'As much as it takes'
Two recently discovered notebooks with yellowing pages, filled with recipes, shed light on the lives of families connected to the pro-British Nili underground, which operated in Palestine.
On the table in the Khan Museum in Hadera is a discovery: Books of recipes from the Aaronsohn and Gelberg families, both connected to Nili, the pro-British spy ring that operated in Palestine during World War I. The recipes are written in leather-bound, blue notebooks, some on yellowing pages in a round and legible handwriting. They are combined with cooking instructions, some in Yiddish and others in archaic Hebrew: A pinch of salt is described as "salt between your fingers"; flour is added "as much as it takes"; halkum is Turkish delight (rahat lokum); "baking" is baking powder; and eggs are to be beaten by hand with a beater until they are stiff.
Romanian-born botanist Aaron Aaronsohn and his sister Sarah, who was born in Zikhron Yaakov, were founders of the Nili underground group, which worked to gather and secretly pass on information to the British about the Ottoman regime, which then ruled Palestine and the entire region. The Aaronsohns' sister, Rivka, was the one who wrote down the recipes in question, on occasion with help from Tova Gelberg - Sarah Aaronsohn's good friend - and her daughter.
The recipes, mainly for cakes and cookies, are written with great precision, and called for ingredients that were available in the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community): pistachios, apples, grape preserves and arak. The recipes for other dishes are influenced by the cuisine of Eastern Europe and particularly Romania - including dumplings with roast meat, cold potato salad with carrots, etc. There are not many extraneous notes alongside the recipes: They are written in a practical language, without dates, as a simple family collection.
The notebooks were discovered in the Khan Museum about a week ago, explains Nina Rudin, the museum's director, who says that they were part of the contents of crates of recently donated archival material.
The recipes can teach us something about the lifestyle of the families that were connected to Nili. Author Gabriela Avigur-Rotem, whose most recent book, "Adom Atik" ("Ancient Red," Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan; in Hebrew), features a contemporary plot that includes chapters from the history of the Yishuv, says that the Aaronsohns' lifestyle combined various spartan elements of the period - an oven in the yard and cows that the women milked by themselves - with bourgeois accents such as Damascene furniture, Lebanese fabrics and fine-quality food that Aaron Aaronsohn sent back home to his sisters while he was abroad. Of course there were no refrigerators, but there were cellars in which they kept preserves, canned fruits and vegetables, and sausages.
The Aaronsohns, like many of their neighbors, were also vintners and they enjoyed grapes all year round. Each family had its own recipe for grape jam that was always served along with cold water. In the Aaronsohns' recipe book there is an entry for such a jam with anise-flavored arak.
Avigur-Rotem, who researched the Nili members' lifestyle for her book, says she was surprised to discover that Aaron Aaronsohn's house had no kitchen at all: "The house is equipped with the best of everything ... carved furniture from Damascus and even a tank for heating water, but the assumption was that he, as a bachelor, would go to eat with his sister in the adjacent house, or in his parents' home."
It also turns out that during the 1920s their village had a delicatessen, which was established by the officials of Baron de Rothschild in an attempt to imitate, to some extent, the French lifestyle. There one could find canned food from France, including fish, jams and other delicacies. Local agricultural workers protested the very existence of the shop, because they considered the products sold there to be corrupting luxuries.
The Aaronsohns also added to their kitchen crops from the experimental agricultural farm run by Aaronsohn in Atlit: "They had dates and wheat even during the war years, when there was great poverty in the country," says Avigur-Rotem, "and oranges that they would bring from Petah Tikva."
Aaron Aaronsohn visited Egypt because of his espionage ties with the British, and he also liked to send Sarah and Rivka delicacies from there. "He was a very devoted brother," Avigur-Rotem notes, "but Sarah insisted on not accepting products that were unavailable in the country, in order not to make people envious."
Many families had cows in their yards, which Arab boys would take to pasture, and they would prepare yogurt and cheeses from the milk. Avigur-Rotem says that in Zikhron Yaakov, food could not be kept for more than one day, because of the heat, and "that was a reason for quarrels between Sarah Aaronsohn and her husband when they lived in Turkey: He didn't understand why she threw out the leftover food from the same day."
Mixing the dough
The recipes of Rivka Aaronsohn and Tova Gelberg that appear here in their original wording are simple, but preparing them is a challenge: Apparently they had a lot of spare time available to knead the dough and set it aside, and again to knead and to wait, processing the dough very well, until it became as delicate as possible.
We tried the recipe for strudel at home, almost 100 years later, in a contemporary kitchen, and learned some lessons from the result: The whole wheat that was chosen out of a desire to imitate the ingredients in the Zichron kitchen back then, was a mistake, of course; this is flour from which it is very difficult to produce a tasty base for a cake. You can also sweeten the dough; it certainly won't hurt and is more familiar to the contemporary palate. The filling in any case is very tasty; the dough mixture is ready in a minute - but, as mentioned, it has to be kneaded well by hand. The cake should be sliced into thin slices, widthwise, which yields very tasty, dry cookies.
By the way, Rivka Aaronsohn eventually became a vegetarian, but her recipe here is for kugel cooked in pot-roast gravy, from before she stopped eating meat.