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Wild Peonies

Wild Peonies (Paeonia mascula)
We went hunting for coral peonies (Paeonia mascula) in their natural habitat. I discovered so much more than I expected on the way, including about 7 kinds of orchids - so not everything will fit in this post. These impressive flowers are native to a large area surrounding the Mediterranean: Spain, France, Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, Croatia, Serbia, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Israel. Here in Israel they only grow in one area in Israel, in the Mount Meron reserve. And even there it is not widely spread, but is found only in one specific area of the forest on Mount Hillel (near the Druze village Beit Jann).  In Arabic they are called "Bear Foot" because of the shape of their fruit. The origin for this name is a legend about lovers whose parents opposed their marriage. They ran away to the mountain, and were caught in a snow storm. The search party from the village lost hope for them when they saw brea footprints in the snow. Yet they followed the bear's trail and found the couple in a cave, and learned that the bear saved their lives by bringing them food. In the spring, peonies appeared on the bear's trail.
Jerusalem sage in bloom
(Jerusalem sage - מרוות ירושלים Salvia hierosolymitana - in bloom)
Mandrake fruit
(Mandrake fruit, unripe)
Cephalanthera longifolia סחלבן החורש
(Cephalanthera longifolia סחלבן החורש)

To get to the actual trail where the peonies live, one needs to walk on a pretty uneventful gravel road in an agricultural land that is abundant with olive grove, cherries and other stone fruit. There are of course some interesting plants along the way - but nothing that you won't see elsewhere: Jerusalem sage (which was in bloom when we visited), and white orchids here and there. I even stumbled across mandrake fruit (still green and not fragrant yet).
Arbutus and oak forest
Then there was a nice little trail going uphill, distributed again by a gravel road, and shortly after plunging into a rather steep and slipper downhill trail, which is where we were about to meet the peonies for the first time.

It was an unusually cold, windy and rainy day. So not so many people were there to spot the flowers. This is unusual for the week-long holiday of Passover, in which the country's parks are overflowing with noisy Israelis littering nature to their heart's content. The few people who were there were very nice and helpful, and we just happened to start the trail with two couples, who were relatives of someone from my village. Not only were they not loud and evidently curious about plants (so I couldn't help myself telling them everything I know about plants we met along the trail) but they also invited us for a coffee which they brewed right there next to the first peonies we found. It was nice to be the guest of an outdoors picnic like that.

More importantly: If it wasn't for these companions,  we probably would have turned on my heels right after meeting the first few bushes. They were located at the start of this downhill trail, which was immensely slippery and my daughter was a bit hesitant to continue with the trail. Having more people around gave us more confidence.
Wild peonies in an arbutus and oak forest
I've seen peonies countless times in gardens in British Columbia, but nothing compares to finding them like this (even though it was to be expected that I'll find them, of course). Their presence in this quiet oak and arbutus forest is nothing short of magical!
Wild Peonies (Paeonia mascula)

Wild Peonies (Paeonia mascula)
The wild peony (Hebrew: אדמונית החורש) are considered the first medicine plant by the Greek. They are named after Paeon (AKA Paean), the Greek God of Healing. And indeed their leaves and roots were used to heal a number of conditions, epically for night terrors, to treat the neural diseases, epilepsy, headaches and liver complaints, digestive issues and clearing the womb after childbirth or during mensuration. Dioscorides account in his Herbal (Materia Medica) mentions specific preparations for treating those conditions, as well as clearing the womb after childbirth, and how different parts of the plant are used:

