The ancient grains represent for far more than harvest and sustenance.
Words by Joel Hart
Photos by Dan Perez
In the Galilee region of northern Israel, Arab and Jewish villages merge into one another without much noticable border crossing. Two growers and bakers in the area are driven by a similar purpose. One is Arab and the other Jewish, and they live a mere thirty kilometers apart.
Hussam al-Tahan’s family has farmed in the Galilean region for generations, but he took on the new role of baking flatbreads in a tabun (clay oven) with the grain he harvests, and he plans to turn the population in the town of Arabeh into consumers of organic, whole-grain bread.
Yiftach is a child of the Israeli artisanal revolution. He lives with his family in a Bedouin village adjacent to the Steiner-inspired Kibbutz Harduf. Growing ancient grains in a field a few kilometers away, he is on a mission of discovering the flavors of the past, and the plants best suited to Galilean soil. For now, he produces a few bread varieties from these experiments, and creates other loaves with impeccably-sourced Italian wheat and German rye and spelt. The bread is sold in a farmer’s market in Tel Aviv on Fridays after the Thursday ritual of baking the loaves.
al-Tahan begins his day at the break of dawn, feeding his flock of sheep and horses stacks of barley hay, before sitting for a coffee in his bustan (orchard). For al-Tahan, the bustan is a place of tranquility; somewhere to wind down outside the intense schedule of farming and running a bakery. Riding horses is another form of eisure in which he takes immense pleasure, and as he pats his Egyptian horse named Marira, he tells me, “It’s for the soul. All the village agrees ‘no one rides like Hussam.’” In the bustan, he is surrounded by geese, ducks, chickens, pharaoh birds, rows of vegetables, apple trees, bushes of Persian za’atar, sage, mint, rosemary, and grape vines - all intersecting freely.
Beneath the bustan are fields of barley and wheat sown on land that has been in his family for many generations, all facing the dramatic landscape of the Beit Netofa Valley. His family has always farmed organically, and as a child, he remembers picking sesame and bamieh (okra) according to the seasons. “My father grew wheat to sell to local bakeries, and I continued in his footsteps, until eight years ago, when someone asked me, ‘why don’t you sell bread?’ Everything changed then,” al-Tahan tells me as we chat over a coffee, overlooking the fields.
In Arabeh, artisanship is ordinarily a division of labor. al-Tahan’s sheep, for instance, are not there to provide milk, as someone else in the village takes on that role. Everyone contributes to one another’s sustenance by taking responsibility of their duties in one specific domain, but al-Tahan’s decision to not only grow wheat, but also to mill it and turn it into bread, goes the extra mile.
From the exterior, his bakery is unassuming, marked with a simple sign marked ‘bakery and taboun’ in Hebrew and Arabic. Upon entering, its representation of the ecology of the town reveals itself. In addition to bread, the bakery sells tubs of labneh and bottles of dill and chili, pickled cucumbers made by other Arabeh locals, and Hussam’s cousin stops by to drop off smoked freekeh (cracked green wheat), melon, watermelon, okra, and a mind-bending, aromatic za’atar.
A typical Arab bakery of this kind in the Galilee region sells shrak (paper-thin flatbread cooked on a saj dome grill), pita bread, and khubz or khubz altabouni (thicker flatbreads cooked on a dome with various toppings), ka’ak asfar (a turmeric-stained bread spice with Nigella seeds traditionally made on Easter), ma’amoul (date cookies), as well as a section of items not made in-house like rugalech (chocolate filled pastries brought to Israel by Polish Jews).al-Tahan’s bakery is loyal to this formula - except for two major differences. First, the khubz are closer in style to hasawi, a type of bread mentioned in seventeenth-century Arabic cookbooks, which involves cooking the dough on small stones called hasaah, helping to distribute heat across the oven, and giving the bread dispersed umber circles. Second, the taboun-baked bread is made from organic wholewheat grain grown in his fields. “I am on a mission to make the whole town eat organic,” he states proudly.
Beneath the bakery is a mill. As he brushes his hand over the grain in a markedly even rhythm, gracefully admiring the fruits of his own labor, he turns to me and smiles, saying, “It’s beautiful. It’s my life. It’s Arabeh.” But he isn’t naive about the challenges he faces. “People here want white flour. They don’t value whole wheat. They add loads of sugar and salt so you can’t taste the grain. I tell them it’s bad for their health.”
The ease with which al-Tahan operates in the farm, mill, and bakery is striking. He measures perfectly even portions of the dough without any scales – a task only he is allowed to perform in the bakery, and then seamlessly works it. Once it has risen, transforming the dough into fine, flat circles is done in individual portions adjacent to the flaming hot taboun. al-Tahan pats each piece into shape with a drum-like rhythm, and the speed and precision of a high-tech machine, but with a tactile energy only a craftsman can achieve.
He makes plain bread, but also two with signature toppings that capture the local terroir and historic use of spicing in the area. The first is with labneh and za’atar, and the second with onions spiced with dried red pepper, sumac, and the house baharat (spice mix). The onion flatbread provides a particularly satisfying melange of flavors; a marriage between the wholesome hint of nuttiness in the wholewheat, the lush sweetness of the onion, and a complex melody of spices - each one subtle enough to be recognized. It seems al-Tahan’s palate may be as adept as his hands.
