It’s tomato season and all of a sudden these quintessential summer fruits have taken center stage. First, through Slow Food Movement connections, I recently had the good fortune to meet Roberta – a lovely US ex-pat who gave up city life to live on a farm in the Po Valley, learn Italian cooking and raise heirloom tomatoes. In Israel for a social event, she was taking advantage of the time to check out the cutting edge in tomato cultivation, meeting with agricultural researchers and growers.
I told her about my own angle of interest – trying to find farmers who are still practicing ancient foodways – and in this case, growing vegetables in the summer without watering. In the Hebrew Bible, the promised land is described to the Israelites as a place where, unlike in Egypt where the fields were “irrigated by foot as in a vegetable garden” (Deuteronomy 11:10) – that is, drawing water from the Nile – there, they would find a “land of mountains and valleys that drinks water from heaven”.
In fact, the climate and topography in the Galilee are such that agriculture can be practiced with water coming only from rains and morning dew. For millennia, grain and legumes were grown in the winter and vegetables and fruits in the summer, in this way. These days, pumped water reaches the vast majority of agricultural land. Yet here and there are pockets of land that are still being cultivated without external irrigation.
One such plot of farmland belongs to friends – a family of “fellaheen” who are practicing the type of farming they know from previous generations – and among the few Arab farmers left in the Galilee for whom traditional agriculture is their sole livelihood. And these days, those fields are producing tomatoes – glowing green and red and folding over and into themselves – each a delightful sculpture.
Balkees, my friend and partner in food exploration, explained to me that in Arabic, crops that are grown with only the water from the rains and dew are called “baal”. This is not to be confused with “baladi” – which refers to vegetables that are raised traditionally – without the benefit of new varieties and greenhouse growing conditions. Baladi vegetables can be found in most Arab produce markets – the “baal” tomatoes are rare indeed.