Jewish and Arab Farmers and Scientists Try to Crack the Ancient Secrets of Freekeh

This biblical food has become a world health hit. Israeli farmers and scientists are trying to decipher its mysteries

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Credit: Dor Kedmi
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Two weeks ago, just before the first sandy winds of Israel’s short spring painted the stalks of the wheat fields yellow, the field crops staff of Kibbutz Dalia in Galilee set out for a last harvest of green wheat for freekeh – hulled kernels of green durum wheat that absorb a smoked flavor and aroma while they are roasted in the field.

The last harvest of the season, in contrast to the commercial ones that preceded it and were done mechanically with a combine, was a small-scale operation, with just three harvesters and manual labor. Harvesting the green wheat for freekeh in the fields of the Arab fellahin – one of the few places in Israel where the ancient tradition is preserved – is still frequently done with a sickle, and in the kibbutz version, the stalks were cut using simple kitchen knives.

“This is our experimental plot of land,” said Avia Padida-Myers, an agronomist. “We sowed modern species of wheat to examine whether they are appropriate for growing and processing freekeh, alongside traditional species.” The green wheat that was harvested, from different species and relatively late in the season, is intended for research being conducted by Dr. Alon Cna’ani, a plant scientist, about the traditional food’s flavor and aroma qualities.

Farmers and researches harvesting green wheat for freekeh in Kibbutz Dalia, two weeks ago.Credit: Dor Kedmi

The long-legged researcher was also at the experimental plot. In July, he and his family will move to Denmark for the coming stages of the research project, which is being conducted in conjunction with a Danish university with funding by the European Union. The northern countries, which have a long tradition of growing grains and an environmental preference for the smoked flavor, are not alone on the world stage in taking a large interest in the traditional Middle Eastern food in recent years. Freekeh (from the Arabic farik, or rubbing) is one of the early foods that humanity ate in the Middle East after domesticating wheat.

Some maintain that the young green wheat was roasted to become freekeh to cope with the empty granaries before the new wheat harvest, and to ensure a food supply in case of an unexpected spring heat wave. “To prepare emergency food for the home, for fear that an over-early sharav [heat wave] will dry the wheat, the workers of the land went into the fields and harvested and roasted with a fire some of the green stalks,” explains Dr. Tova Dickstein, an expert on food in the biblical period. “Some of the seeds were eaten hot in the field, and the rest were dried and threshed, and the result remained fresh for a whole year. The roasting preserves the sweet flavor and the green color of the seeds, keeps insects away and lends then marvelous smoked flavor.”

Even though there is much worldwide interest in the distinctive flavor and health values of freekeh, Cna’ani says it has been subjected to very little scientific and academic study. “A few research studies were conducted in Turkey,” he says, “but it’s a raw material that is still barely known, even in the Jewish market in Israel, which has only recently begun to discover it. Because there is no research, it’s still not clear what high-quality freekeh is, because each region originally had a different species of wheat and different growing and processing methods. In wine grapes, for example, a common language already exists for speaking and writing about wine and evaluating its quality and there are also scientific studies that examine how different parameters – species of grape, environmental conditions or the fermentation process – affect the final product.”

Credit: Dor Kedmi

Cna’ani notes that “most of the smoked foods we are familiar with – bacon, fish, cheeses – are proteins that undergo a similar smoking process, with an external smoke source. Freekeh is a grain. There aren’t many similar examples, and the source of the smoked flavor lies in the vegetal material of the stalk. We don’t yet understand precisely how this story works.”

The chemical study will be conducted in the Copenhagen laboratory, along with the final stage of the tasting and collaboration with chefs and culinary experts. It’s rather unfortunate that all this goodness will take place far from the Middle East, where the food is mentioned in ancient writings like the Bible, and where Arab farmers have preserved it to this day. But the Scandinavian are light years ahead of us when it comes to linking the culinary with the chemical, organoleptic tasting and physiological testing. Cna’ani will be working with some of the most famous names in the field (including people who were part of the Nordic Food Lab).

“In flavor and aroma, good quality freekeh, which is delicately smoked, like Scotch whiskey from the island of Islay, recalls a wheat field in the transition between the seasons,” says the chef Erez Komarovsky, who makes abundant use of freekeh in his kitchen. In local Palestinian-Arab nutrition, freekeh is cooked in chicken soup, and Komarovsky uses it to stuff roasted chickens and a variety of vegetables, notably zucchini – a reminder of the important role that wheat grains played, after being harvested and processed using various techniques, at a time when rice and other grains which arrived from distant lands were not common in the region.

