Tu Bishvat and food for free: Meet the foragers of Israel's countryside

Get introduced to all the gastronomic and curative treasures that grow freely and happily all over the place in Israel's countryside.

 YARON SHERMAN is an acclaimed forager and educator. (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
YARON SHERMAN is an acclaimed forager and educator.
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)

Yes, folks, it’s that time of the year – Tu Bishvat! We’ve had the odd bit of precipitation – actually, disturbingly little thus far – and the flowers are sprouting and blooming all over the show.

In my own environs of delightful Moshav Mata in the Jerusalem Hills, anemones and cyclamen abound, along with dandelions and even some mustard flowers, to mention but a few of the flora that currently festoon the locale.

However, the most joyful, majestic sight out in the country – there are some in the city, too – is the proliferation of blossoming perfumed almond trees.

Yaron Sherman and the natural bounty of food growing freely in Israel

All the above make for a balm for sore eyes, but there is plenty more to be had from a traipse around the bucolic block. Ask Yaron Sherman, and he’ll introduce you to all the gastronomic and curative treasures that grow freely and happily all over the place – that is, as long as some construction site doesn’t sprout from nowhere and summarily obliterate some of Mother Nature’s gifts.

For close to two decades now, Sherman has been communing with nature and advising others about the flavorful and well-being-inducing resources on offer. Starting out in a very different professional walk of life, as a twentysomething he did an about-turn from his business management and communication studies and headed for the great outdoors and the wisdom and benefits to be had, freely and joyously, should we so desire.

 DAVIDI STEIN enlightens the public about gastronomic possibilities on their own doorstep. (credit: ILANA STEIN) DAVIDI STEIN enlightens the public about gastronomic possibilities on their own doorstep. (credit: ILANA STEIN)

And this is not a matter of – to quote one of my predominantly hapless high school teachers – “do what I say, not what I do.” We start off from Sherman’s own back garden. At first glance, it appears to be a bit of a ramshackle affair of stems, leaves and the odd bud. A little guidance helped to put things in edible order.

“Jerusalem sage, some oxalis. And here is the really intense area – loads of lettuces. That Salanova lettuce – really tasty. And there’s spinach, loads of spring onions, and a bit of kohlrabi, and some leek.”

Yaron Sherman

“Jerusalem sage, some oxalis,” he says, pointing to one corner. “And here is the really intense area – loads of lettuces. That Salanova lettuce – really tasty. And there’s spinach, loads of spring onions, and a bit of kohlrabi, and some leek.”

Now we get our first practical info. “If you eat leek, cut off one of the roots, stick it in the ground and, hey presto, you get some more growing.”

Sounds simple and fundamentally wholesome. There’s more to the Sherman holding.

“Here’s garlic, lots of garden rocket, dill, and here I planted snow peas by the fence. Hopefully, they’ll grow and climb up,” Sherman says. “Here there are strawberries, and there is wormwood, sage and rosemary,” he adds, reeling off a bunch of culinary herbs, good for seasoning and for tea.

And that’s even before we stray a mere dozen or so steps just beyond the moshav fence, to the hill between Mata and the neighboring moshav of Bar Giora, traversed by a stretch of the Israel National Trail.

At this time of year, the hill – affectionately known in Hebrew in these parts as hagiv’a – is awash with flowers and blossoms. The polychromic seasonal pageant is well underway, with velvety blood-red anemones, white, pale pink and purple cyclamen, pale yellow mustard flowers, and white and pink blossoming almond trees taking over the landscape and infusing the air with intoxicating perfume.

Later there will be poppies, with sumptuous purple-blue lupines bringing up the sequential rear sometime between Purim and Passover.

This really is the time to get out of town and catch some of the burgeoning floral show in the glorious act. But it is not just about aesthetics. If you happen to take one of Sherman’s food gathering, or foraging, guided walks, you won’t go home empty-handed. It is more than likely that you will return with some tasty ingredients for your next nutritious meal.