"III. 140. Paeonia or glycyside which some name pentorobon, dactylos idaeos, the root paeonia, others aglaophotida. The stem grows two spans high and has many branches. The male has leaves like walnut, the female much divided leaves like smyrnium. At the top of the stem it produces pods like almonds, in which when opened are found many small red grains like the seeds of pomegranate and in the middle five or six purplish black ones. The root of the male is about the thickness of a finger and a span long, with an astringent taste, white, the root of the female has seven or eight swellings like acorns as in asphodel. The dried root is given to women who have not been cleansed (internally) after childbirth. It promotes menstruation (a dose containing root) the size of an almond being drunk; it lessens abdominal pains when drunk in wine. It helps those who have jaundice and kidney and bladder troubles. Soaked in wine and drunk it stops diarrhoea. Ten to twelve red grains from the fruit taken in dark rough (dry) wine slop menstrual flow and being eaten they ease stomach pains. Drunk and eaten by children they remove the beginnings of stone. The black seeds are good against nightmares, hysteria and pains of the womb when up to fifteen are drunk in mead or wine. It grows on high mountains and foothills."
Wild Peonies (Paeonia mascula)
Last but not least: Their scent, of course!
Wild peonies have a robust, sweet-spicy scent that is at least ten times better than the garden variety. I find that more often than not, the multi-layers of cultivated petals reek of something green and nasty, best described as the scent of the water in the vase after flowers have been sitting in it for a week. White peonies (and some light pink ones) tend to be better smelling, with a scent spicy yet cool, peppery and green and only a tad rosy and clove or carnation like. The are sharp and their vibration resonates around the head and the nose. These were all around sweet, warm and heavenly. Inhaling their scent created a feeling similar to smelling roses, a warmth and soothing around the heart and solar plexus. And most of all, so surprising to smell this kind of scent on a mountaintop surrounded by oak and arbutus trees!
Wild Peonies (Paeonia mascula) and Ayala Moriel

Carmelit

Ricotia Lunaria (Carmelit) כרמלית נאה
Carmelit (Ricotia lunariaכרמלית נאה is a delicate flower from the Cruciferae (Brassicaceae) family which grows in large groups and blooms in late winter and early spring. If you look at an individual flower alone (which is rare, because it always grows in large groups), it does not stand out at all, expect for its definite crossed-bones-like shape. It is named after the Carmelite order, which was established on Mount Carmel in the 12st Century (the same order also invented the famous Carmelite Water), whose symbol of a cross with heart-shaped tips it resembles. Other English names for the flower are Maltese Cross Ricotia (whose cross it also resembles) or Egyptian Honesty.

The flower is endemic to Israel and Syria (which means it grows nowhere else by these two countries - in Israel it grows only in the north of the country). Because these plants grow together, their blossoms cover large areas creates an impressive effect like floating purple haze above the ground. Which is nothing short of magical. Another aspect which is not any less magical is their fragrance: a delicate perfume that is the epitome of wild flower fragrance, reminiscent of night-scented-stock with hints of carnations when it's sunny, and becomes almost too heady on dry and hot spring days; and becomes all delicate, demure and cold-flower-smelling at nightfall. 

Here are a few more photos, which will hopefully transfer some of their magic despite the fact that their scent is inimitable.
Ricotia Lunaria (Carmelit) כרמלית נאה

Ricotia Lunaria (Carmelit) כרמלית נאה





Christmas in the Middle East

Despite globalization and Santa's great commercial success (and global take over) - Christmas in the Middle East (where it originated, let me remind you) has very different vibe than in Europe and North America. That's not to say that Santa and his reindeer do not make appearances here despite the alarming lack of snow (and sometimes no rainfall either). But it looks, sounds and smells different here, nevertheless.

Last week we went to the Christmas Market in Kfar Yassif (one of the largest Christian communities north of Haifa), with full-on expectations to have my Canadian standards of Christmas markets to be blown to bits. And to my delight, they did. First there is the reckless parking culture of the villages up north (parking is always a conundrum in big events, but we survived it quite heroically), and then there is the winter atmosphere of an Arab-Christian village in wintertime: lights everywhere, little children carrying light toys they purchased at the market, and street vendors selling boiled lupin and fava beans doused with cumin and lemon-salt (Middle Eastern street food is quite healthy), and sahleb (a warm, thickened milk beverage perfumed with rosewater, mastic resin and topped with spices and nuts).

