The Golden Harvest in Post Production

This morning I was walking along a street in Amman, Jordan and came across several

The Crew in Salento, Italy

The Crew in Salento, Italy. Photo by Fabio Fassone.

people parking plastic chairs near the olive trees planted inexplicably along the city’s public  sidewalks.  They’d climb onto the chairs and start picking the olives off by hand and putting into sacks. What I’ve learned making THE GOLDEN HARVEST is that they are picking too early.  The olives are still too green for oil.  But if they want them for table olives, they’ll do okay.

Seeing these people today reminded me of why we’re making this film and just how hard it is to make a film.  So I thought I’d give a little update.  We’re in post production now.

We’ve filmed in four countries, and have a couple more to go. Along the way we’ve sampled a tremendous amount of great (and sometimes not so great) olive oil. When I sample those oils at home now, they remind of the exact trees they come from, because they taste and smell of the wind and sea and soil of that spot. Maybe that is one of the reasons olive oil stirs up so many emotions. The idea for this film began several years ago when my father passed away, and I tried to think of the times where he was happiest. And it was around the time of the olive harvest,when people would come to him to taste the oil from their harvest. My father hadn’t lived among olive trees since his youth, and I’m not sure he knew what virgin and extra virgin olive pressing meant, but that passion for the oil—for great oil—never left him. How could it? It was in almost everything he ate, and sometimes he just had a straight shot of it as a pick me up. When I started mentioning some of the olive oil stories of mine to other people with Mediterranean roots, it inevitably formed led to them telling me their own stories, all with as much emotion as if they were telling me about their first loves.   And so the process began…it’s been a regional effort, with great co-producers in Italy, Greece, Spain and Palestine. And we’ve brought together just some of the stories of that people along the olive oil route, tales of love, faith, pain and triumph—not to mention science, medicine and needless to say, great food.  CU Fresh OilIn the coming months, I’ll start introducing you to the crew and the people we’ve met–along with their favorite olive oil recipes.

The Golden Harvest Time

It’s my favorite season of the year—olive harvest season in the Mediterranean.   My friends let me know how bountiful they expect it to be this year in their area (drought hasn’t been

A First Batch of Olives

A First Batch of Olives

very helpful in much of the region) and whether they’ve started to pick the trees yet or if they have a few weeks to go.

Some of these friends are new in my life, part of the past year I spent researching olive oil before we started filming “The Golden Harvest” (More updates on that soon)

I haven’t met all the 600 plus varieties of olives out there (although I’ve met a scientist in Cordoba who is attempting to collect them all, after studying olives for 40 years). And I haven’t met all the thousands and thousands of people who somehow make their living from olive oil –whose families have perhaps done so for millennia. But each person teaches me something new.

There are some things you clearly remember hearing about for the first time—bungee jumping, libraries, sex, sushi. Then there are things you’ve known since your mom massaged your baby feet with olive oil, things like whatever is for dinner, it probably tastes better with a drizzle of oil. I can’t remember when I didn’t know that or that a shot of olive oil in the morning is the key to longevity, according to all relatives over 65-years old.

Some Olives in Madrid

Some Olives in Madrid

Outside the kitchen, it becomes, in addition to the favorite bathing soap, the answer to most household problems. Maybe some of the reasons are a little old fashioned, like acting as a sealant for your pyramidal crypt, or fuel to light a lamp, but the list just seems to evolve and grow. Here’s a few that I hear a lot.

