Well, it is indeed winter here in the Holy Land. The warming lights of Hannukah have passed us by, and the days are still feeling short. Temperatures in the Tel Aviv area usually fall between 10C and 22C (50F-72F), while folks in the Jerusalem area suffer a bit more with temperatures getting as low as 0C (32F). Perhaps this seems laughable to folks in colder regions of North America, but keep in mind that our homes are not equipped for the cold, with most everyone depending on space heaters or dual heating/cooling air conditioner units. Luckily, Israelis are a warm and open people and are perfectly comfortable snuggling up with one another during these cold months. We all get by.
Yet winter is a time of growth and renewal in Israel. Winter satiates the earth’s thirst with its rains, and with that comes a blanket of green that envelops the land. As it has for thousands of years, the land continues to feed and nourish its inhabitants despite the temperature shifts. Fall and early winter offerings, fruits like guavas and persimmons, and nuts like walnuts and pecans, are nearing the end of their time, while the citrus trees continue to bless the land with their beauty and their tasty fruits. A quick drive through any residential area will reveal a multitude of lemon, orange, clementine, pomello, kumquat, and limequat (a key-lime and kumquat hybrid) trees, lovely and heavy with fruit. Meanwhile, closer to the earth grow the brassicas, one of nature’s nutritional monarchs, packed full of fiber and anti-cancer compounds. Broccoli, turnips, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, kale, and mustards all fit into this category and thrive during Israel’s colder, wetter months. Not to be forgotten, spinach, beets, carrots, and peas are also flourishing these days.
As tasty as all these veggies are, I don’t think I am alone in my excitement over the arrival of the strawberries. Fat, juicy and deep red, you can pick up a box freshly picked from the fields on the side of the road, where the vendors set up small “strawberry shacks.” Choose between big ones and smaller ones, and sample the different kinds- perhaps you prefer the sweetest variety, or maybe you’d rather a taste that is a bit more sour. If you are really lucky and live near one of the fields themselves, you’ll relish the delicious, fresh early morning strawberry aroma, rolling off the plants and reminding everyone in its path that life is, in fact, pretty damn wonderful.
Because winter means rain, and rain means growth, winter also brings with it an increase in wild growing plants. All over the country you can spot the edible great-great grandparents of some of our favorite, and most trusted, domesticated plants-from wild oats to wild wheat, carrots, and green onions. Wild growing mallows, including hubeza, an ancient plant that is a staple in the region’s indigenous cuisine and is now a favorite at many seasonal restaurants, are also growing strong these days. The earliest flowers are beginning to show- beauties like the beloved calanit (poppy) and wild calendula are first to the scene, while Israel’s national flower, the delicate roqefit (cyclamen) will begin to show in two or three weeks, along with the always welcome daisy.
Farmers in Israel are taking it a bit easy these days, mostly busying themselves with weeding and organizing equipment as they gear up for spring. Because the fields are muddy and thus vulnerable to becoming overly compacted, farmers avoid walking through them when possible. Folks with greenhouses will begin planting seedlings soon, while anyone looking to take any cuttings should be getting busy, as it is the perfect time to make them. For now, we are all enjoying the calming sounds of the rain when it comes and the rejuvenation that results from bundling up snug at home. With the very first of the spring flowers beginning to pop up and with Tu B’Shevat just around the corner, soon enough life will begin to stir with more and more signs of spring.
Special thanks to Nadav Solowey of Eco-Israel on the Hava and Adam Farm for his expertise.
Cindy Katz is an ex-New Yorker living in Ra’anana, Israel. She likes to write about what she eats and where she goes in Israel, and she also coordinates a women’s program for Darfuri refugees in south Tel Aviv.