Before you get into the market, you'll have security at the entrance (because any event of large crowds, especially that of a minority group, requires security in Israel, to remind you that something bad could happen at any moment but the army and police is there to protect you). And then there was lively and upbeat music - dumbak drums on the stage were performing Baladi beats by the town's square and the largest Christmas tree, later on succeeded by other performances such as a Middle Eastern violin musician, and more. And this pre-Christmas party was going to last till at least midnight, by the way. Proceeding to the market area, an overwhelming smell of barbecue filled the air - thick smoke of charcoals grilling meats of any kind (except perhaps turkey), including shrimps skewers. There were shawarma (aka donair) and felafel booths, and I think I've spotted some ma'amouls (fragrant and buttery semolina shortbread cookies filled with dates or nuts). There was absolutely none of the "Holiday Smells" such as eggnog or hot apple cider etc.

We circumvented the very crowded lineups and that's were we found the artisan stalls (there is a lovely new carpenter/woodworker in town that sold the most adorable ornaments, carved out of olive tree, some shaped like little guitars or oud - the musical instrument, not the incense tree); charity sales, and also those selling German-style mulled wine and green and red donuts (that look like they're made of plastic so of course we didn't eat them), and even something that looked like Japanese-style octopus pancakes next to stalls of chocolate syringes for chocaholics shooting up during Midnight Mass.

And speaking of mass - religious artifacts were offered as well lots and lots of incense was burnt. I don't think I've ever been to a Christmas market in Canada where frankincense and myrrh is openly burnt in cross-bearing copper censers! And keeping up with the syringe theme, there was the customary street-perfume-vendor stall, where perfume knock-off were sold out of large vats that make them give the illusion of precious cargo. The lady at that stall was advertising her wares by squirting cheap jus out of a large syringe (that is normally used to decant her merchandize into bottles for sale).

Around that time, we figured it would be a good moment to call it a night and go home with the loot we found - a little crocheted doily made by the local employment centre for adults with special needs, a bit clear helium bubble wrapped in lights, and the cheesiest Christmasy tiered tea tray, which for two years I've managed to avoid purchasing and always regretting I didn't...

And with this we'll close, but not before I'll give you recipes for a couple of regional sweets that are unique to the region around these holidays:

Ma'amoul Cookies Recipe
Ma'amoul
Ma'amoul are stuffed shortbread cookies from unsweetened dough, stuffed with dates or slightly sweetened nut fillings. The cookies originate in Jerusalem, but are popular all over the Middle East and each region has slightly different variation on the spices and dough recipe. For example: The nut fillings are usually walnut, but in Syria, where pistachios are abundant this is also a very popular and very elegant filling. The dough may be made from either fine semolina (cream of wheat), or from flour, or a mixture of both. Of course, the semolina ones are the best! They provide a rich, nutty and interesting texture to the cookie. In the Galilee, ma'amoul cookie dough is often flavoured with malepi (black cherry kernels), which give them a peculiar, inimitable aroma that goes especially well with the date filling (which, in turn, is likely to be spiced with cinnamon and cloves rather than the  nutmeg in the recipe to follow).

The ma'amouls are shaped in multiple ways, in order to be able to differentiate between different stuffings. The shapes can also have other religious meanings, especially in the Christian communities - where this was originally an Easter pastry. The round ones are stuffed with dates, and signify the crown of thorns and Christ's suffering, and and the nut filled ma'amouls are oval-shaped, and said to symbolize Jesus' tomb.

The following recipe is adapted from May S. Bsisu's excellent book The Arab Table, p. 303-304; and some improvements based on Dokhol Safadi and Michal Waxman's book "Baladi: Four Seasons and Nazareth" (in Hebrew), p. 288-289. Naturally, I've added my own perfumey touch to the filling flavours and also my tips from many hours of rolling ma'amoul cookies with my adopted Syrian family.