  1. Hair Conditioner: Half an hour to an hour on the hair, wrapped in a shower cap. Bonus—add in a couple of spoonfuls of yogurt. Messier but magical.
  2. Make Up Remover: I don’t wear eye make-up often because I’m highly unskilled with kohl pencils, and I end up looking more like ghost than a beauty queen. But any disastrous results are quickly wiped away with a cotton swab soaked in olive oil. No fear, no smear.
  3. Facial moisturizer and exfoliator: Put on face at night and wake up with skin like a baby.
  4. Speaking of babies, it works as a diaper rash alleviator. But in moderation, because of the above mentioned exfoliating properties.
  5. Acne killer: particularly when mixed with rosehip oil and dabbed on the spot.
  6. Furniture polish: when mixed with a little lemon juice, it makes a pledge to keep your furniture shiny.
  7. Conditioner for leather shoes and furniture: But I’ve also heard to proceed with moderation on this one as too much can result in oil spots.
  8. Fix a squeaky hinge—without the nasty WD smell. Same goes for zippers.
  9. Relieve joint pain and arthritis because of its anti-inflammatory properties. Said properties also combat hemorrhoids (one of those things people whisper about, so I buried it in with another tip, although I think if we ate more olive oil, we’d have less hemorrhoids in the world).
  10. Ease Depression: There’s too much of this going around and the pharmaceutical companies are making a fortune on drugs that can also sometimes have horrific side effects. Olive oil has no side effects –in fact, as part of a balance diet, it can even help you maintain a good weight. *

*These are all things I’ve been told or know from experience—I’m not a doctor! But we’re meeting an amazing one in Athens in “The Golden Harvest.” Stay tuned.

Nut Cases in Jordan

In the Red Sea port of Aqaba, you can relive the romance of Lawrence of Arabia’s adventures on and off film. You’ll discover the CIA-esque intrigue of being able to see Israel/Palestine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia from the same spot. Indeed, it is a grand opportunity to take in a vista of all of the Middle East mess at once. Then there is the pristine diving in the Red Sean and taking advantage of the luxury resort boom—or ordering the delectable local dunise and faridi fish eying you at Ali Baba Restaurant while the camels eye the tourists. All these are legitimate reasons to go to Aqaba, reasons that bring thousands of foreign visitors a year.

But when I ask Jordanians what excites them about Aqaba, they often tell me it’s the nuts. Nuts don’t have a double entendre in Arabic, so they don’t mean the opportunity to hangout with crazy people. That is unless you find it crazy to buy bags of nuts by the kilo on a beach vacation. But that’s what most Jordanians do when they go to Aqaba.    IMG_1447

All these fine nuts are purchased in the downtown shopping souq at the Al Shaab shop. Actually, the Al Shaab shops. There are eight branches to choose from in Aqaba, and conveniently six of them are on the same street selling the exact same nuts in the exact same heated cases and bins. Three of them are separated by only one other shop. It’s a business model that should defy logic, and yet every one of the stores is teaming at all times with customers, who eventually leave with kilos of the nuts, seeds and Turkish delights stuffed into the shops’ bright signature red and yellow plastic bags. The bags show up everywhere in Aqaba in their post nut-transporting duties as all-purpose totes.

The mom and pop nut shops that are scattered across the souqs and malls of the Middle East make you feel like a kid in a candy store– but with nuts and seeds instead. There are bins and bins of intrigue, each bin magically keeping the nuts toasty warm and freshly roasted. Almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and of course the king of nuts, the pistachios—in nearly countless flavored mixes and matches. There are pure pistachios or pistachios tossed with almonds and hazelnuts and cashews. Or in another combo, the cashew may reign supreme, with the hazelnut coming in second. The almond can be the leader of the pack, too. Sometimes the nuts are salted, sometimes raw, sometimes smoked.

Like everywhere else in the world, peanuts are price reducer. But the biggest way to cheapen the bag is the addition of pumpkin seeds. These are the big, salt crusted white seeds that Arabs seem to be able to crack open for the meat and still spit out the shell while doing just about anything, especially playing backgammon, drinking coffee, and smoking shisha in a café in Aqaba. The also popular watermelon seeds require even more crack and spit skills, which is why the uninitiated just chew on them, like me.   I blame my incompetence on the fact that I didn’t grow up with nuts serving the same purpose as my Arab relations.  They don’t say it, but nuts are a habit at a gathering of people, like coffee is, but they are also a way to pass the time–crack, spit, chew.  And in so much of the Arab world it feels like people are gathering to pass the time because there is nothing else to do with time.  And maybe nuts provide an entertaining diversion–yes, sometimes it’s a fun challenge yourself to see if the seed will actually come out of the shell.