Arriving in Sawa’id Hamarya – a Bedouin village with the smallest population in the Galilean region, there is a serene and still energy. Yiftach Barkat and his wife made the somewhat idiosyncratic choice of opting to be the only Jewish family to dwell here. “There are many reasons and no reasons why we live here,” he explains. We wanted to send our kids to the anthroposophic school in Harduf, but we are not kibbutz people.” They receive labane (tart yogurt) and eggs from their Bedouin neighbors, and sometimes share a coffee with them, too, but seeking a more private familial space, their interactions maintain some distance.
Barkat’s house is on two floors. The upper floor is where he runs his 100% vegan bakery business, and the lower floor is where he lives with his family. The business is punctuated by a strict schedule. On Mondays, he feeds the sourdough, making starters on Tuesdays, and on Wednesdays, he begins to prepare for a busy Thursday, when all the baking must be completed in order to ensure the loaves are fresh enough to sell the next day in Tel Aviv. Yet, Barkat operates in an instinctive rather than regimented manner. “I like to be free so I can’t be as precise,” he says. “There is no beginning. It’s not a composition; it’s not something that I think about. It’s materialized. It’s something revealing itself and reflecting a natural pattern.”
“The bread changes its taste slightly with the seasons,” he continues. “For me, as an artisanal baker, it’s part of the beauty. It keeps my hand on the pulse of life. It’s an extension of the whole life process. The bread you see on the table is all of this: the mountains, the valley. The quality of the bread is what separates it from something that’s industrial.”
Barkat makes some additional products also: dried red pepper and tomato paste, cashew cream, and wholegrain mustard – but his focus is on the bread. He bakes around fifteen different types of loaves each week, some mainstays, and others experimental or seasonal. There is Jamila – named after the heirloom wheat from which it is created, which has a crumbly texture and an abundance of flavors, slightly piquant and bitter. There is Or Shalem – Or being the Akkadic word for city, and Shalem meaning perfection or Jerusalem – made from a local wheat called razala which features an externally black seed with a yellow interior. He adds anise and nigella seeds like one finds in the ka’ak asfar, producing a brittle, complex bread, the powerful taste of razala coming through, with the spices only lurking in the background. There is also Ofir – the loaf Barkat calls his ‘naked loaf,’ made from just Italian wheat flour and sourdough, softer and spongier than the heritage grains, but with a full its character. Pat haYam (bread of the sea) is topped with seaweed and sprouted sunflower, and offers a blast of umami and salinity with a slightly smoother texture than the Ofir. He also experiments with teff and polenta in one loaf, and has a few more variations of rye, spelt and wheat, laced with innovative combinations of seeds and nuts, each given equally poetic names.
Behind the jazzy surface, however, Barkat is driven by a more serious question. As he says, “modern wheat cannot support itself, how can it support me?” His heritage grains are grown a few kilometers from the bakery. “I used to grow in an organic farm closer to here. It was so magical to stand here and watch the fields, but it didn’t grow well there.”
Heirloom wheats, which range in color from red and yellow to ochre, brown and purple, are rare, and he usually only harvests tiny yields to work with. Moreover, if he does discover a unique flavor, texture, or workability within a grain, he takes three years of exploration to understand it thoroughly in the field before bringing it into the bakery as an ingredient.
“I am trying to create something nourishing and satisfying; not just something to spread something on,” he says, elaborating on his purpose. He tells me he wants to bring back something that is sustainable to the center. “Bread was the food of life, but today it became the enemy of the body. And I’m asking what happened along the way. Sometimes in festive times, the people here 100 years ago would slaughter a goat in the winter, forage wild herbs in the summer, and have some preserved milk products all year round, but basically, they ate two meals of olive oil and bread.”
To reflect on what has actually happened along the way, one cannot ignore the radical transformation of agricultural land, and the broader shifts in land zoning and forms of inequality that have generated new eating practices. Anthropologist Hadas Yaron tracks how legal infrastructure and agricultural practice have been mobilized by the Israeli state in the Jezreel Valley to orchestrate a tight Jewish control over the area that features in her ethno-historical account Zionist Arabesques: Modern Landscapes, Non-Modern Texts. The project of yehud ha-Galil (Judaizing the Galilee) has been in motion since shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel. Whilst there are still strong traditions of Arab artisanal production in the region, few could deny that the expropriation and industrialization of land have diminished its scale. Barkat does not hide from this, telling me: “The local story is very sad and complicated. It’s hard being Arab in Israel. And during conflicts, there can be tension and mess – we can’t go to Arabeh then – but in everyday life, we buy everywhere. It is a different atmosphere here than in Jerusalem [where he used to live]. People look each other in the eyes.”
al-Tahan and Barkat, in their own ways, are both driven by the desire to connect body and land through the stewardship of grain and the artisanal process of turning it into bread. Their lives are disconnected, yet they share a purpose, resisting political and modern forces of homogenization that have turned biodiverse land into bleak landscapes of monocultures. They produce bread with radical intentions, aiming to change their customers’ relationships with consumption - to truly feel the connection between their experience eating and the field that provided their nourishment.
“For me, a lot of the experience of eating the ancient wheat is the experience in the body,” says Barkat. “Flavor is very short. On one hand, it’s familiar to the body. You’ve met before. On the other hand, it dissolves into your body. You don’t digest it. We are slaves to sensation. But you have a long relationship with food. It goes all the way to the last cells of your body.”
Still prone to a pulverulent texture, a taboun bread made by al-Tahan from the local heritage grains that Barkat seeks to creates remains elusive to imagine. Yet, despite creating a divided, industrialized land, the state can never fully control the intrinsic relationship between grain and the body, and the quest for ancient Galilean bread stands the test of time.