The Farm Kitchen 2: Baking, Sundrying & Syrups

We continue in the kitchen with some delicious bread, spices and desserts all home-made from the family’s cultivated and wild-harvested crops.

The winter here is field crop season. This family makes about a dozen large burlap sacks of wheat annually which is used for whole wheat flour to make bread. The bread is always mixed with white flour which they have to buy from elsewhere.

Bread made with Local “Baladi” flour

Another use for the brown flour is  Maftoul, which is like a large, firmer couscous. The first step is to roll the whole wheat flour with water until it makes small balls. Then these small balls are dried in the sun. When they are done, they are again rolled with flour and water until they are fairly large.

Maftoul drying in the sun

There is a bowl of flour to her side that she is adding bit by bit to the mixing bowl. In front of her she has removed the largest pieces that are the correct size.

Onions in oil are added to the middle of the mixture and the whole thing is steamed.

When you’re rolling the maftoul, sometimes you get a large ball of dough. this dough is actually used to create a seal between the steamer and the pot of boiling water.

After about half an hour, you remove the maftoul from the steam and let it sit. You break up any clumps and sprinkle olive oil on top, presumably to keep them from sticking together.

This final mixture is then dried in the sun one more time. It’s a lot of work but handmade maftoul is really incredibly delicious. It has a delicious wheaty flavor with a hint of pepperiness from the olive oil and a quite firm texture. Because of the double rolling and sundrying, the core is very firm and prevents it from getting soggy like couscous.

Wild sage to be dried

Sundrying is ubiquitous (as there is obviously a lot of sun). Here they sundry the maftoul, zaatar (oregano), mouloukhia (a leafy green with no English name), figs (teen), tomatoes, wild sage for tea and more.

Recently dried wild summer Zaatar (Winter Zaatar is more prolific)

Tamarind (tamar hindi) and carob (kharoob) are gathered and made into molasses or syrup. The tamarind is diluted to make a really delicious juice. The carob molasses is used to make a pudding by adding starch and water and then stirring constantly over heat. They make about 20 liters of concentrated carob syrup every year.  Apparently the carob is one of the more difficult things to harvest. The tree drops a very thick layer of leaves on the ground which means you don’t know what you could be stepping on…

Raw Carob Pods & Carob Molasses

Carob (Kharoob) Pudding


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The Farm Kitchen 1: Pickling

The olive harvest is now officially finished. The temperature is slowly dropping. So let’s head inside and see the other half of the farm work, the most delicious half.

During and after the olive harvest, the family makes rseea, which we call either pickled or table olives. The pickling is actually a very time-consuming process. First you must sort through the olives for ones that are large, green and unblemished.

Sometimes we pick them out in the field when we find a tree with large delicious olives. Otherwise we keep the green olives in a separate bag from the black and sort through the green olives at home. Once you have your olives, you have to make 3 slits in every single olive.

You soak them in water overnight which washes them and removes the yucky liquids in the olives.

You can see what must be soaked out by looking at the gunk that accumulates on your fingers as you’re cutting the olives.

Then the next day you replace the water, add salt, lemon and citric acid. Here they use old soda bottles to put the olives in.

Some of them are sold to urban Palestinian families inside the West Bank and also within the Green Line. The rest are for us to eat!

Ready to eat!

Of course they pickle other things. Their vegetables are usually grown in the winter. Then they pickle cucumbers, cabbage, peppers and even baby eggplants!

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Dust Storm, Flat Tires & One Lonely Olive Tree

Yesterday some very strange weather started. They call it “sharqee” which means Eastern. In sharqee, the wind blows in from the East where it is dry dusty and arid. Along with it comes a white dust that floats in the air like fog.

It is quite a strange feeling because everything is grey but the sun is still burning hot. The wind is also quite hot. They say this only happens once a year and everyone seems to despise this weather.

We have finished all but one single tree. We almost finished yesterday but before we knew it the sun came down. On our way out of the dirt road into the fields and onto the rocky road into town, we popped a tire.

We ended up creating quite a traffic jam for such an unpaved road. One car stopped behind us to help. They lent us a tire that we put on. Then, in the struggle to get up the hill with a deflated tire, we killed the battery so of course we needed a jump.

It was very dark by the time we got home. The new tire was totally mangled and twisted from the drive.

Since that one last tree is about 4km away, we cannot go harvest the olives until the car is fixed.
Instead this morning we went to the two last trees that are located inside the town. These trees are very ancient (possibly Roman) and by now the town has expanded to surround these trees with houses and roads.

Ancient trees have thick gnarly trunks. We don't know exactly how old this one is but it might be from the Roman Empire

Being next to the roads is not a plus because the cars fling dust all over the trees and they end up with a white layer on top of the leaves and branches. We used face masks so as not to inhale all this dust.