Aside from the usual kitchen and baking equipment (large mixing bowl, chopping board, knife and large cookie sheets and baking paper), you'll also need one special piece of equipment, which is very easy to find in the Middle East but not so easy to come by outside of it: little metal clips that are made especially for pinching the decorations and marking the ma'amoul. Some books will also recommend specialty cookie molds. These are very pretty and make for great (and impressive) kitchen decoration, but I found them to be way more difficult to work with (the cookies get stuck in the molds).

But most importantly - this is not a task for one person. It is best to make ma'amoul (or any large amounts of hand-shaped pastries, especially stuffed ones) with company. I sometimes wonder if it's not the cooking together rather than the eating together that keeps people together.

Semolina dough: 
4 cups fine semolina from Durum wheat, or regular sized semolina (AKA cream of wheat)
1.5 cups (3 sticks, or 375g)  unsalted butter, melted 
0.25 cup orange flower water
0.25 cup rosewater
0.5 cup unbleached all-purpose wheat flour 
1 tsp freshly ground malepi (optional)

- Melt the butter and add the floral waters. 
- Stir in the semolina until a dough is formed.
- Place in the fridge overnight, in order for the semolina to absorb all the moisture. 
- The next day, mix the flour with the ground malepi (if desired). 
- Knead the semolina dough with the flour mixture
- Roll into small balls (about the size of a golf-ball) and flatten them between your index finger and thumb. Place a small but significant amount of filling (about 1tsp) and close the dough in (it will look like a money pouch where all the dough gathers, this is the place you will place on the pan. The top will get the metal clips treatment, with decorations as imaginative as yourself. 
- Bake in pre-heated oven (to 350F or 180c) for about 15min, or until slightly golden on the bottom. 
- Let the cookies cool on a wire rack. Once cooled completely, sprinkle icing sugar on top. Keep as many as you're planning to eat within 2-3 days in a jar, so they don't turn stale. The rest are best to keep frozen. They will taste fresh once thawed again. 

Date filling:
1lb pitted and mashed dates (see note below)
1.5 Tbs unsalted butter
 1Tbs rosewater
1/4tsp grated nutmeg
* If you can't find pre-mashed dates, finely chop Barhi dates - the ones that are sold in small carton boxes and often mistakenly referred to as "fresh dates" in Persian and other Middle Eastern shops). If using pre-mashed dates (in vacuums package) be sure to remove any calyx or stem or occasional pit that were left behind).

Walnut filling:
2 cups walnuts
2 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs unsalted butter, melted
1 Tbs orange flower water
1 tsp cinnamon, ground 

Pistachio & Orange Blossom (Ma'amoul filling)

Pistachio filling:
0.75 cups raw pistachios (unshelled)
2 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs unsalted butter, melted
1 Tbs orange flower water
0.5 tsp cardamom, freshly ground 

Stay tuned for additional Middle Eastern Christmas specialty from my region, including Pumpkin Jam!

New Soap: Hulnejan

Hulnejan Roots

Inspired by the region's aromatic traditions, I'm pleased to present to you yet another wonderful soap I've recently developed: Hulnejan.
Hulnejan is a spicy, exfoliating soap bar with strongly brewed galangal, gingeroot and cinnamon. Properties: warming, cleansing, exfoliating.
Hulnejan Soap

Hulnejan tea is a decoction of spicy roots and barks prepared by the Druze in Northern Israel over the winter months. It has strong warming and anti-bacterial qualities, exactly what one needs to stay healthy during the chilly months of the Galilee and the Golan. It is typically drank very sweet as well (sweetened with either sugar or honey), and with some chopped pecans on top. The best way to make it is by brewing it on the stove for hours, allowing the scent to fill the home, clear it from microbes while making it smell warm and cozy. It also helps to homidify the air, which is much needed as the fire tends to make the environment very dry.
Brewing Hulnejan Tea

This limited edition soap bar is made from olive-oil and water infusions of Hulnejan tea. It creates a beautiful peeling soap bar that promotes circulation and rejuvenation of the skin. Like all of our soaps, it is also superfatted - which means it has wonderful moisturizing qualities due to high content of unsaponified oils within the formula. It is the same rich-lathering formula we've always had for our soaps, now handcrafted in our new studio in Clil by yours truly!

