Israel’s Autumn Harvest Foods
With the end of the High Holidays, autumn is in full swing here in Israel. Everyone feels it — from produce lovers, like myself, bidding goodbye to the delectable sweetness of the summer’s watermelons and mangoes, to the country’s farmers harvesting this season’s new delights and preparing for the coming rains.
You don’t need to pay attention to the weather to figure out that autumn is upon is; all you need to do is look out the car window.
Enormous date palms, lining the streets and highways of the country, have grown heavy with ripening dates, their fronds sagging under the weight of the bright red, golden, and tan fruit. Dates are eaten both fresh, when they are crunchy and smooth, or dried, when they are enjoyed soft, sticky, and sweet as candy.
The olive harvest is beginning, with everyone from small-time olive curers (like myself) climbing up these gorgeous, shimmering trees and shaking them till they drop their fruit, to full-on professionals utilizing time-saving mechanized gadgets to reap the harvest. The olives start out green, and as the season progresses they change to a riper purple and finally, towards winter, become plump and black. It’s not unusual to find clusters of squashed olives on sidewalks throughout the country; while they look as tasty as the morsels you find in a grocery store, don’t be fooled — they are incredibly bitter and inedible prior to curing.
Pomegranates are also well into their season, with the beautifully colored and decorative fruits available in grocery stores, at juice counters where they are cut with lemon, apple, or other fruits to make fresh juice, or (if you’re lucky enough to find one that hasn’t been snatched up) hanging gracefully on the boughs of their lovely, petite trees.
Cotton is blooming, with fields towards the middle of the country appearing likes seas of rolling fluffy clouds. Cotton farmers will soon be rushing to finish their harvest before the rains come and ruin the cotton.
The sweet and sour flavors of lemons, oranges, grapefruits, and kumquats are upon us, and the transition from the last of the summer’s harvest to fall and then winter will be complete when these citrus fruits fill the bins of the shuks. We’ll also see (and smell!) the arrival of guavas in the upcoming weeks. While it’s possible to buy some produce out of season in Israel, most Israelis stick to the seasonal, and for a practical reason — it’s cheapest. Anything out of season is imported and thus pricey.
In addition to harvesting, farmers are preparing for the rains to come. We’ve already had some showers, and the rain will pick up as the autumn turns to winter. Farmers hoping to get an early start on planting will be using temporary irrigation techniques (sprinklers mostly) to ensure the plants are getting enough water until the full-on rainy season arrives. Crops being planted include cold weather varieties like beets, lettuces, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, arugula and, my favorite, strawberries.
There is always an air of excitement around rain here. When the sky finally opens up for the first time after months and months of heat and dryness, it truly does feel like miracle. Jews and Muslims alike pray for a good year with lots of rain. Generally, this is considered about 600 mm, though last year was even better, finishing with a whopping 700 mm of rain. While we really have no way of knowing what this year will bring us, some people say the secret is in the hatzav, a bulb plant that shoots up all over the country at the start of autumn and is covered in tiny white flowers. If they grow tall, we’ll get a lot of rain; if they are furry, we’re in for a cold winter.
I’m still trying to figure out how to read their signs, but they look pretty tall to me and not very furry. But perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.
Cindy Katz recently moved from Brooklyn to Israel. Her husband, Gili, works for an organic farm.