The trees are really productive and even in an off year, each one produced a ‘kees’ (burlap sack) full of olives.

One Tree, One Kees

They needed some serious pruning. We ended up with two massive piles of branches. Of course the children take this opportunity to play in the piles.
Next I’ll be letting you know about the agricultural work at happens not in the farm but in the home. Let the mouth-watering begin!

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Creature Comforts

Olive season is drawing to a close. Thursday is the start of the weekend (Friday is the Muslim holy day as well as special celebration today) and everyone came home from school early. There was even a special lunch of ‘pizza’, Palestinian style.

pizza pre-cheese, pre-oven

post-cheese, post-oven

Today a laptop and a USB internet stick came with us to the field. On Skype, the sons living abroad got to see their relatives hanging out in the fields picking olives. Quite an interesting intersection of the traditional and the novel.

We all got a reminder today that you cannot be careless climbing trees. One of us was jumping from branch to branch and one snapped. He and the branch all came tumbling down. Everyone is OK, except for the branch.

There are other hazards to olive picking that I prefer not to think about. Most of the threats come from wild animals including snakes, scorpions (which I especially don’t want to think about, and wild boars. One farmer said that one winter he was in his olive fields and was charged by a wild boar. They managed to scare the thing off but not until after a standoff.

There are lots of interesting creatures around. One day we found a beautiful tortoise (qurqa) crawling amongst the rocks.

I love the praying mantises that are fairly abundant. There are all kinds of them, or at least things that look like them. This one happened to get crushed in this pile of olives.

There are beautiful snail shells on the ground virtually everywhere, though I have never seen a live one.

Chameleons are fairly common. Today one even jumped on the youngest member of the clan. The 7 year old was mildly traumatized by the experience. The chameleons are very fast and difficult to spot. Getting a good picture of them is almost impossible.

One day we saw a huge locust. Inshallah it will be the only one!

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How Olive Oil is Made

It was very hot this morning, as it often is in the morning. As early as 2pm a comfortable temperature settles in for the rest of the evening. Then as the sun goes down it suddenly gets quite cool. Even as the sun goes behind clouds, it suddenly feels much less hot. In October we start to see some cooler days and some clouds threatening rain, though there has been no rain so far.

You might be wondering what happens to the olives once they are harvested. The large, unblemished green olives get selected for pickling (‘rseea’ is the word for pickled olives). We’ll come back to the rseea at another time.

The rest of the olives are for delicious olive oil. Each village has an olive press (mazarat a zeytoon). The owner of the olive press will deploy a truck to your home to pick up the sacks of olives. Then they are taken to the press and set on palates as each farmer waits his turn for his oil to be made.

The scene in the olive press is interesting. The room is full of men and boys just hanging out and the air is smoky, though it is unclear whether this is from the machines or cigarettes.

When it is your turn, your keess (bags) of olives are emptied into a whole with a grate on top. The grate takes out any large debris (which is good because I think I accidentally dropped a moshot (small rake) in one of the keess… oops!). Then from the bottom they are lifted out on an inclined conveyor belt.

At the top, they are passed through a strong fan (shafaat) which blows out any leaves and such. The olives are then washed in a vibrating conveyor belt filled with water.

After washing, the olives are sent through a pipe to be ground up. The machine grinds up everything, the flesh, the skins, the pits, the stems etc.

Next they are sent through a horizontal turbine which spins out all the solid matter. 

You see a sludgy brown mess  coming out of it that is called ‘jifit’. Remeber the jifit, as it will return in a minute.

Then the liquid is sent through a tube to a centrifuge (forazi) which separates the heavy oil from the lighter water and other stuff. The other stuff is sent down a drain, while the delicious new oil is sent out the other side to be put in bottles.

If you put your face near the fresh oil the smell is incredible. The taste is delicious too! Olive oil changes taste as it ages. You can tell a brand new oil because it is green and quite cloudy. The taste is very peppery with an almost sour aftertaste.
Finally the oil is weighed, the farmer pays the owner of the press by weight and home it comes. 

On our first trip (there will be several over the course of the season we came in with 15-20 bags of olives and left with 140 kilos (~ 170 liters) of oil. I will try to get the total amount of oil we produce in the season.
As you leave the olive press you see a giant mountain of jifit (the leftover solid matter from the olives) and a bed of leaves.

The jifit is actually a very useful item that is used to heat homes in the winter and is the main fuel for the clay ovens (taboon) people use to make bread. It burns very slowly and quite hot and is very well suited for both uses!

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The Tools (a’adee)

After a week on the steep, rocky land mentioned in the previous post, we are now on another plot of land 3-4km (~2 mi) away from the town. The land is very flat so there is no climbing up and down hills of rocks and sand. It’s much easier to harvest the olives and go from tree to tree. It makes the process go much more quickly. The trees were all planted in 2003 and thus are fairly small. This means less climbing trees and ladders. Also the soil here is very good so many trees produce some enormous olives.

