Aley Chubeza #4 – January 18th-20th 2010

The CSA Story, Continued

This week’s Newsletter continues to focus on the history and present operation of Chubeza’s model, the CSA—Community Supported Agriculture. To give you a more personal account of CSA in the United States, I recommend excerpts from the 2003 diary of a CSA farmer in California, where she reflects on the passing seasons. I feel it’s a true depiction of the world of the farmer, the worries, hopes, difficulties and joys as seen from under a straw hat and blistered hands…

The original idea of the CSA is embodied in its title: Community Supported Agriculture. The initiative for the first farms in Japan, Europe and the U.S. came from the consumers who organized themselves, bought land and grew the produce in cooperation, or found a farmer willing to grow their weekly vegetable needs. To this day, some farms are managed by the community, i.e., the farmer and a nucleus of members. Sometimes the members serve as consultants, but in certain farms they actually take an active part in making decisions and carrying out functions within the CSA.

Over the years, many farms have been established under the umbrella of agricultural-community partnership, spanning a vast range of commitment and involvement. At one extreme is the actual communal farm, belonging to, operated by, and supported by the community. In this kind of farm, the members set the budget, as well as the annual membership fee to finance the budget. The community is also involved in determining what to grow, how to grow it, the variety of vegetables selected, purchasing equipment, etc. In many of these farms, the members commit to a number of hours or work days in the field or in the management of the CSA.

At the other extreme are the majority of CSA’s, farms such as Chubeza that offer a “membership plan” where the clients commit to a short-term period (weekly, half a season or a full season) and pay the weekly fee in advance or by monthly payments. In this kind of farm, it is the farmers who are responsible for the ownership and management; the clients are partners by virtue of their willingness to commit to membership and payment in advance for next season’s crop. Sometimes they lend a hand by organizing distribution or by working in the field. On the whole, members’ level of involvement is their own choice, with different people involved in different ways. Various farms also distribute their crop in diverse ways. Some simply spread out their weekly produce on tables in the field, for consumers to take their own apportioned vegetables (see picture):

In other farms, the boxes are prepared in advance for clients to pick up from the field, from the local farmers market, or as in our farm, distributed to various pick-up points in town or to the homes of the subscribers.

The common denominator between the various farms, and what makes them a partnership of farmers and community, is the connection between the grower and consumer. This can be personified in direct sales from the field to consumer, in direct communication via the newsletter, the growing-protocol and the estimated crop schedule, seasonal feedback, and the encouragement of clients to comment and make recommendations and requests. Involvement is augmented through visits to the field, pick-your-own days, planting events and seasonal celebrations. And again, the clients themselves determine the level of involvement and their willingness to take part in these events, read the newsletter, respond or give seasonal feedback. In most of the farms I’m familiar with, the farmers want/need this partnership more than the clients, of whom only a small portion actually take part in the activities offered by the farm. Still, many of the clients enjoy receiving news from the farm and communicating with the growers.

In the U.S. there are an estimated 1,500-3,000 CSA farms. In Japan there are over 1,000,000 consumers in the teikei system. I don’t have statistics for Europe, but in almost every country there is a cooperative of consumers and farmers (for example, Pergola in Holland, AMAP in France, etc.). What about Israel?

Leah Sigmund was the pioneer of CSA’s in Israel. A biodynamic farmer from Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava, she grew an organic vegetable garden in her kibbutz and ran a CSA some 5-6 years ago. They distributed approximately 40 boxes to various places, specifically Eilat, but also to Mitzpe Ramon and even to a group in Jerusalem! After a few successful years, the program closed down when Leah pursued advanced studies in the U.S.  At the end of 2003, right before I established Chubeza, I went in search of them, but sadly they were no longer active. In the meantime, the organic garden on the kibbutz diminished.

When I first wrote this newsletter in Hebrew two years ago and mentioned other failed attempts at CSA’s, I was somewhat in despair. I then encouraged clients to spread the idea and send us young or veteran farmers who would like to learn how to establish CSA’s. To my great joy, a real difference has occurred over the past two years, with more and more small CSA farms being established and flourishing. Today, several other similar farms adhere to the social-communal perspective. Some are (links in Hebrew) Maggie’s Garden, in Nataf, near Jerusalem, Meshek Chavivian in Moshav Hodaya near Ashkelon, Sde Shefa in Kibbutz Hukok, overlooking the Kinneret, and Etz Charuv in Klil of the Western Galilee. Even Iris Ben Zvi from Kfar Yehoshua of Yizrael valley, who has been farming organically for over 25 years, is now operating a CSA program. Our very own Eyal, who was the foreman at our farm till not long ago (and is still a loyal deliverer), became an independent farmer at Kfar HaNagid and is planning to start his own CSA. We wish him much luck.

