In the Israeli Wilderness, the Perfect Summer Salad Is Yours for the Picking

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Yatir Sade wades into Ein Aviel to gather plants.
Yatir Sade wades into Ein Aviel to gather plants. Credit: Dan Peretz
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

It’s 6 A.M. in Ein Aviel, a small, hidden pool along the banks of Nahal Taninim. A cyclist, out for a morning spin through farm fields and uncultivated areas in the Ramat Menashe region, removes his shirt and enters the cool water of the spring. Other early risers, seeking a break from the scorching heat, leave their clothes in a small hut built by residents of the area on the banks of the natural pool, and join the cyclist. Yatir Sade, who earns his living by teaching people how to gather wild plants, has parked himself at the edge of the pool to look for edible treasures. Sanchi – his canine assistant, who has a wise, almost human face – follows him faithfully into the water.

Sade can’t find water mint, which is common at this time of year (“It’s great for meatballs and cooked foods”), but there’s plenty of horsemint, and he picks a nice bunch (“I usually use horsemint for fresh salads”). Among the tangled water reeds he also finds the sharp leaves of fool’s watercress, (which tastes like celery, one of its domesticated relatives), and the bittersweet leaves of watercress.

Wild watercress, which grows naturally in the element that gave it its name, has a wonderful bitter, stimulating taste that its commercial relatives lack. “If my wife knew the significance of watercress, she would plant it under our bed,” says Sade, quoting a proverb he learned from a Bedouin friend, which refers to the plant’s reputation as an aphrodisiac among ancient inhabitants of the region.

Nectarine and fresh greens. A perfect breakfast salad.Credit: Dan Peretz

“When I gather the stems or leaves of a plant I don’t affect its ability to multiply,” he tells a small group of swimmers and listeners. “Correct gathering has a beneficial effect both on the species being gathered and on the environment, and it’s important to gather while carrying out an overall observation of the area, to check out whether or not there is a large population of the plant in a given space.

“Unfortunately, I’m almost the only one who gathers here. Most people, including local residents and nearby communities, have no awareness of the subject. It’s right under their noses, but almost nobody gathers wild plants. I want to increase chefs’ awareness of the subject, as well as that of ordinary people who can use the wild plants in their home kitchens, and include the edible parts in all kinds of salads and cooked dishes.”

Yatir Sade's home-made mustard.Credit: Dan Peretz

Sanchi jumps into the back seat of the van and they’re on their way again. Some dry bushes along a dirt road parallel to Highway 6 – to an inexperienced eye just an unimportant bunch of thorns and nettles – turn out to be a priceless collection of dry white mustard bushes that are full of pods. Sade and Sanchi jump out of the car at the sight of a thorny collection of wild blackberry plants, full of red-black fruits that offer a fascinating array of sweet-and-sour flavors.

Gathering, separating, sorting

Yatir Sade (we thought Sade, which means field, was an invented name, in homage to his passion and the source of his livelihood, but he vehemently denies it) was born on Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk in 1980. “I started gathering while I was still on the kibbutz, and at the age of five I proudly brought home a stem of arum that I had picked in the fields, and ate it uncooked. To this day I remember the feeling of shards of glass in my throat.”

This lover of nature and nighttime forays spent a year in Africa and a year in Mitzpe Ramon after his military service, and specialized in Land of Israel studies at Beit Berl College. He now lives in Karkur, travels frequently in Israel and abroad, and teaches and conducts tours and courses on plant gathering and Israeli geography. In the past year he left his job in the school system to teach the art of gathering on a full-time basis.

Wild mustard. A moderately spicy taste.Credit: Dan Peretz

In the kitchen of Sade’s modest home there are buckets and vases full of branches of wild plants. In the backyard there’s a bucket of carobs, and a large pot in which the carobs are soaked as part of the process of preparing carob syrup, an ancient sweetener and a common ingredient of local cuisine in bygone days. (The complete process includes striking the carob pods with a stone to create cracks; soaking them in water for 24 hours; and then cooking the liquid until it is condensed.)

On a small table he separates the mustard seeds from the dry pods and sorts them. The seeds, which have a moderately spicy taste, are crushed and mixed with a little apple vinegar and date syrup to create a natural home-made mustard without preservatives.

Sade and his partner, Amital Ben Zvi who also works in education, prepare a breakfast based mainly on the products of gathering: a salad of grilled eggplant with somewhat tart goat yogurt (prepared by a friend who lives in the desert), watercress and wild blackberries; a salad of nectarines and fool’s watercress; and a sea bream ceviche served with home-pickled capers and salty salicornia branches.

“I want to bring people close to nature and teach them to gatherin a sustainable manner,” says the man of the fields, who offers 5- to 6-hour workshops on gathering and cooking in the field; 8-session courses that focus on other geographical regions, in different seasons; and courses on soil culture for nature-loving children. Sade is considering devoting his master’s degree thesis to the clash between Israeli nature and environment organizations on the one hand, and traditional ideas about edible wild plants in the culture of the Arabs of the Land of Israel on the other. “But it’s still a vague and unformed idea,” he says. “We’ll talk about it when the time comes and when I start researching the subject properly.”

For workshops, contact Shirat Hasade, 054-224-8243, (cost of a gathering and cooking workshop: 150-200 shekels)

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