Al Shaab Nuts

Al Shaab Nuts

The peanut is often in the mix, but it is actually a bean, and in Arabic fuol Sudani (Sudanese bean) is the word for peanuts. And it’s not the only bean in the shop. There is seemingly not enough you can do with a chickpea. Those craving sweets can enjoy the pink and blue sugared edomi, which are dry roasted chickpeas. I prefer them salted than sweet. Beyond the crunch, there is the comforting pasty quality. For more sweet, there is of course the sugar coated Jordan almonds, which do not have the descriptor “Jordan” in Jordan or the rest of the Middle East, where they are ubiquitous on silver platters at weddings and holidays. For an even bigger sweet tooth, raha, a range of rose and orange blossom flower infused Turkish delight-esque squares packed with pistachios and walnuts, is the big seller. I like them best when they are rolled up in dried apricot wrappers. But my favorite is semsemia, the squares of gooey or crunchy toasted sesame with sugar and honey.  Unlike nuts in a bag, semsemia is a comforting sugar rush that makes you want to go out and conquer the world.

Today, peanuts are also sold in candied form, which is not traditional. Peanuts are named for the Sudanese peddlers who once roamed the streets of the Levant and North Africa in more peaceful times selling hot peanuts. I’m less sure why pistachios are called fousto halabi (which means Aleppo nut), because they mostly come from Iran. But I can only imagine how much more confusing it would be for Asians to find a variety of coated peanuts and nacho-flavored crunchy balls, called Asian crackers or Japanese crackers or Chinese crackers, depending on the shop. And the American corn nut and wasabi peas are mainstays these days.

So the Jordan nut shop has globalized itself.  There are ever more ways to pass the time.  As I watched people get onto the bus as we were leaving Aqaba, their overnight suitcases sometimes seemed dwarfed by the kilos and kilos of Al Shaab nuts they were also toting. On the four-hour drive back to Amman as my Kindle bounced around on my lap, I heard people munching on Al Shaab nuts and seeds. No one else had a book. As I heard a kid get yelled at by his mom for trying to open a closed pistachio with his teeth, I thought about how if those eight Al Shaab stores were bookstores, they’d be empty. And thus the nuts win in the Middle East.

Or the Beach

Or the Beach

The Sweet Spot in Arabia

I have never heard an Arab woman call her sweetheart the Arabic word for honey—or vice versus–even though Arabic is a language with scores of other terms of endearment. I have never read any Arabic children’s stories about goofy bears getting stuck in honey pots, and I’ve never seen honey come in cutely shaped squeezable bottles at the souq. And yet honey is the queen bee of foods in the Arabian Peninsula, specifically in south Saudi Arabia, a region that is on a perennial honeymoon with honey.

Honeycombs at Abha Souq

Honeycombs at Abha Souq

The word honeymoon does in fact exist in Arabic, and women in Arabia prepare for it meticulously, including buying the skimpiest silkies at enough lingerie shops to make Victoria’s Secret wonder who really knows the secret. But the honeymoon is a relatively modern practice and a literal translation based on, depending who your source is, a 16th century British cynic’s observation that marriage is really only joyful for its first moon cycle, an ancient custom of newly married couples imbibing aphrodisiac honey wine (mead), or a Babylonian practice of a groom giving his bride’s father all the mead he can drink during the first month of marriage.

This Babylonian story is closest to home geographically, but under Saudi laws, no one today is making honey wine, at least not legally. Not that honey is without its legal loopholes: Undocumented Yemeni workers have been caught peddling honey from their homeland—legend or desert myth has it that honey smugglers transport coveted Yemeni honey across the border either as is or with other goodies, from weapons to drugs, nestled in its highly prized gooeyness.

Abha Honey Farmer

Abha Honey Farmer

In the souq in the southern Saudi city of Abha, honey is the most competitive product being hocked, with vendors calling out the virtues of the local honey—color, thickness, taste—to veiled women who discreetly lift up their niqabs to take a tasting from the plastic spoon offered to them. Not even dates (as in the food) can compete for attention. People will go by chickens being de-feathered and piles of greens, but just like the flies, they can’t ignore the honeycombs on the sidewalk.

