Hiking in the holy land: adding meaning to biblical produce

Living and hiking in Israel, biblical produce takes on a much larger meaning. biblical bounty adorns even the simplest outdoor landscape, bringing pictures of the past into a new light.

 BIBLICAL BOUNTY adorns even the simplest outdoor landscape.  (photo credit: SUSANNAH SCHILD)
BIBLICAL BOUNTY adorns even the simplest outdoor landscape.
(photo credit: SUSANNAH SCHILD)

Biting into a soft fig, I close my eyes to shield them from the sun. It’s hot out here on top of Mount Eitan, in the heat of the Jerusalem summer. And the shade of this wild fig tree is blissful. I open my eyes again to pluck another ripe fig from the dangling branches and split it open. It is red, almost purple on the inside, and exuding a sweet aroma. I take another bite.

Before moving to Israel, before hiking trails like Mount Eitan, I never could have imagined that a fig could taste so delicious. Figs are a fruit that just don’t transfer. Their dried counterparts, available on grocery store shelves around the world, are sometimes tasty, often bug infested, but never anything close to the round, purple and green fruits picked fresh along a trail, right in the middle of long, hard hike. As an avid hiker, I look forward to fig season all year long. At this time of year, I could easily leave my packed breakfast behind and opt instead for a meal of wild figs (and wild grapes, and wild almonds, and raspberries, and some mint thrown in for good measure).

The fig is mentioned so many times in the bible that it’s hard to count. From man’s first encounter with fig leaves in the Garden of Eden (used to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness) to prophetic predictions about a time of peace and prosperity in Zecharia (when every man will once again sit under his own fig tree), the fig is clearly an important fruit in ancient Jewish history. Before the Jews entered the promised land, when the spies were sent into Israel, they brought back clusters of oversized figs, grapes, and pomegranates.

I think the spies must have understood Middle Eastern terrain better than I, who came from a land an ocean away. Despite their fears, they must have known the land was indeed bountiful, flowing with milk and honey. Figs, one of the most luscious and plentiful late summer fruits in Israel, need a lot of water to grow. In fact, along nature trails, one can usually identify a water source or a hidden cistern by the wild fig tree that grows out of its opening. Where there are figs, there is water to drink. Whether around the many springs of the Jerusalem Mountains, or growing alongside Prat Stream near Jericho, fig trees indicate an abundance of moisture.

Living and hiking through Israel has given me a new lens into the fruits, plants, and trees of the Bible, most especially the shivat haminim, or seven species native to Israel. These are wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, dates, grapes, and olives.

 Fruit, vegetables, milk and yoghurt. (credit: PIXNIO)
Fruit, vegetables, milk and yoghurt. (credit: PIXNIO)

Biblical dietary habits

Olive trees, gnarly and picturesque, fill groves in the Carmel Mountain Nature Reserve and Sataf Forest near Jerusalem. Their fruits emerge a bright green in the summertime, later turning dark purple and soft in the autumn. Ancient olive presses can be found near these trees, in just about every place where people once lived. In fact, it’s hard to hike for any distance in Israel without coming across an old olive press. These oversized round stones, marked with distinctive grooves, were used to press olives into olive oil, an important commodity in Israel. The resulting pungent yellow-green oil was used for cooking, dipping, candle lighting, and anointing kings during the time of the ancient Israelites.

Olives have always been such a vital part of the national diet that at archeological sites in Israel, the dates of various layers of inhabitation are determined by examining the age of olive pits contained within.

In the Jerusalem Mountains, grapes grow abundantly, in terraced vineyards that seem to have been in place forever. Wheat and barley line Jerusalem lowland hiking trails in late spring, golden and glowing underneath the hot, Mediterranean sun. In warmer parts of the country, palm trees climb high into the sky, bunches of yellow dates hanging down in an unreachable mass from the very top.

As a child, I actually remember thinking that dates looked like oversized bugs, a thing that was a lot more common in my hometown of New Orleans than date palms. After spending a few years living in Israel, I began to understand two things: First of all, dates were delicious. Sticky and soft, these sweet fruits could be turned into a variety of desserts, whether stuffed with walnuts or rolled into chocolate chip date balls. Second, when the Bible mentioned dates as one of the seven species, this was a reference to date honey, the ubiquitous Silan, found in every Israeli grocery store and drizzled on every bowl of muesli in local cafes.

Paired with the herds of sheep that wander past on hiking trails, a picture emerged: a land flowing with milk and honey (date honey, that is!) This is a country where wine, cheese, bread, honey, and oil can create a lavish, locally sourced spread on every table. The seven species represent the plenty and abundance available to inhabitants of the holy land.

On my last hiking trip to the Prat Stream Nature Reserve, we waded through a stream full of fragrant mint and overhanging fig trees. I gathered them both, tasting minty fig combos as we hiked along in the water. We passed by almond trees, their soft green fruits glistening in the harsh sun. And when we reached the last waterfall pool, we watched as a Bedouin boy led his flock over the adjacent mountaintop.

Living and hiking in Israel, biblical produce takes on a meaning much larger than the dried-up and meager carob, figs, and dates of foreign Tu Bishvat feasts past. Here, biblical bounty adorns even the simplest outdoor landscape, bringing pictures of the past into a new light.

The writer is the creator of Hiking the Holyland (www.hikingintheholyland.com). Her new book, From Southerner to Settler: Unexpected Lessons from the Land of Israel is hitting the shelves this month.