There is also the simple joy of picking edibles with your own hands, knowing it is all as fresh as can possibly be, with the added not inconsiderable ecological bonus that it hasn’t been carted great gas-guzzling distances to your local supermarket, refrigerated several times, and doesn’t involve any non-biodegradable packaging materials. What could be better?

We leave Sherman’s garden and step out to hagiv’a, a place I have walked on numerous occasions over the years, around the seasons. Naturally, most of the time the ground is dry and brown, there is precious little grass, and there are just a few low bushes and cacti that imbue any sense of freshness or vibrancy to the area.

In fact, there are edibles available for picking through the summer, too – predominantly fruit. But right now, according to Sherman, we can feast our bellies as well as our eyes on practically all that lies before us, very close to home. “We are entering a field which, basically, is almost completely full of food.”

Really? Besides the splendiferous array of flora, we can actually eat the stuff sprouting unfettered from the soil?

“When people come for a series of food gathering sessions through the year, or only for a one-off, I try to convey to them the feeling that nature is like a home for us,” Sherman says. “We generally relate to nature as something that is separate from us.” Good point.

“Look! Here we have wild legumes. If you come back in the spring, you’ll have lots of them. They look like green beans with pods,” Sherman explains, as we catch sight of some early developers. “You can eat the top part of this,” he advises, as he picks up a diminutive bean-like pod. I take a bite and find it to be a delight to my taste buds.

Sherman points to the fennel proliferating across the slope of the hill. “This is so tasty, and it contains a lot of omega-3 and antioxidants.” The former is said to help offset cognitive decay resulting from aging, and there is a range of other health benefits in areas such as kidney disease and high blood pressure.

“Fennel is good for the digestive system, and you can make tea with it, which is good for flatulence,” I learn. And a word for young mothers. “Fennel seeds also help to produce breast milk,” Sherman says. Perhaps hospital maternity centers should consider cultivating the plant in their flowerbeds.

Nature is very much a matter of checks and balances, with the various players often complementing and supporting each other.

“There is a diverse range of plants here that work together and protect each other,” notes Sherman. “Vetch [a herbaceous plant from the pea family], for example, have bulbs that capture nitrogen from the atmosphere. That means that not only can it benefit from that, like fertilizer, [but] the surrounding plants can also use it.” Sounds like a prototype for a good, healthy mutually beneficial lifestyle. “It is really a community,” says Sherman.

That doesn’t just go for plant life. “There are mushrooms, and there is the mole rat,” he says, waving an arm in the direction of mounds of fresh-looking earth. “There is a whole subterranean system of tunnels here. The mole rat eats the roots, but it also aerates the earth. Roots need oxygen.”

Sherman caters to all sorts. “People come for a whole course or just turn up when they can. I get employees of hi-tech companies, families on a fun day out, and sometimes groups with a more professional interest, like community garden people from Jerusalem.”

“People come for a whole course or just turn up when they can. I get employees of hi-tech companies, families on a fun day out, and sometimes groups with a more professional interest, like community garden people from Jerusalem.”

Yaron Sherman

City dwellers might well say that’s all well and good, but what do you do if you live on the 28th floor of one of Jerusalem’s new high-rises or in a cramped apartment with just about enough room for a solitary window box?

Getting out of the house would be one way to set the more natural mindset wheels in motion. If you don’t have the means to head for the environs of the Eila Valley, all of half an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, or some other rural spot, popping along to your local park or community garden would not be a bad idea.

Ilana and Davidi Stein: Spreading the foraging word near Jerusalem, growing your own food

MEANWHILE, OVER in the city itself – actually, the rural margins thereof – Ilana and Davidi Stein also engage in spreading the foraging word and grow much of their own food.

It was a little difficult to find their old stonework house on the nether slopes of Ein Kerem, but it proved to be well worth the effort. Quite a few Jerusalemites and people from farther out may be familiar with the “A Year in the Garden” calendar created by Ilana. It is a charming wall hanging artifact packed with information and tips about cultivating flowers, herbs and other plants year-round, as well as noting all sorts of nature-related events with which we may not be familiar. January 5, for example, was Bird Day, followed five days later by House Plant Day.

