These past weeks I’ve been feeling too disheartened to write, but the outings I had yesterday and today, investigating places for my culinary tours, did much to lift my spirits. I started Thursday morning at Lavona Grove, on an exceptionally beautiful slope overlooking the Sea of Galilee. That morning, missiles from Lebanon had hit sites in the north, and my heart sunk to my feet at the prospect of the war spreading to a northern front. But I decided to stick to my plan, and head north to the Sea of Galilee to a site I’d been wanting to investigate. Two brothers – farmers from a nearby moshav – converted a piece of land between their mango and olive orchards too rocky and steep to cultivate, into a grove of exotic fruit trees grown from seedlings which they collected around the world. The older brother, Shimon, believes the trees thrive there because of the salubrious climate and the fact that this land was never used for agriculture. In fact, there was an astonishing variety of trees and fruit and I could only marvel at the ingenuity and creativity of nature.
Shimon leads tours of the grove, tasting whatever fruit happens to be in season. I sampled some small brown berries that reminded me of banana, something white and cottony that was very sweet, and other things which I don’t remember (negligently not taking notes…). At the end of his tours, some kind of snack or meal is served – Shimon is, from what I have gathered, a very talented chef and caterer. He gave me a bottle of olive oil seasoned with Persian zaatar and one of vinegar infused with raspberries – both made by him from fruits of the grove. The place is an oasis of beauty, tranquility and sensory delight and I can’t wait to bring guests there.
A half hour drive took me to the Bedouin village of Husaniya where I met with Zahiya and Fawzia Suaid. They are young women in their late thirties – sisters-in-law and neighbors – who have started a business leading edible wild plant picking tours. They were written up in the weekend section of one of the newspapers and I wanted to meet them to see if I could work with them for my tours, and to talk to them about the growing interest among the Jewish Israeli public in this aspect of Arab home cooking.
Zahiya is animated and dynamic and we talk about the challenges of starting a new business. I mention the unfortunate timing – just when there is such a deep economic crisis. “But that’s not a problem at all” Fawzia interjects. “When people don’t have money, then it’s the perfect time to go pick wild plants.” Both Zahiya and Fawzia talk about how important it is to them to maintain the traditional foodways they were brought up with. Outside in the valley, now green after the winter rains, a shepherd herds his flock of sheep and I hope I can return to this pastoral setting to pick and cook with these lovely and modestly ambitious women.
Today, Friday, a group of friends, Ron and I went to Acco – that beautiful, Crusader port town – for a cooking tour with a local guide named Abdu Matta. Abdu is a 10th generation Acco resident – and a colorful, ebullient and very knowledgeable fellow. We met him first thing in the morning and he escorted us through the narrow stone streets to his parents’ home – a 400-year-old structure with an inner courtyard.
In the small kitchen, his step-mother – a warm, diminutive and energetic woman – prepared with us a typical Acco Arab meal – vegetarian this time. We chopped hubeisa (mallow) and ellet (chicory) – local wild greens – and sautéed them with plenty of onion and olive oil. Then we made soup with orange lentils and bulgur dish cooked in a tomato base.
While the food was cooking Abdu took us out to the old market of Acco which is one of the most colorful and exciting markets in Israel. We bought spices and friki (roasted green wheat), wonderful hard biscuits with anise seed that I love with my tea, katayif pancakes, and fresh vegetables for Friday night dinner. Everyone greets Abdu and walking in the market with him, you almost feel like a local yourself. He took us to an ancient-looking bakery where the old baker slid fresh pita slathered with zaatar and olive oil into an enormous wood-burning oven, then pulled them out and served them to us – indescribably delicious.
Back at the house, the table was set and we dug into the soup, scooping up the greens with pita. We finished with tea and the special cake made of farina wheat soaked in syrup called harisa. Afterwards, one of the group commented on how comfortable and at ease she felt with Abdu and his family, and I was reminded yet again how cooking together bridges gaps – age, culture, religion. How badly we need this kind of activity in these awful times.