Foraging in the Jerusalem hills

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In Israel the work week starts on Sunday. For most people, the weekend is Friday and Saturday. It has been suggested that switching to having Sunday as a day off, in line with pretty much the entire Western world would be more beneficial.

I value my Friday – it’s true that a lot of the day is spent preparing for the sabbath, particularly when, as like this week, we hosted big meals on Friday night and Saturday lunch. The big advantage of Friday over Sunday as a day off however is that Friday IS a school day albeit a short one. Between drop off at 8:15 and pick up starting at 11:45 we have time to find a decent place to grab coffee ,breakfast and a chat when we’re not exhausted from the day’s work and dealing with the kids.

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Yad Kennedy Memorial

This Friday was not one of those Fridays. It was one of those that I somewhat resent. Those where I have to attend an event at the school or daycare of one of my children. I love my children – really, truly, more than anything in the world. But I believe that having time away from them is healthy for that relationship. We spend a lot of time together but those 3 1/2 hours on Friday morning – the only hours which are mine when I’m able to take advantage of them – really? We talked my wife and I about who’s turn it would be – but when it’s a hike, it’s always my turn. Even if the “hike” is with a group of 2 – 4 year olds and therefore not really a hike at all but a short walk. So off we set, bright and early, the nearly 4 year old and I, to join the rest of her day care in the hills of Jerusalem.

For those who don’t know, Jerusalem is not a huge city. It’s elevated above the rest of the country and typically enjoys far cooler weather than the coastal zone. It also happens to be surrounded by hills which are excellent territory for hiking in. At this time of year, everything is green with flowers in bloom before the long, hot summer sets in. The forests are fragrant and as we set out for our walk at Yad Kennedy, a memorial to JFK in the Jerusalem hills, we stopped again and again to see and pick the wide variety of wild herbs which were in evidence all over the hillsides.
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We started with 2 different varieties of Thyme, then some Za’atar and then a huge expanse of rosemary bushes. Wild fennel pokes it’s fronds out all over the place here and these were also duly picked. A different variety of za’atar was added to the bunch and some mint was also swiftly gathered. Gathering from the upper branches is essential and washing advised! I made sure to keep some for my own cooking but the majority was pooled and the adults and kids sat down to utilise our bounty.

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Baking pittot on a Saj – a fire is prepared within a circle of stones upon which the metal dome is placed. Thin pieces of dough are then slapped down directly onto the hot metal

Our guide had come equipped with burners, pots and pans and a Saj (used for making pitot) and various other useful items. We chopped herbs which we mixed with garlic and olive oil to use for dipping whilst a different team rolled pitot and a third made herbal tea. Yet another group made Sambusak – pastries similar to samosas, filled with a variety of goodies and fried in oil.

Upon our return home, rosemary was added to a salad of rocket, apples, dried cranberries and walnut, whilst one of the za’atar varietials was added to a cherry tomato salad together with olive oil, garlic and balsamic vinegar. Thyme was used in a mushroom pate.
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It’s simply amazing what you can find growing all over the place – I’m amazed that stores even sell rosemary in Jerusalem as it’s so ubiquitous that anyone who needs it should really just go outside with a set of scissors. The climate is perfect for growing herbs in a window box and I currently have rosemary, thyme, lemon grass, verbena, 2 types of basil, parsley, dill, peppermint and spearmint growing on my balcony. Somehow it just tastes that bit better when you’ve picked it in the wild however – keep your eyes out when you’re out walking – you never know what you’ll find!

Tomato salad

Ripe but firm tomatoes – according to your number of guests, preferably a mixture of sizes and colors I found green striped for NIS 7.50 a kilo, which I mixed with regular mini plums and full sized tomatoes – the kids love yellow plums which are delicious. Cut them up into different shapes and sizes.

2 fat cloves of garlic, finely chopped

small handful of green herbs – basil works fantastically but experiment!

Plenty of salt and pepper

a good lug each of balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil

Cut your tomatoes, put into a colander and salt generously. You’ll be left with a pool of tomatoey juice under the colander. The salting concentrates your flavours. Add the other ingredients. Serve with plenty of bread for mopping the juices!

Herb and olive oil dip

We often serve a mezze of dips as a summer starter together with my wife’s incredible challa. We usually include olive oil with just a good sprinkle of za’atar and chopped garlic. The hiking version was particularly delicious and has infinite variations!

Take a handful of herbs – whatever you can find – you can’t really go wrong. Chop them finely and add olive oil, finely chopped garlic and a little salt. Serve with bread.

Mushroom pate

1 onion
2 cloves of garlic
1 punnet of mushrooms
Juice of a lemon
Salt and pepper
Thyme
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Roughly chop your onion and garlic. Saute the onion for 5 minutes in a little olive oil. Add garlic and, after 30 seconds chopped mushrooms. After 5 minutes add lemon juice and herbs.
Taste and season with salt and pepper. Blitz in a hand blender.

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5 responses to “Foraging in the Jerusalem hills

  1. How fabulous to have all this growing on your doorstep. Did you mind (the loss of your morning) so much once you were out, foraging, preparing and eating? That tomato salad looks gorgeous!

    • although I prefer to have my Friday to myself, when I have something to do with my kids instead I enjoy every second. I’m blessed with 3 little beauties who are the light of my life.

      I’m a big fan of tomato salads and this one was excellent – the green plum tomatoes tasted great as well as looking interesting. This will be a regular menu item through the summer. When they get really cheap I buy them by the punnet and oven roast them for more intensive flavour and interesting texture.

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