There is also a similarly designed diary with an abundance of delightful aesthetic adornments and tastily crafted season-tailored images. This week has fetching sketches of a chard leaf, garden rocket, broccoli and lettuce, with some concise advice on how to go about picking and regrowing them. The diary has proven to be a handy and fun office accessory over the years.

As a qualified graphic artist and graduate of the Visual Communication Department over at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Ilana has the requisite accrued skills to produce the merchandise. Meanwhile, Davidi puts his experience in the field to good use by offering foraging walks.

The Steins’ terraced garden is a riot of verdant hues and shapes. I learned to identify milk thistle and how to trim off the spiky periphery before eating the lettuce-flavored vegetable. Then there is the lovely yellow oxalis flower, which abounds at this time of the year and offers a tangy snack.

The Steins got into plant-based catering after an extended sojourn in India and Nepal.

“That’s when we started growing food,” says Ilana. “We were young, and we had time on our hands,” she says with a laugh. “All day long we’d take dips in springs and engage in food – talking about it, planning and preparing it.”

Over the years, growing food became a passion and a source of income. It also helped the Steins bond with nature.

“I call it connecting with time, with the season,” Ilana corrects me. “When people ask me what I do, I say, ‘Anything to do with the season.’ Nature is something really big, but the season is about what is happening right now.”

I get her point. I am amazed and dismayed when I see fruit for sale way beyond its natural sell-by date. You can find watermelons, grapes and plums deep into the winter. That is nothing short of madness and counterproductive. Mother Nature provides us with fruit that is suited to the present climatic situation and what our bodies truly need at the time of the year.

We may think we can outmaneuver nature by hi-tech tweaking and genetic engineering shenanigans, but upsetting the natural order of the world is always going to have repercussions for all. If we haven’t learned that from the past two or three years, perhaps we never will.

Ilana would like to spread the good nature word as far and as wide as possible and says we could all do with embracing what’s out there, learning about it and, ultimately, opening our hearts, eyes and mouths to the gifts that surround us. 

“When I feel more connected, I can go out into a field and I’ll know what I can eat, what can heal me, and what is poisonous, that I should steer clear of. I go out into a field and I feel like I am meeting my friends,” she says.

We could all gain from aspiring to such a heartwarming notion, which also offers mundane, cost-cutting and actual existential rewards.

I asked Ilana if she thought the lockdown era helped to draw us closer to our natural environs.

“I think so,” she concurs. “It also highlighted the issue of food security.”

The United Nations Committee on World Food Security defines that as ensuring that all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

“It was hard to get out of the country, and not much could get in. When you are closed in, you understand how important it is for your food to come from here.”

That, she says, is a beneficial all-rounder. “That is clearly good in terms of the ecology, but also for food security. There were shortages. People were very stressed. They didn’t know how they were going to manage the basics.”

Not so in Ein Kerem. “That was one of the best times of my life,” she says. “I felt, here I am living outside [town], it’s March, and there is an abundance of everything. I have seeds I can use to feed a whole city. I wasn’t worried.”

That’s a major part of the message she wants to disseminate to all and sundry. “It is painful for me when I see destruction, when I see green spaces shrinking, natural habitats suffering. I really take that personally.”

She says people around her get that. “We have a community garden in Ein Kerem, for which I am responsible, and we start foraging walks from there. People from here understand the nature-communing idea. I would like more people to understand that and to connect.”

You don’t necessarily have to get your hands dirty from the start. That ecological and personal wholesome approach can also be engendered and nurtured by moseying over to rustic environs near town, such as Britain Park or United States Independence Park, taking a walk along the Springs Path that runs from Khirbet Saadim near Yad Kennedy in the direction of Moshav Even Sapir, just down the road from Hadassah Medical Center. The Ein Lavan spring near the Biblical Zoo is also a lovely spot. Or, if your time and resources are more limited, a stroll through Sacher Park with its green expanses and rich variety of vegetation should do the trick. And, you never know, you might even go home with a tasty tidbit or two. ❖

For more information: Ilana Stein, https://www.shanabagina.com/english; Yaron Sherman, http://halakatim.co.il/annual-course/ and halakatim@gmail.com