Spicy Secret: Israel's Off-the-track Farmers' Market

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Furiel Mahbesh at the Ramle market.Credit: Dan Peretz

“There is no mosque in the Islamic countries more magnificent than its mosque, there is no finer and better white flour, there is no region more blessed, there are no fruits as tasty. It lies among fertile rural areas, a city surrounded by walls and excellent border settlements. With luxurious inns, elegant bathhouses, fine food, a wealth of spices, spacious homes, handsome mosques, wide streets and an orderly administration.”

Geographer Al-Muqaddasi on Ramle in the 10th century. From “Eretz Israel in Medieval Arabic Sources,” edited by Uri Tal.

Pumpkin, sweet potatoes and garlic. That’s it. The Maslawi brothers’ stall in the Ramle market is based on these three products, and nothing more. When there is no pumpkin, they sell only sweet potatoes and garlic. When there are no sweet potatoes, orange chunks of pumpkin and gray-white garlic fill the counter. Once a decade a mango may sneak in, perhaps in the name of the orange brotherhood, but no other fruit or vegetable will appear on the long, battered wooden planks, which require Ali Maslawi to bend over and stretch his arms to the limit when handing change to his customers. “This is merchandise that doesn’t spoil,” says Maslawi. “We’ve been working with it for the past 40 years – my brother has been here in the market for 40 years and I’ve been here for 35. We start early in the morning, finish in the afternoon and go home.”

Opposite the orange stall is a yellow one, and there too life is conducted with practical simplicity. David Almaliach has been selling bananas and lemons for the past 22 years. The bananas come from the fields of the Carmel coast, the 
lemons from Almaliach’s 
orchard in one of the moshavim near Ramle, and when the family orchard runs out of fruit, they buy it from their neighbors.

In Omar and Shadi Issa’s stall they sell bamia (okra), alubia beans and various types of pumpkins and squash that come from fields near Lod. And not far from there, at the bottom of the main street of the market, where prices are lower, the Mahbesh family opens their vegetable stall before the weekend.

Furiel Mahbesh sits on a small stool in the shade of the half-ruined stone arches of the old Ottoman khan and cleans heads of celery. Shrugging her shoulders in surprise when asked why they don’t sell tomatoes, for example, she says, “That’s not our job.” Nobody speaks in a lofty way of professional specialization and expertise, although when a farmer cultivates and sells the same fruit or vegetable for decades, he becomes thoroughly familiar with its nature and quality. Most of the merchants in the market do practice traditional customs.

“I live this market,” says David Leichman, the ice cream maker from nearby Kibbutz Gezer (“The ice man cometh,” Haaretz Magazine, May 30, 2013), who also gives guided tours of the market to English speakers. “I come here at least three or four times a week, and one of the reasons is that it’s a real farmers’ market, much more so than the large markets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. The fruits and vegetables don’t arrive every morning from a uniform source, from the warehouses of huge wholesale companies; they come from the fields of the farmers in nearby moshavim and kibbutzim.

“Most of the sellers here are members of the second and third generation of farmers of the region – where, due to inheritance customs, the plot usually goes to the firstborn son – who open stalls in the market and sell the local family produce there. I’ve known them and their families for decades, and I’m happy to see that in recent years Arab stall owners have joined them. Until recently the Arab residents of the city were only hired workers in the market, and now they sell baladi vegetables and herbs at their own stalls, from the last fellahin fields remaining in the Ramle-Lod area.”

Anyone who walks around the streets of the old city, which is pretty, but painfully neglected, will find it difficult to identify the wide streets and magnificent buildings that graced the capital of the district and the country in the past. But even today, visitors to the market’s main street will understand the ancient travelers’ enthusiastic praise for the local fruits and vegetables.

The agricultural products on display in the stalls are far better than what is sold in other local markets (and also very inexpensive). Merchants compete among themselves not only with loud shouts, but in the way they display their produce: In one of the summer fruit stalls, peaches with lovely fuzz, bunches of purple grapes and jujube fruit are arranged in attractive pyramids; in another stall the owner refreshes the blushing cheeks of lychee fruits with drops of water from a spray can; and the huge pumpkins, sweet potatoes and garlic at the Masalawi brothers’ stall are arranged intelligently and with a clear aesthetic concept; they look as if they came from a market scene in a still life painting.

Hidden treasures

The trays of colored candies in Avraham Shalom’s shop (“In the market they call me Abu Hilu”) are equally pleasing to the eye. Shalom, who was born in 1943, is considered one of the elders of the market, along with his friend Samir Dabit of the Samir Restaurant. “We’ve known each other since childhood. In terms of politics we’re in different places,” says Shalom of his friend, who belongs to the Communist Party, “but that has no connection to friendship.” Shalom’s father – who immigrated from Turkey after being arrested for gold smuggling, spent time in a detention camp in Cyprus and was wounded in Israel’s War of Independence – left his son a sweets shop on the ground floor of an old Ottoman khan leased from the Greek patriarchate. Dabit’s father – the owner of a Jaffa hummus place and a cook for the British army, who moved to Ramle following his wife’s family – left his son a small café that became a restaurant serving hummus and local Palestinian food.

From one of the stores near the restaurant, not far from the butcher shop, wafts a sweet smell of cologne. It’s a barber shop, where Ghassan Zeituna is waiting for customers. Even when his impeccable shop is empty, the tools of his trade – combs, razors and a foam brush – stand in a straight row below the mirror. There is no radio or television in sight, and the barber chair of metal and leather is the same one that has been there since the day he began working in the shop over 40 years ago. His father before him served regular customers for 69 years.

The grains, nuts and colorful spices in the Avivi family shop delight not only the eye but the heart of every foodie. Eyal Avivi, a member of the third generation, is today manager of the family business; he continues to grind fresh spices on the top floor, with an old-fashioned machine and manual wooden sifters. “I’m from the older generation,” says Avivi (born in 1980) with a half smile. The result is a large variety of spices, like North African ras el hanout, Iraqi-style baharat, an Egyptian mix of three types of pepper plus nutmeg and roses, Indian curry and more.

In the fruit and vegetable department, you can find local Medjool dates and purplish-black Uzbek raisins, dried naturally and exceptionally sweet (they are also sold with the stem, and can be eaten 
almost like sunflower seeds, or without the stem). Other hidden treasures are the product of stores of knowledge and meticulous scholarship: ground combinations of various nuts and seeds, including almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts and more, which are produced especially for this shop without additives or preservatives.

Some of of these excellent natural mixtures are used by Leichman, who last year began to offer workshops for the production of his wonderful home-made ice creams. Anyone who samples the pistachio, nougat, or the vanilla, rum and Uzbek raisin ice cream will believe, like Leichman, that ice cream is God’s way of healing the universe. Even the conflicted Middle East.

Avivi Spices, Ramle Market, (08) 923-6648

David Leichman ice cream workshops, 050-522-6129

A leek vendor in Ramle.Credit: Dan Peretz
Furiel Mahbesh at the Ramle market.Credit: Dan Peretz
Corn at the Ramle market.Credit: Dan Peretz