Pleasure Hunting / Herbal Essence

The stem of the silene flower, adorned by light purple petals, was transformed by imagination - and some garlic, chili pepper, lemon and cumin - into the Bedouin dumpling dish fatayer. The green eryngium looked like it could have been part of a fantastic salad with a strong earthy scent. Our tour guide Zahiya Swaid forbade us from picking the big, thick leaves of a common alkanet known to the Bedouin as bull's tongue. At least not for now.

"Let them grow a bit more," she says, dreaming aloud of stuffing the impressive specimen with rice and meat. If the bull's tongue is off limits, then how about what the Bedouin call camel's neck? No, she says resolutely. Its leaves, which Bedouin use to make salads, have not yet fully enjoyed the blessed rain of the past weeks and still need to grow. The beautiful hills around are still strewn with dry Spanish golden thistle, remains from last year. Their darling buds are now thirsty for water. A shame, because Zahiya swears the thistle resembles the taste of a young gundelia, an endangered plant now protected by law.

The women of the Galilee village of Husnia, a Bedouin community founded before the creation of the state but only recognized in 1996, began offering guided tours on picking and cooking wild plants last year. Some 20 of the village's women took part in a business development course. Thirteen dropped out, but seven others graduated including Zahiya, the driving force behind the attempt to earn a living from the age-old tradition of foraging wild plants for food and medicinal use. She herself guides small groups, but other women usually accompany larger ones. They teach visitors about the herbs, help cook them and sometimes make pots full of food from the natural and seasonal produce of the verdant Galilee land.

Nowadays they do most of their shopping at markets or supermarkets. Most women no longer bake pita everyday on the saj, a metal plate placed on an open fire. Only a few, usually the elderly, still make cheese from their livestock's milk. In Zahiya's kitchen, men and women speak of the names of forgotten foods like habisa, asida and ketch'hats; they talk of their sweet childhood memories of carob jam and sweet tahina deserts that are no longer prepared.

Meanwhile, everybody is busy in the courtyard of the clan's house, where three brothers, their wives - including the second wife of Abdullah, Zahiya's husband - and families all live together. They dice bunches of mallow (hubezeh), chicory and fennel, with its pervasive anise-like scent. The delicate leaves of the fennel are not just an important ingredient in wonderful lentil and rice dishes, but also a great breath-freshener that can return husbands to their wives.

The simplest wild herb dishes begin with some olive oil and plenty of onion. When the onion starts giving the fresh new olive oil some of its sweetness the entire pot comes to life, Zahiya eats it with bits of pita, relishes the flavor and then passes it on to the others. She feeds bread to her little daughter with endless patience. Zahiya had four children. Two were born with an incurable genetic disease common among the Swaids due to intermarriage. One of them, her son, died five years ago, and another, her young daughter, is very sick. But her warm smile belies no sadness, it's the kind of smile that could brighten up the whole world through sheer faith. It's all for the best, and she is filled with pride by her new independence, despite life's hardships.

"Eat, eat more," she implores her diners and brings out fantastic olives, lentil soup and synia, minced meat in tahina sauce.

Wild plant and herb picking courses in Husnia, Zahiya: 054-588-4879, Mia: 04-661-9068, 35 NIS per adult adult, NIS 22 per child.

"It is hard work," Salah says showing his scratched hands and his dirt-filled fingernails. For more than a decade, Salah has been a professional herb picker, with a stall in the Arabeh market. Twice a week he comes to sell dozens of beautiful bunches of mallow, wild beets and spinach, which differ from their domesticated cousins. The rest of his time he spends scoring the country's width and breadth looking for that season's edible wild herbs. Some his produce grows on farms - the fennel grown on Kafr Manda stands out due to the size of its leaves - but most of the herbs, which may be picked legally, grow alongside agricultural fields. Sometimes farmers suspect he is trying to steal metal or agricultural equipment, and they call the police. Last week a farmer demanded Salah pay him NIS 200 for mallow he picked on his land.

The Arabeh market has other stands like Salah's at this time of year, for those who no longer go out into the fields to pick wild herbs themselves.

Some offer the new year's dirt-crusted potatoes, which we searched for in vain in Tel Aviv's Carmel Market. They also have great roots, firm and crunchy pea pods, little red strawberries, and dozens of other fresh fruits and vegetables, most of which originate in nearby Galilee villages. Other vendors sell sweets, spices, homewares and clothes.

The Arabeh Market, next to Hilazon Junction, is open Tuesdays and Saturday mornings from dawn until dusk.