I read somewhere once that along with the Germans, the Saudis are the world’s biggest consumers of honey. But I never thought of honey as an art form until I got to the Abha souq. After sampling a few, we discovered that every beekeepers honey has its own color, texture, and nuanced sweetness—and sometimes even its own bite and acquired taste.

Honey shops across the Middle East will tell you that the best stuff comes from Yemen, from the sidr tree. It often costs three times as much as other types in the region, even more than the much-loved samar honey, which is culled from a thorny tree the blooms for only a month or so. What Gucci and Pucci are to the Dubai Mall, samar and sidr are to the world of honey, both luxurious in complexity and alleged through their rich minerals and vitamins to prevent cancer, skin disease, hair loss, weight gain and diseases yet to be discovered. I’ve been recommended honey at different stages in my life to resolve dry hair, acne, headaches, cramps, and insomnia. (As a hair or face mask, messy, messy)

Yemeni Honey Vendor

Yemeni Honey Vendor

Samar honey, which comes in various shades of gold, is sweet and light, stuff you can easily understand Winnie-the-Pooh trying to score. But with the red-toned sidr honey, my first spoonful was like medicine, a layered pungency with an overpowering smell that made me say “yuck” out loud.

People seemed genuinely offended by my reaction. To be fair, it was just that sidr. It was thick and slightly waxy, which I learned fro a Saudi honey seller meant that it was processed, not raw. Sitting with his honeycombs, he offered a sampling of his sidr honey, which was thin and lush and melted on your tongue like butter on a hot day. (The weather in Abha is actually not that hot because of the altitude)

The local version of butter is indeed honey’s sweetheart here. “Every morning we eat honey with samna,” a Saudi painter with a studio in Abha told me. Samna is clarified butter or ghee from sheep’s milk. It is definitely an acquired taste I didn’t wish to acquire beyond the first try. At the souq, the samna is sold in mosaic-patterned containers or in skin sacks the size of small lambs.

For all the honey of Arabia, there is little creativity in its culinary use in Abha: It is simply the kick to various forms of bread and porridge, which are topped with honey –and often samna. The breads and porridges are not sold at the souq, but many originate from the valley’s rich wheat fields.

Selling Samna sacks and Jars

Selling Samna sacks and Jars

When I brought home the Abha honey and put it up against the other honeys in the kitchen, it was, as the vendor I finally settled on promised, so much richer than the others, not in color or thickness but in the purity—not sugary, not waxy, just a sweet flowery, lively smooth spoonful that takes one to a green field somewhere, full of sophisticated gradations of flavor and life.

How Dubai Stollen Christmas

Bloodshed, flooding, people fleeing persecution, the fodder of biblical stories from the Holy Land.  Only sadly they’re not ancient stories trotted out for the Christmas season. They are present day Christmastime in the birthplace of Christmas.  But Noel in its current incarnation is supposed to be about fun.  And really, why shouldn’t it be? A virgin birth isn’t a downer, after all.  But this season’s headlines from Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, those places that fill up religious texts, are hardly the stuff that make you want to decorate cookies and write a letter to Santa Claus asking for a new Xbox One.  You can understand why Christmas-celebrating people around the world choose to tune out the modern day Holy Land stories.  They are not fun.

Stollen Day

Stollen Day

But there is a part of the Middle East that didn’t make it into the holy books, where not only is it peaceful enough for one celebrate the holiday season, one is encouraged to do so.  By shopping.  I love Christmastime in Dubai. The weather is the usual sunny stuff but the heat is pleasantly mild, and the humidity is usually on holiday somewhere else.

If you’re more hardcore about needing a Christmas TV special atmosphere, there are the heavily air conditioned malls, which year round feel like a blizzard is just around the corner.  Plus, the malls are festooned with some of the best Christmas decorations south of the North Pole, including the finest fake snow and ice on earth. Certainly enough that Santa Claus feels at home at Dubai’s Christmas parties.  And if you insist on real manmade snow, there is the indoor ski slope, transformed into an Alpine Christmas village. (Normally, it’s just an Alpine village where the snow never melts.)   Forget Moses crossing the desert—in Dubai, he’d do it in style and without breaking a sweat.