We're using olive oil that was cold-pressed from olive which were organically grown in a Druze village near Mt. Meron; Oganic virgin coconut oil (both are food grade), palm oil and castor oil for that extra emollient quality. The result is a hard, long-lasting bar with rich lather that is very moisturizing - a real treat for your skin, hair; and with a wonderfully spicy fragrance that brings to mind wintry teas by the fire place.

Hulnejan Soap
Ingredients: Saponified vegetable oils (coconut, olive, palm, castor), water infused with dried galangal, ginger and cinnamon, powdered dried cinnamon bark, powdered dried ginger root, natural fragrance (essential oils and absolutes of galangal, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom)

Hulnejan Soap



New Soap: Za'atar

Steeping Za'atar for Soap

At long last, a new soap is made, and is available online: Za'atar - a melange of wild thyme and oregano from the mountain behind my home, and my garden. Properties; cleansing, disinfectant, anti fungal.

The za'atar soap I've been dreaming of making for 8 months now underwent many obstacles, including me not paying attention and charring the wild za'atar decoction meant for the lye (see image below). Moreover, when I finally made a decoction and that didn't scorch, it was a cold day, ad it took too long to trace and once added the essential oils it congealed too fast. The bars turned out fine but visually are not as consistent and pretty as they should have been - with a texture that shows pockets of oil. It has a fine za'atar smell, and works wonderfully like all my other soaps though.

Charred Za'atar

This limited edition soap bar is made from olive-oil and water infusions of various types of Za'atar - thymol and carvacrol rich plants that grow wild on the mountains around the southeast Mediterranean basin: Ezov/hyssop/wild oregano (Origanum syriacum), Winter Savory/Satureja (Satureja montana), Israeli Thyme (Corydothymus capitatus) and Mediterranean Thyme (Thymbra spicata), with the addition of cultivars grown in my garden, such as common oregano, marjoram and thyme. These infusions are used in all of the soap's phases, then supercharged with the aroma of wild oregano essential oil.

The result beautiful bar of soap, superfatted - which means it has wonderful moisturizing qualities due to high content of unsaponified oils within the formula. It is the same rich-lathering formula we've always had for our soaps, plus the healing properties of the wildcrafted herbs.
Summer Za'atar on the border with Lebanon
Among the locals, all the wild herbs mentioned above are called "za'atar interchangeably, even though the Origanum syriacum is the "real" za'atar. Because they are all rich in thymol and carvacrol, they have similar healing properties, strongly antiseptic (antibacterial and anti-fungal), and also help with various skin ailments (eczema in particular). And in other (non-skin-related) uses - most is drank as tea, primarily for digestive issues such as stomach aches, parasites and queasiness; generally used in oral hygiene, as well as curing headaches, earaches, colds and flu and respiratory complaints.

We're using olive oil that was cold-pressed from olive which were organically grown in a Druze village near Mt. Meron; Oganic virgin coconut oil (both are food grade), palm oil and castor oil for that extra emollient quality. The result is a hard, long-lasting bar with rich lather that is very moisturizing - a real treat for your skin, hair and even for shaving; and with the funky but lovable elecampane scent.

Za'atar Soap Bars
Ingredients: Saponified vegetable oils (coconut, olive, palm, castor), water, Za'atar (Origanum suriacum, Satureja montana, Corydothymus capitatus, Thymbra spicata), Thyme, Oregano and Marjoram infusions , Oil of Wild Oregano (Origanum vulgare)


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