Less than two weeks remain before Shavuoth, the festival of the first fruits, but Chubeza’s field is already decked out with new springtime fruits. Last week, we harvested our first beds of fakus, aka “Arabic cucumber.” We’re now awaiting the barrage of phone that begin something like, “This week I received two portions of zucchini and no cucumbers!” On behalf of those whose boxes this week contain fakus and not cucumbers, let me offer this handy key to distinguishing between a fakus and a zucchini, which I learned from our longtime client Tzipi from Jerusalem: The fakus stem resembles that of a cucumber, not zucchini! If you received a light-colored elongated vegetable you cannot define, check out its stem (the part where it attaches to the plant): if it is wide and star-shaped like a zucchini, well… it’s a zucchini. If it’s thin and willowy like a cucumber, then say hi to our friend the fakus.
Here, ladies and gentlemen, is The Fakus in all its glory:
At the heat of the day in the scorching Sinai desert, the Israelites craved the Egyptian fare, reminiscing, “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons…” (Numbers 11, 5). The “cucumbers” they missed were most probably fakus. And to be honest, I totally understand them. Fakus is definitely worth craving. Thus every summer, we descendants of those Jews in exile are proud to bring to you the vegetable hankered by our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents….
Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus was also known for his fondness for cucumbers. He would eat cucumbers every day of the year, necessitating the Roman farmers to develop artificial methods to grow the vegetable year-round. According to The Natural History of Pliny, by Pliny the Elder (Book XIX, Chapter 23), “Indeed, he [Tiberius] was never without it; for he had raised beds made in frames upon wheels, by means of which the cucumbers were moved and exposed to the full heat of the sun; while, in winter, they were withdrawn, and placed under the protection of frames glazed with mirrorstone.”
Tiberius was probably not munching on the cucumber we all know and love, i.e., the Cucumis Sativus, but rather on the light and somewhat hairy fakus, aka Armenian cucumber, which is actually…a melon. Also coined the “snake melon,” in botanical terms this is the Cucumis melo var. flexuosus melon. However, we do not let the fakus mature like our melons—we pick it in its crunchy sweet youth, like the cucumbers (which is a good thing, really, because the fakus just wouldn’t ever become a real tasty melon at full maturity).
There are all sorts of fakus varieties grown worldwide: light green, striped, long and curved, or short and light. At Chubeza we grow two types: the small fakus (about the length of a cucumber), and one which is long and curved, resembling its English name “snake melon.”
Melons and cucumbers belong to the same family, but they are two different entities with diverse characteristics. When you look at the leaves, you can tell that fakus leaves are rounder and less serrated, similar to their melon brothers. Its taste and appearance are closer to the cucumber, which is why it is easy to confuse the two, but not really: the fakus is not thorny at all. It is covered with soft fuzz and is sweeter and crunchier than the cucumber. However, like the cucumber, it is picked in its youth, before its seeds mature, which is why it is not as soft as a melon.
Like the cucumber, the fakus sometimes tends to be bitter. Various attempts to overcome this bitterness have proven that we must carefully choose the plants whose seeds are to be kept for next year, making certain that they are non-bitter plants. We hope you will not receive a bitter fakus, but to be on the safe side, when you slice them up into a salad, first nibble at the point where the fakus was attached to the plant. That’s where the bitterness begins. If you like what you taste, slice away, straight into the salad bowl. If it’s bitter, take a bite further down. Sometimes the bitterness remains contained at the end.
The fakus is lauded by chefs as part of the trend to return to local, homegrown “baladi” food. It does resemble the cucumbers eaten here in the past, before the arrival of the garden cucumber. Several years ago we were visited by Dr. Moshe Ra’anan, who has written many articles about plants and animals in the Bible. He photographed our nice fakus varieties and wrote a few words about them (in Hebrew). I learned from him that during the Mishnaic period there was actually a verb “to fakus” (“לפקס”), related to the ripening of the fakus. Our commentators offered two different interpretations for its definition: 1. the stage at which the fuzz is shed from the fruit, or 2. the stages at which the flower dries up and falls from the fruit.
Either way, when the fakus’s are fakused, you can wash, slice, add some salt if desired and joyfully bite into it, or you may preserve it, just like a cucumber, producing delicious pickles, and even fry or stuff it like a zucchini. And all this while being …a melon!
Check out our recipe section for some delectable fakus recipes.
As mentioned, there’s less than two weeks till Shavuot, but this week, too, is bringing stormy rains (and warm temperatures). The combination of warmth and moisture is already beginning to wreak havoc in the field. The melon and fakus beds are already struggling to cope with the dreaded hibiscus disease which thrives on warmth and moisture to zealously attack the plants’ leaves. We greatly look forward to the summer dryness which will give our vegetables a fighting chance to dry out their wilting leaves and recover. Meanwhile, they’re suffering miserably. One very confusing Spring this year indeed……
Regardless of the weather, may you eat your vegetables in joy and good health!
WHAT’S JOINING THE FAKUS IN THIS WEEK’S BOXES?
Monday: New Zealand spinach, garlic/cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers/fakkus, leeks, tomatoes, potatoes, Swiss chard/kale, zucchini, parsley root/celery stalk, cilantro/parsley.
Large box, in addition: Beets, onions, acorn squash
Monday: New Zealand spinach, garlic/cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers/fakkus, leeks, tomatoes, potatoes, Swiss chard/kale, zucchini, cilantro/parsley, beets.
Large box, in addition: Parsley root, onions, acorn squash