This week we bid 2016 farewell and celebrated the festival of Hannuka with rain, cold rays of sun, winds, fogs and low temperatures. Just as it should be. Joy!
In European mythology, the image of winter is that of a season in which everything dies and stops as growth halts or goes into slumber. This, of course, is due to the harsh, frigid winters of Northern Europe, and not at all relevant to the very lax, rainy winters of the Middle East and Israel (true, they’re cold, but not freezing), particularly considering the extremely tough, sweltering and devastating summers in these parts.
Here, at the beginning of winter, olive trees and dates as well as many citrus varieties are actually harvested. Goat farmers enjoy an abundance of quality milk from post-winter births, and even the beekeepers have it easier when blooming commences after the dry summer and the bees resume their honey-making, free of the consuming need to survive.
This past week we received a brand new stock of fresh dates from Samar, honey from the Golan and Ein Harod, olive oil, hummus and almonds from Ein Harod, and dairy products and cheeses from Iza Pziza who are back in the game. In addition, excellent new sprouts from Udi, date honey and snacks from Neot Smadar, additional flour from Minhat Ha’aretz, and apple vinegar from Tomer and Hamutal (joining the cider and jams they produce). And of course, the ongoing supply of distinctive products from “Shorshei Zion,” crackers from “Lev Hateva,” fruit leather and dry fruits from “Mipri Yadeha” and Manu’s pastries. A very joyful winter abundance indeed!
Our field is loving winter. True, we are dealing with frost, preparing for hail and making attempts to protect our greens from potential damage. Yet the insects are not as harmful, partly because they go into a period of hibernation where they slow down a lot, but also because the plants are so healthy and vital. One look at the beds, bursting with green abundance and bountiful growth, and it is perfectly clear that Persephone is not in the underworld these days, but probably cooking up a nice hot pot of vegetable soup for dinner.
One of Chubeza’s happy campers is our fennel, who wins the coveted Newsletter Vegetable of the Week designation. The beautiful photos of our field are courtesy of the one and only Chana Netzer (Thank you, Chana!)
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. The fennel’s 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, and easily overtakes abandoned agricultural plots or even the random urban open field. It understands our fickle weather, demands order from the weeds surrounding it, lest they encroach on 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 (so appropriate for this winter), and hardly ever suffers from pests, perhaps thanks to its strong scent. When it is big enough, fennel gets along well with the weeds, staking out a territory for itself. Fennel’s dominant character is the reason it is recommended to avoid placing other plants alongside, and to give the fennel its own turf and garden-bed, though I must say in my own experience I have never seen it take over neighboring beds or influence them otherwise.
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 bulb of the fennel when in fact we’re eating its lower leaves that grow out of the base of the stem, 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 vegetable’s aroma and distinctive taste derive from a unique phytochemical, anethol, which is the main component of the volatile lubricant it contains (similar to anise). This phytochemical retards inflammation and reduces the threat 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 (if you appreciate its aroma), and it is a component in most natural toothpastes. Those who do not enjoy the smell can identify with the pests who stay far away from fennel, and with medieval witches, who were scared off by sheaves of fennel and St. John’s Wort hung on thresholds during the June 24th European agricultural summer festivities.
But let’s continue to sing its praises……
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 found primarily in the seeds, which are a major component in Indian and Chinese blends.
And a little more flattery: the fennel’s (its seeds, but not exclusively) 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, instead of sticky toffee) 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 who are known for their willingness to do whatever it takes will be rewarded twofold by imbibing the fennel: helping the baby and increasing their own milk. And if that still doesn’t work 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. Absinthe’s anise-taste and green color give it the nickname “the green fairy.” Absinthe has been known to cause hallucinations (or to inspire the muse, depending on who you ask) and was very popular in the 19th century with bohemians and artists, with Van Gogh being one big aficionado. Some claim that he cut off his ear under the influence of absinthe.
Oh, 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 withered and the seeds are still green and fresh. Enjoy!
This week we don’t ask for much, only a nice wintery week for us all, and lots and lots of good rain.
Alon, Bat Ami, Dror, Yochai and the Chubeza team
WHAT’S IN THIS WEEK’S BOXES?
Monday: Coriander/dill, kale/Swiss chard/spinach, fennel/kohlrabi, cucumbers/bell peppers, cabbage/cauliflower, daikon/white turnips, scallions/fresh onions, tomatoes, carrots, celery, broccoli/ Jerusalem artichokes/snow peas.
Large box, in addition: Parsley, beets, lettuce /mizuna/red bok choy.
Wednesday: scallions/fresh onions, fennel/kohlrabi, lettuce, arugula/mizuna/bok choy, cucumbers/Dutch cucumbers/yellow peppers, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage/cauliflower, parsley, Jerusalem artichoke/broccoli/snow peas. Small boxes only: beets.
Large box, in addition: cilantro/dill, daikon/turnip/radish, celery/celeriac, kale/Swiss chard/spinach.
And there’s more! You can add to your basket a wide, delectable range of additional products from fine small producers: flour, fruits, sprouts, honey, dates, almonds, garbanzo beans, crackers, probiotic foods, dried fruits and leathers, olive oil, bakery products, apple juice, cider and jams, dates silan and healthy snacks and goat dairy too! You can learn more about each producer on the Chubeza website. On our order system there’s a detailed listing of the products and their cost, you can make an order online now!