Best of all, not far from the ski slope, there is stollen day at the Mall of the Emirates, when tables as far as the eye can see from Harvey Nichols down past Tiffany’s and beyond, are lined with stollen. People in elf hats even offer us free stollen samples, this sweet roll that is the greatest invention of Germany after cars and gummy bears.  Dubai Christmas follows the city’s principle of do it big or don’t do it at all.  It can’t be a little fun.  It should be a lot of fun.  It can’t be 100 stollen but rather hundreds.  Dubai does birthday parties big, no matter whose  birthday we’ve decided to celebrate.

The religious has been deleted from Christmas—there is no devout imagery, no crèches, no wise men.  Just wise shoppers.  And some reckless ones, too.  No pretense of anything else but keeping Christmas commercially honest. Competition between the blinding number of sales signs and billboards and the Christmas decorations is friendly and beneficial to both.

This isn’t to say that Christmas doesn’t bring out the best in Dubai.  Profits from the stollens are for charity.  And the festive season builds some multicultural community fun for everyone, including for those who can’t afford most of the items the malls, which in reality is the majority of the population.  Including the workers who built the malls and the team making the stollens, who are Filipinos not Germans.  No one talks about the floods in the Philippines or other troubles in the rest of the world and we all get along.  Indeed, in this country where 100% of the native population is Muslim but every religion invented has people living here, the absence of religious depictions works out great.  Without the religious icons on display, everyone joins in the true spirit of fun and oblivion without feeling left out on faith grounds.

Stollen Charity

Stollen Charity

I heard a story once that the shape of a stollen represents the hump on the camel caravans that carried presents to Jesus when he was born. The dried fruit and raisins represent the jewels and gifts.  Who knows if there is any truth to that stollen story, but if you need a gift, there are plenty of places to get one here. And if you’re looking for a camel, better to exit the mall and go to the Al Dhafra Camel Festival, which at this time is gearing up for the camel beauty pageant.  And for a while you can forget about camels and people elsewhere who 2,000 years later still need a caravan to bring them good news. Now that’s a holiday season everyone can hope for.

The Green Food Season

The Levant is among the many places across the world where spring means baby lambs, tree blossoms and the new buds that will produce precious bounty in a two or three months.   It’s also the green food season—when winter’s Swiss chard, dandelion greens, endive, escarole

Hameli & Green Almonds

Hameli & Green Almonds

and so many other leaves recognized for being wiltable in a frying pan run rampant in a final seasonal hurrah, overlapping with new green food, like sweet peas and fava beans.  There are also the foods that urban dwellers rarely meet in their green baby stage—like almonds and chickpeas.  Most people wait for them to be picked, dried and packaged. But in Jordan, where I’m writing now under an almond tree, and Lebanon, Sryia, Egpt and Palestine, these almonds and chickpeas are coveted for the short season before they become vegans’ best friends.  Green almonds are picked and dunked in course salt and munched on, more for the crunchy, juicy freshness than for being particularly flavorful.  Green chickpea pods, each yielding one or two peas, are roasted and then the soft, warm chickpea is popped out with the same principle as cracking open roasted peanuts in the shell.

This spring in Jordan the landscape is super green, thanks to a brutally rainy and snowy winter.  A punster could have fun playing with the word Arab Spring at this point.  But that phrase only makes people cringe.  Jordan has long been a landing spot for displaced Palestinians or a temporary escape route for wealthy Lebanese caught in the country’s civil war.  Today Jordan is a dumping ground for human tragedy—refugees from nearly all its border points—both rich and poor from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine.  It is also a country where many of the gardeners picking spring’s green things are Egyptians.

The gardener next door just returned with from visiting his family outside Cairo.  Between giving me various medical and culinary suggestions for rosemary, so that the herb’s overgrowth will not be wasted, he lamented the ruin his country is in.  I don’t actually know his politics but that is not as important as the sorrow that comes over everyone with whom you talk.  Once sustainable societies that survived, albeit poorly, off the produce of their lands have been floundering between stupor and rage in a diet fueled by junk food politics nearly a century in the making.  This spring, the violent crash diet approach to change is horrifying to watch.