Credit: Dor Kedmi

New life for field crops

Cna’ani’s cooperation with the field crops personnel of Kibbutz Dalia began when he looked for local partners for the initial research stages. “Mapping the flavor and aroma materials of freekeh is essential if you want to move from local-traditional production to large-scale production, and that is exactly what they’re trying to do in Dalia,” Cna’ani explains. “They want to produce and export select freekeh, of a high quality, so it’s essential for them to understand the parameters that affect the quality.” Over the past two years, Kibbutz Dalia’s field crops group processed and marketed nearly 100 tons of freekeh – a raw material that hasn’t enjoyed a large-scale commercial agricultural presence to date.

“Five years ago we established, or revived, an old seed company that operated in the kibbutz and was its death throes,” says Avishai Amram, one of the leading figures in the industry in the kibbutz. “We sell seeds to farmers, but our real focus is on introducing new crops into Israel to try to aid the agricultural industry. The state of agriculture in Israel, and of field crops in particular, is very poor. There is no direct governmental support, as there is in other developed countries, and in the field crops category – mostly dry grains that are easily and cheaply loaded onto [ships known as] bulk carriers and brought in from overseas – the situation is even worse.” It doesn’t help that 90 percent of the wheat consumed today in Israel is imported from overseas.

Freekeh. Credit: Dor Kedmi

Amram, a kibbutz native, returned home after studies at the Hebrew University’s agriculture faculty in Rehovot. “With the passing of the years the basket of products is growing smaller,” he says. “Cotton, which was a significant export crop, has almost completely disappeared. Sunflowers, whose blossoming used to brighten up our fields, are vanishing. And where we used to have 120,000 dunams [30,000 acres] of chickpeas, we’re now down to 20,000. There’s nothing to grow. Profitability has totally eroded.”

The young farmers, the third and fourth generations of kibbutzniks, revived the old seed company and also turned their attention to the health food market. “That market is also willing to pay accordingly,” Amram notes. “We are trying to introduce new crops into Israel. The past two years, in addition to growing crops in the fields of the kibbutz, we have been operating across the whole chain of production, down to wholesale marketing. We supply seeds and instruction to farmers; buy their produce; process it here, because each crop requires a different process; and distribute it to wholesalers.”

Kibbutz Dalia’s field crops today comprise 3,000 dunams of quinoa, a few hundred dunams of teff, fields of black cumin (earmarked largely for a local oils factory), and even dozens of types and species of rice, which sprouted in the past month in the kibbutz’s research and experimental greenhouses. “I want to foment a revolution in the realm of field crops,” says Amram.

And there are also wheat fields, including research plots for ancient heritage species, and an attempt to transform the growing of green wheat for freekeh into a profitable crop for local farmers. “We got to that by chance,” Amram recalls, “and through Jasser Dalasheh, a farmer from the Arab local council of Bu’eine Nujeidat who became a partner.” In recent years, Dalasheh, who terms himself “a farmer descended from a farmer, who loves farming,” has been trying to mechanize and streamline the traditional process of turning green wheat into freekeh, which was roasted on prickly burnet bushes in ancient times; today it’s roasted on iron constructions – but either way it involves exhausting, slow manual labor.

Credit: Dor Kedmi

“My father and grandfather prepared freekeh before me,” Dalasheh says, “and I wanted to find a way to streamline the method but to preserve the quality.” He put together a modern system for roasting freekeh and started looking for growers from other regions of the country to extend the short season of green wheat that’s suitable for processing into freekeh. That’s how he got to Kibbutz Dalia.

“With all due respect to quinoa, freekeh is not only healthy but also tasty,” Amram says. “Dalasheh proposed a partnership on the basis of the technology he started to develop, and we are always looking for new sources of profit for agriculture. There are some major problems with the traditional method of transforming green wheat into freekeh. One is environmental: The traditional production involves a huge fire that pollutes the air. Second is a health issue: Supervision is needed over the remains of the burning process that stay in the product. And third is to maintain uniformity of the finished item, because an automatic production line hasn’t yet been developed.”

The Jewish-Arab partnership has been successful with creating a mechanical production method, but the partners say the details are a trade secret. “I can’t yet say that the system is perfect,” Amram notes. “But without detailing the process, we don’t burn the wheat in the field itself; the smoke is filtered to prevent environmental pollution. In addition, we can produce freekeh on a large scale and at a uniform level, and the level of smoke preserves the flavor but leaves permissible amounts of charred materials. That’s an innovation that we want to patent.”

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