And some reflections on us: when I first established the farm I encountered a lot of sarcasm from veteran farmers, who assured me, “It will never work– Israeli’s aren’t suckers like the Americans and won’t buy a vegetable they haven’t seen. It’s been tried before, and people are just unwilling to have someone else determine what vegetables they will eat, or tell them that there are no tomatoes in January…” In my naiveté (three years in California would do it to anyone…) I decided it had to work, but I internalized some of these fears. And so, instead of only going with seasonal vegetables, we decided to honor the sacred Israeli salad by purchasing tomatoes and cucumbers during wintertime. The original plan of payment-per-season also changed over time, and turned into a weekly or monthly post-delivery payment system.

Today, other than our weekly vegetable box, we invite our clients to visit us twice a year on open days over Pesach and Sukkot. Some of our clients schedule independent visits to the farm, and others participate in workdays. Last spring we started a tradition of Fridays on the Farm, inviting clients to help us out with the many spring tasks. The response was heartwarming: almost every week a family or two came to work on the farm, and we got to meet with you personally. We hope to be able to start this up again next spring.

Your feedback, comments, requests and recommendations are important to us and taken very seriously. We manage to develop, learn and adapt ourselves to your needs, thanks to your involvement. Every year we request you fill out a survey about the past year so we can adjust the planting accordingly, with your needs and desires in mind. Our weekly newsletter is sacred to both Alon and myself. Through the newsletter we attempt to keep you involved, while focusing on topics we think are important and interesting–or telling you about our experiences in the mud or scorching sun. This English newsletter has come at the initiative and perseverance of client-friends of Chubeza and is another step towards drawing all Chubeza members closer But there is still room for improvement: we would like to organize more events on the farm, collaborative working days, celebratory events based on the seasons and agricultural calendar, and of course-  random visits.

Wishing us all a great rainy week,

Alon, Bat Ami and the Chubeza staff

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This week’s basket includes:

Monday: lettuce, carrots, mustard greens, green onions, fennel, dill, tomatoes, broccoli, parsley root, cauliflower, cucumbers, arugula / tatsoi

In the large box, in addition: beets, fava beans / peas, green cabbage

Wednesday: cauliflower, red cabbage, tomatoes, cilantro, mustard greens, broccoli, fennel, carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, beets, fava beans – small boxes only.

In the large box, in addition: kohlrabi, parsley root, green onions, arugula / tatsoi

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THIS WEEK’S FEATURED VEGETABLE: THE FENNEL

Fennel belongs to the Umbelliferae family (called such because the flowers are arranged in a small, umbrella-like shape), a relative of the dill, coriander, carrot, parsley, celery, anise, cumin and others. Its origins are in the Mediterranean basin- a neighbor! As it is well-accustomed to our surroundings, fennel grows peacefully and comfortably in many wild fields, takes over abandoned agricultural plots or even the random urban open field. It understands our fickle weather, demands order from the weeds surrounding it, lest they take over its territory, and grows in the winter sun, sometimes reaching a height of two meters! The fennel is indeed a strong plant: it successfully endures weather changes, even extreme ones, and hardly ever suffers from pests, thanks perhaps to its strong scent. When it is big enough, fennel gets along well with the weeds, staking out a territory for itself. Its dominant character is a solid reason not to plant other plants alongside, and to give the fennel its own garden-bed.

 

Contrary to other cultivated vegetables, the Florence fennel we grow is not very different from its brother, the wild fennel, except for the fact that it is shorter and puts most of its energy into thickening the leaves at its base until they become a sort of white bulb, sweet and juicy, which we can eat. Here too, it is a mistake to think we eat the root or onion of the fennel when in fact we’re eating its lower leaves, which in the case of the Florence fennel are puffy and fleshy. These leaves taste more delicate and sweet than the wild and common fennels, grown to extract seeds.

The aroma and distinctive taste come from a unique phytochemical, the anethol, which is the main component of the volatile lubricant it contains (similar to the anise). This phytochemical retards inflammation and reduces the danger of cancer. The volatile lubricant in fennel can also protect from various chemical toxins, in the liver and other organs. Its strong smell can be used to refresh and prevent bad breath, and it is a component of most natural toothpastes. Those who do not enjoy the smell can identify with the pests who stay far away from the fennel, and with medieval witches, who were scared away by sheaves of fennel and St. John’s Wort hung on the thresholds during the June 24th agricultural summer festivities celebrated in Europe.

In ancient Greece, fennel was a sign of success. Its name “marathon” (=”place of fennel”) is also the origin of the place called Marathon, the scene of the famous battle in which Greece triumphed over the Persians. Pheidippides, who ran150 miles in two days, and then another 25 to announce the Greek victory, was rewarded with a fennel wreath, visible in the many statues of this famous sprinter. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus stole the fire of the Gods using a burning fennel stalk. Not surprising, since one of the uses for dry fennel stalks among middle-Eastern Falachim (farmers) is to ignite flames. The high level of oil they contain makes them a very reliable source of kindling. Roman soldiers used to eat fennel, for it was rumored to be the vegetable of heroism.

Plinius Secundas, otherwise known as Plini the Elder, an ancient Roman writer, wrote highly of the fennel. He attributed to it 22 medicinal qualities, including the fact that snakes eat it while shedding their skin and sharpen their sight by rubbing up against it. Fennel is considered an important medicinal plant, one of nine Anglo-Saxon sacred herbs (along with mugwort, plantain, watercress, betony, chamomile, nettle, crabapple and chervil). The oil is primarily in the seeds, which are a major component in Indian and Chinese mixtures.

And a little more flattery: the fennel’s main claim to fame is as a digestive aid. In India it is served at the end of a meal (in Indian restaurants it comes with the bill) and chewed in order to help the food go down. Perhaps this is the reason fennel is considered to be a good diet supplement. The leafy bulb is rich in dietary fibers which in themselves contribute to efficient, healthy digestion. Fennel is also recommended for colicky babies. Even I drank the… hmmm, how shall I describe it… strong-tasting brew, composed of fennel seeds and anise stars, to help my babies out during colic times. Young mothers still willing to sacrifice themselves will be rewarded twofold: helping the baby and increasing their own milk. And if that still doesn’t help and the baby keeps screaming, a fennel drink will help his/her throat, relieving hoarseness and coughs…

 But the fennel has a dark side as well (depending of course on the full or empty part of the cup…). It is one of the spices composing absinthe, a strong alcoholic liquor, made of wormwood, moss, anise, Melissa and fennel. Its anise-taste  and green color give it the nickname “the green fairy.” Absinthe has been known to cause hallucinations (or to inspire muse, depending on who you ask) and was very popular in the 19th century with bohemians and artists, with Van Gogh being one aficionado.  Some claim that he cut off his ear under the influence of absinthe.

But let’s forget about hallucinations for a minute, and take a deep breath. If you’ve decided to go out picking wild fennel flowers, you can add them to salad dressings, to soups and sauces. If you chop the flower very thinly (or use a mortar and pestle) and mix with soft butter, you can make a great spread for fish or grilled chicken. The flowers can also be used for décor. The seeds should be gathered immediately after the flowers have bloomed and shed and the seeds are still green and fresh.

TIPS:

  • Fennel oxidizes upon contact with air: sliced fennel should be stored in the refrigerator in a container with water and a small amount of lemon juice.
  • Place a fennel branch on fish as it bakes. The fennel will absorb the fishy odor and replace it with a fragrant fennel aroma instead.
  • If you collect fennel flowers or seeds from wild plants, it is important to remember not to pick them from along the roadside. These flowers absorb toxins from automobile exhaust or from pesticide in weed sprays. 

 

RECIPES:

Roasted Fennel 

Ingredients:
4 fennel bulbs
2 T. olive oil
1 T. coriander seeds
1 T. mustard seeds
Salt and pepper

Preparation:
Heat oven to 180˚ Celsius.
Slice fennel lengthwise.
Lightly crush the coriander and mustard seeds.
Mix the fennel with the spices in a baking pan. Bake for around 40 minutes, until the edges of the fennel begin to brown.

 

Fennel Baked with Cheese 

Ingredients:
1 kilo fennel
250 gm. Mozzarella cheese (balls)
40 gm. butter
Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
2 T. olive oil
3 T. breadcrumbs/matza meal

Preparation:
Slice each fennel lengthwise (not in rings) into 8 pieces
Arrange the fennel slices in a Pyrex baking dish, and spread the Mozzarella cheese over fennel.
Melt butter together with olive oil and pour over all.
Spread breadcrumbs or matza meal, and bake in high oven for around 20 minutes.

 

Cooked Fennel

Ingredients:
5 fennel bulbs
¼ c. lemon juice
3 t. chicken soup powder
Salt to taste
Coriander, thickly chopped
Chives (optional)
Trace of nutmeg
50 gm. margarine or butter
2 c. water

Preparation:
Slice fennel bulbs into quarters and wash.
Melt butter in wide pan for 5 minutes, add soup powder and mix.
Add lemon juice and cook over medium flame up to 2 minutes, till mixture thickens.
Add the water, nutmeg and salt. Lower flame and cook for around 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add coriander and chives, mix, and remove from heat. Cover, cool for 3 minutes and serve

 

Fennel and Potato Casserole 

Ingredients:
4 medium fennel bulbs, halved
4 potatoes, peeled and sliced in quarters
2 c. water
2 eggs
1 c. parsley, chopped
3 T. coriander, chopped
1 T. oil
2 T. soup powder
¼ t. thyme
¼ t. black pepper
Salt
Butter

Preparation:
Cook fennel and potatoes in water till soft.
Cool and mash slightly, and place in large bowl.
Add remaining ingredients and stir till completely mixed.
Transfer mixture to greased baking pan, and smooth evenly.
Bake for around 45 minutes, till medium browned.

 

Pickled Fennel, tasty and refreshing Bella Rudnick, from the website ynet.co.il

For 1 1/2 liter jar 

Ingredients:
5-7 fennel bulbs
2-4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced into thirds
12 thyme sprigs
2 lemons, thinly sliced lengthwise
2 heaping t. salt
2/3 c. regular vinegar
1 2/3 c. olive oil
Several black pepper pods, ground
1/2 t. sugar diluted in 1 T. water
Olive oil to cover

Preparation:
Wash fennel well and remove stalks. Cut bulbs in half and cut into thin slices. Place in bowl and add olive oil, garlic cloves, lemon, vinegar, thyme, freshly-ground pepper, salt, and the sugar and water mixture.
Add enough olive oil to cover the fennel, and transfer to jar.
Pickled fennel is ready within several hours, but taste will improve with time.

 

Persian Fennel Salad with Pomegranate and Apples – Gil Hovav

Ingredients:
2 pomegranates
2 green apples
1 fennel bulb
Juice of one lemon

Preparation:
Slice pomegranates in half, remove seeds and place them in a large, clear salad bowl. (It’s important to use a clear bowl to show off such a beautiful salad.)
Thinly slice fennel bulbs along the width; add to bowl.
Peel and core apple. Cut into quarters and slice thinly; add to bowl.
Pour lemon juice over salad, mix and serve.

 

Pasta with Fennel – Beth Elon, The Big Book of Pasta

Ingredients:
500 gm. spaghetti
2 fennel bulbs (750 gm – 1 kilo)
1 container sweet cream (shamenet)
2 T. brandy
Container of fresh olive oil
100 gm Kashkaval cheese, grated
Freshly ground salt and pepper

Preparation:
Fill a pot with around 5 liters of water, add salt and bring to a boil. Carefully clean the fennel bulbs, cut into quarters and drop into boiling water. Cook fennel till soft, taking  care not to overcook. Bulbs should be firm to the bite. Transfer with slotted spoon to a   bowl.
Bring water to a second boil, and cook spaghetti to al dente texture.
Meanwhile, drain excess water from fennel and cut into 2 cm. rings. Place the cream and brandy in a small, deep skillet, and heat just to boiling.
Cool pasta and transfer to heated serving dish. Stir cream mixture into pasta, top with grated cheese, 1 t. salt, and a generous addition of freshly ground pepper.
Mix again, and add fennel last. Before serving, mix once again; add a bit of olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

 

Cold Fennel Soup – Ofer Gal, “Date Palm” Restaurant, from www.hashulchan.co.il   

Ingredients:
4 large fennel bulbs, cut into thick slices
1 onion, cut into 8 sections
1 small leek cut into thick rings
1/3 liter yoghurt
1/3 cup pastisse (anise-flavored alcoholic drink) 
Salt and pepper to taste
Several freshly ground black pepper pods
1/2 t. sugar diluted in 1 T. water
Olive oil to cover

Preparation:
In a large pot, mix fennel, leek and onion, add water just to cover, season with salt and pepper. Bring to boil and cook over low flame for 40 minutes, till fennel is quite soft. Blend vegetables with the cooking liquid, and refrigerate. On a low flame, bring pastisse to a boil. Light with a match and continue boiling until the flame goes out. Mix pastisse with the yoghurt and add to fennel mixture. Season with salt and pepper and serve cold.

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