It takes a long time for the region’s beloved olive tree to grow in strength and power and be fruitful.  The little olives are just popping out green now.  There’s something to be learned from the land.  And there’s some comfort in knowing that a predictable cycle of life at least hasn’t been too disturbed in the garden…but even that’s not so true when you think of what warfare does to the land.

Roasted Hameli (Fresh Chickpeas)

Hameli means “pregnant” or “full.”   Rinse the green pods off and dry.  Place single layer on baking sheet and toast until the pods char slightly, stirring occasionally.  (A small amount can even be done in a toaster oven).

Poetic Pomegranates

Nothing like a Rumi poem about pomegranates to sum up what is hip in

Pomegranate in Progress

literature and food circles today.  Both these Middle Eastern imports—Rumi and pomegranates– have gone from near obscurity to near cliché levels in Western cultural hotspots over the past few years.  Yet another reason for the pomegranate to laugh in Rumi’s poem.

I remember my first pomegranate.  I was seven, late in life for a Middle Easterner to be introduced to all its wonder.  But we were living in Minnesota then, and the even the mango had yet barely made an appearance.  One Saturday, my father beheld, much to his surprise and delight, a small pomegranate resting amidst the fake grass in the produce section at Byerly’s.  Byerly’s was the far away luxury supermarket we occasionally took a road trip to in the hopes finding just such a food memento.  Byerly’s had already given us whole dates and a few inches of sugar cane and a coconut.  I liked the store mostly because it was where Mary shopped in the opening credits to Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Back in our kitchen, our father warned us to stand back as he broke open the pomegranate, carefully chasing any of the precious luminescent red drops that escaped.  My brother and I chomped on the sweet seeds, smiling while trying not to let the juice burst out our mouths as my mother hovered around us with a box of Kleenex at the ready, fearing that we would permanently splatter our shirts crimson.  Indeed, the pomegranate leaves its mark on our clothes and fingers and souls.  This is why it appears in Middle Eastern poems, books, and films, like Najwa Najjar’s award winning Pomegranates and Myrrh.

Every trendy restaurant in London and Los Angeles seems to have found a place for pomegranate on the menu, particularly using the lush, goopy, sour pomegranate molasses.  American cuisine is innovative and evolving—always the anticipation of a new taste sensation replacing the old, just like a new TV season.  We look back at wheat germ and pineapple upside down cake the way we look back Mayberry RFD.  Middle Eastern cuisine is based on centuries of tradition, the comfort of savoring the expected, plus or minus this ingredient or that ingredient.  That includes plus or minus the pomegranate:  as the primary dressing ingredient in Lebanese fattoush, as a broth in which kibbe is simmered in Aleppo, Syria, as a topping for baba ghanoush in Jordan.  However, much like Rumi is to Iranian (or Persian) poetry, the pomegranate is to Iranian (or Persian) cuisine.  Iranians seem to be able to successfully stew just about anything in it.  I love this recipe from my friend Anita Amirrezvani, inspired by her new critically-acclaimed novel Equal of the Sun.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/99616690/Lamb-with-Pomegranate-and-Saffron-when-a-great-book-inspires-great-cooking
Question to ponder:  Did the Arabic word for pomegranates (ruman) derive from Rumi’s name, as that is where the pomegranate came from?

THE LAUGHTER OF POMEGRANATES:

If you buy a pomegranate,
buy one whose ripeness
has caused it to be cleft open
with a seed-revealing smile.

Its laughter is a blessing,
for through its wide-open mouth
it shows its heart,
like a pearl in the jewel box of spirit.
The red anemone laughs, too,
but through its mouth you glimpse a blackness.

A laughing pomegranate
brings the whole garden to life.
Keeping the company of the holy
makes you one of them
Whether you are stone or marble,
you will become a jewel
when you reach a human being of heart.

Plant the love of the holy ones within your spirit;
don’t give your heart to anything
but the love of those whose hearts are glad.
Don’t go to the neighborhood of despair:
there is hope.
Don’t go in the direction of darkness:
suns exist.

The heart guides you to the neighborhood of the
saints;
the body takes you to the prison of water and earth.
Give your heart the food of holy friends;
seek maturity from those who have matured.

~ Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi