinating history of milling in Nazareth in a future post…

milling zaatar at El Babour

Milling zaatar at El Babour  

Pick your own zaatar

Pick your own zaatar

House Blend Herb Tea

On these roasting summer days, one can never drink enough, and I try to keep a pitcher of chilled herb tea in the fridge at all times.   Very auspiciously, the path leading to my front door is lined with herbs – starting with rosemary, followed by zaatar (Syrian marjoram), lemon verbena, thyme, zuta  levana (white savoury), lemon grass, sage and tarragon.

Making the tea is simple enough – just put a bunch of fresh herbs in a tea pot and cover with boiling water.  I leave the pot to steep on the counter until the tea is tepid – then pour it into the pitcher and put it in the refrigerator.  The teapot is constantly being replenished with my daily harvests.

Typically, I start with the lemon verbena, breaking off four tender branches of new growth just where they generously yield without pulling.  After that, I select two long sprigs of zuta and then reach down into the depths of the lemon grass to tear off one scratchy leaf.  Finally I look for two large and handsome sage leaves, eponymously green and furry, and pluck them as well.  This carefully assembled combination, I just realized, composes my house blend.

I recently read a book by Elliot Cowan called Plant Spirit Medicine.  The author describes how he communicates with particular plant spirits, and how they guide him in his work as a healer.  Since then, I have begun to approach each of my herb plants with new respect.   I whisper thanks to its spirit for so generously sharing its growth for my refreshment, and I run my hands over its leaves in appreciation.

For the time being, the only response I’ve received is the continued blessing of my delightful cold tea.  And that, believe me, is recognition enough.

herb garden


My Cup of Tea

In our ongoing conversation about the foods of the Galilee, my close friend Balkees Abu Rabieh and I recently had a particularly enlightening chat about tea.  Her mother-in-law, Balkees told me, meticulously picks the various herbs that grow in the garden outside her house – sage, zaatar, zuta (white savory), louisa (lemon verbena), chamomile – even rose buds – dries them in a clean place free of dust, then keeps them in separate jars in her storeroom. She dips into each of these jars to create her own mixture, which she puts in a box and takes to the kitchen. 

Lemon grass and Sage

Balkees’ mother, on the other hand, prefers to pick the herbs from the garden and place them directly into the hot water to make her tea.  Whatever is in season, that is what she drinks.  Her favorite mixture these days  is sage, white savory and rosemary.  Louisa and lemongrass are also good.  God gave us herbs during every season of the year, she says, and she’ll manage just fine with them. 

Louisa (lemon verbena)

I belong to Balkees’ mother’s school of thought.   One of my greatest pleasures is picking a few sprigs of fresh louisa from the robust bush in my front yard.  Within two minutes, I have a cup of fragrant, yellow and delightfully reviving tea.  And now, with the winter rains, the zuta plant is starting to come into its own.   Zuta is refreshingly minty but more complex than regular mint tea, and is my favorite winter infusion. 


Zuta (white savory)

Secretly, I sometimes feel sorry for people who have to drink tea from teabags.   

A Day in Deir el Assad

By happy coincidence, a friend invited me to join a cooking class she was going to, to be held by a woman living in Deir el Assad, an Arab village that is built into the mountains opposite Carmiel, in the Upper Galilee. And just as fortuitously, I happened to be free this morning, and able to attend.

Kamla and Rim checking the Mejadra

Our hosts were Kamla and Rim, two enterprising sisters and gifted cooks who established a catering company specializing in traditional Arab cuisine. They also do cooking courses in their industrial kitchen, which is perfectly appointed for this purpose, and there were baskets of fresh vegetables and herbs, and piles of spices waiting when we arrived.

We were five people in the class and Kamla very quickly put us to work – we chopped onions, zucchini, cauliflower and carrots – gave them a quick bath in boiling oil and set them into a pot – then covered them with browned noodles mixed with rice, cumin, cinnamon, salt and pepper, to make “Makluba”. Then we chopped more vegetables that went into a tomato sauce (home-prepared pureed fresh tomatoes), along with coarsely ground bulgar (which the sisters make themselves out of fresh wheat) for the “Shorbata”. We sautéed onions and celery to season a red lentil soup (no soup powder!), and sautéed onions in a profusion of olive oil, which were added to small dark lentils and bulgar, to prepare the requisite Mejadra.

While the pots were simmering, we set off to the house next door, where in the back yard, another sister was baking fresh pita on a wood-burning tabun. We brought balls of labaneh with us, and zaatar mixed with olive oil, and spread it on the fresh dough, which went into the oven. These are culinary experiences that are unforgettable.

 Note the “gefet” in the bucket at her feet – left over from the olive press – excellent fuel

When we went back to the kitchen, we finished up our salads – parsley-rich Tabbouleh, a salad with “Gargir” – a local green that is peppery like rocket, and a salad of whole fresh, soft zaatar leaves with olive oil and ground sumac. Need I say more? I hope to return to Kamla and Rim soon – and lucky are those who join me!

Fresh and healthy

Bagels With a Twist

Every family has their Yom Kippur fast-breaking tradition, and ours involves a spread of bagels, cream cheese, smoked salmon, pickled herring, etc. This is a nod to the tradition that I grew up with in the United States, and homage to my grandfather, who was in the deli business, and whose dining room table never lacked these good things.

But real bagels are not easy to find in the Galilee, so my husband Ron, the intrepid baker, has learned to make them himself – the real way – without skipping the boiling water immersion. His bagels are excellent.

My friend Balkees from Nazareth, who is an extremely accomplished baker, was very interested when Ron told her about his bagels, so one morning she came to our house and they prepared them together, step by step.

Ron's Bagels

The next time I visited Balkees, she proudly displayed her own freshly-baked bagels. Everything that Balkees prepares, she adds her own little twist, and these bagels were no exception. Into the dough she added zaatar spice mixture – giving the bagels a slight green color and a wonderful, local flavor. So this year, at Yom Kippur, we feasted on one bowl of regular onion bagels, and one with zaatar.

Happy New Year!

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.