The land named ‘Khalet Ahmad’

Fun Fact- all the plots of land have names. The first one I mentioned was named “saba al khair” which means “good morning”. Why? I’m not sure. This one is named Khaled Ahmad.

That being said, before you leave for the fields you must make sure you have everything you need. Here is a short list of the various things…

THE TOOLS (a’adee)

“MShama” = Tarps/Cloths- often set under the tree to cover the ground underneath the breadth of the tree’s branches. when the tree is olive free, these can be rolled up and simply dumped into a large bag. I prefer using the mshama.

“Moshot” = Small hand-rake – used to comb the tree to remove olives from the branches. knocks the olives to the floor, so best used with the mshama. Also useful for grabbing higher branches to pull them closer to you. I was wondering if they made these specially for olive harvesting. I saw them for sale in Ramallah, so it appears as if they are…

Farmer equipped with moshot and herjai

“Herjai” = pouch – this handmade pouch is worn around the waist. Can be used to carry a moshot at all times. Also useful for when you are hand-picking olives and when you are not using the mshama, to pick the fallen olives from the ground.

“Asai” = stick – just a big stick. You smack the hell out of some branches to make the olives fall. Should only be used when you cannot reach the olives with a ladder or by climbing the tree. This causes some trauma if not done right and can knock quite a lot of leaves and branches.

“Kees” = big ol’ bag – it’s just a big bag to put olives in but they have a special word for it. We are using synthetic burlap chicken feed bags.

A ladder is definitely a necessity for getting to hard to reach olives

Of course you also need a ladder, a bucket (good for scooping leaves out of an mshama or for gathering them), a lighter (for hot tea and burning excess dry brush to prevent wildfires), lots of water and juice, and a teapot. If you are lucky, you will find some wild sage for

Bucket or ‘sattel’

Sometimes unconventional tools are used…

your tea…

Of course the teapot (bareek shai)

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Harvesting the Olives

Olive harvesting can be a pretty tiring experience but also has many enjoyable moments. The whole family will harvest the olives together and it’s a great time for joking, chatting and enjoying each other’s company. The serious farmer will start harvesting at 6am. Where I am, the father starts around 6 on weekends and the rest of the family joins in around 8 or 9 am. During the week he works in school until mid day, and then goes out to the field. Exams are scheduled before and after the olive season specifically so kids can spend more time in the fields, but sometimes homework keeps the high school and university students at home.
Farmers seem to buy small-ish plots of land here and there, rather than having all their trees in one place. In a week and a half of harvesting, I’ve been to 3 or 4 different parcels of land and there are a few more to go.

One of the younger children collects olives in his toys

Usually one or two people climb up the tree and/or a ladder and start removing olives there. Everyone else picks the olives from branches closest to the ground. The olive tree is pruned to prevent the trees from growing too tall. The other day we harvested from one that was quite tall. I was told that they were continually trying to make this tree grow out, rather than up, “but it just didn’t listen.” Apparently that particular tree has seen some injuries due to its large height.

You move from tree to tree all day, taking frequent breaks for water, rest, food and more. If you are out all day, you will probably bring a sizable picnic. Sometimes, one person stays home to cook in the morning and then joins the rest of the family on the slopes with a hot lunch. As the sun is going down, you wrap everything up and go home and completely relax. Most of the tools get left in the field and only the picnic supplies and the olives are brought back up. (Remember, the town is at the top of the hill and the olive groves are below, so carrying chicken-feed-bags of olives up a steep rocky hill is no easy feat.) Some families use a donkey (h’mar), but this family got rid of theirs because the braying is simply unbearable. It’s really the most horrible sound you will ever hear.

Carrying olives isn’t easy

We carry the bags towards a rocky, sandy, steep and unpaved road, where we parked the car. Frequently the car has major trouble getting back up. Everyone but the driver walks uphill to the paved road (so as not to weigh down the car) and only gets in once the car has cleared the hill. It is quite scary to see the kids trying to throw large stones under the wheels so the car wont slide backwards. The villagers would like to have the road paved but there is no money for it.

Car braves unpaved roads with full olive sacks

At the end of a full day this season, we’ve had about 4 bags (the size of potato sacks) of olives. This obviously depends on how big your family is and therefore how many hands on deck. Where I am, three of the sons live abroad, two work in Ramallah, and one is too young to really help. That leaves them with me, and a son and daughter who are both in the thick of their studies, so their help is part-time. Good thing this is a slow year for olives. Next year will be a bigger harvest, and I have been told that in such times, a single tree can fill two bags and you can come home with 12 or more bags. I’ll have to come back next year to find out…

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