Timeless

Living in the Galilee, I am occasionally gifted with transcendent moments of timelessness – where the landscape and the scene that unfolds within it have more to do with thousands of years of history, than the blink of an eye of the latest decades.

At least once a summer, together with Balkees and Muhammad, Ron and I visit friends at their agricultural field not far from Nazareth.  Their plot is small – just a few acres – planted with tomatoes, okra, fakus, zucchini and black eyed peas – a few rows of each.  We arrive at twilight, after the crushing summer heat – when the various family members are at work, trolling the rows with pails, gathering the ripe produce.

We always help with the work, and each of us sets off, pail in hand, guided by some internal compass to his or her own row.  Again, here is the soft orange light and the distant muted hills, the crumbling dirt and rustle of leaves nudged aside to unveil fakus, dark green and hairy – different and the same, every summer.

The produce in this field is grown “baal” – without any irrigation.  The varieties are adapted for this type of growth, and the owner of the field saves the seeds from season to season.  This is the way this land was farmed since the dawn of agriculture, and our friends are among the last of the local farmers who are still perpetuating it.

And as the sun slips behind the horizon, I wonder if we’ll meet again next year, to participate in this backbreaking labor that, by contemporary standards,  yields so little.  The tomatoes I bring home have flavor that sears the palate, and the fakus are crunchy cool delights.

****

PeaceXPeace – an organization that promotes peacebuilding between women around the world, published a piece about my book and work.  If you’re curious, here’s the link:

Breaking Bread in Galilee – Food as a Bridge Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide

A Meal With What You Have

I believe there is an art to creating a satisfying meal out of what you have in the larder.   The other day, I was fortunate enough to be at my friend and culinary muse, Balkees’s home at lunch time, when she was doing just that.

So what is in Balkees’s kitchen on an early summer day? Eggs. Greens.  Lots of pale green zucchinis, which she sliced into rounds and browned in olive oil (produced from the family olive trees).  Home-made tomato sauce she prepared with the season’s first fresh tomatoes.  Fresh leben (yoghurt) made of goat and sheep milk delivered to her door by a local milkman.  Home-cured olives and pickles from the pantry.

There is a name in Arabic for this kind of meal, Balkees explained to me.  Hawader – drawing from the Arabic word for “what is there”.  For this hawader, she prepared a pile of omelets thick with chopped parsley, mint, onion, garlic, dried coriander and sweet marjoram.  Some of the fried zucchini was put on a plate and mashed with leben and garlic.  A salad of thinly chopped lettuce, onion and chopped tomato and heated pita bread rounded out the meal.

The extra ingredient, of course, that permeates the entire meal, is the loving care she invests in every meal – festive or hawader – for her family to enjoy.  How fortunate I am to be included among them.

PS – If you haven’t already seen it, please have a look at the review of my book, Breaking Bread in Galilee recently published in the Jewish Forward.

http://blogs.forward.com/the-jew-and-the-carrot/157284/tales-of-breaking-bread-in-the-galilee

I’ll Have Mine Baladi

For those who are interested in fresh local produce, “baladi” is the term for vegetables that are not raised industrially in greenhouses, but are grown in the old, traditional way.  The word comes from “balad” which in Arabic means village.  Baladi vegetables can usually be found in the produce markets in Arab villages and are valued for the intensity of their flavor.

My good friend Balkees from Nazareth is growing her own baladi vegetables this summer on a plot of land outside the city and I joined her yesterday in the late afternoon to go do some weeding and picking.  The okra was still tiny and there was very little to pick, but there was a profusion of zucchini to be harvested – particularly since Balkees likes to pick them when they are still only the length of a finger.  This is the perfect size for making stuffed zucchini – so that they can be piled up into a pot together with stuffed grape leaves – for a favorite summer meal.

What is amazing about these baladi vegetables is not only that they are not sprayed or fertilized, but that they are grown entirely without watering. 

   how the leaves collect dew

Balkees explained that they get their water from the dew, and showed me how the leaves are specially shaped to maximize the collection of every drop of moisture. 

I’m going to prepare my baladi zucchini tonight using another technique Balkees taught me – to slice them and sautee them in plenty of olive oil until they get brown – then drizzle a mixture of garlic and lemon juice on top.  I can’t wait!

 

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.