The best cucumbers in Israel
Farmer, Nazareth - Tzippori
Interview and photographs by Veronica Yudkevich
Let me tell you about a hidden gem of a place. A cluster of small fields and orchards hide beneath the road with the help of trees and bushes, so easy to miss, as the eyes follow the curve of the lane. While driving from Hamovil junction towards Nazareth, go easy on the throttle as you descend the Solelim off-ramp, and in the middle of the curve there will be a dirt road sloping downward to your right, to the basateen (gardens).
The smallish plots, watered by a stream, are tended by neighbors and relatives from the Tsafafra neighborhood in Nazareth who grow vegetables for their extended families and sell the surplus. Those plots were given as compensation, albeit partial, to the families evicted from the Saffuriya village (now Tzippori). Imad and his brother Muhammad assumed responsibility after their father, Ahmad, passed away and are cultivating their own (½ acre) and rented land. Theirs is the first shed (basta) under a huge mulberry tree, and that’s where my in-laws - who’ve been their loyal customers for many, many years - brought me after I decided it’s time to get to know the origins of the best cucumbers ever. This is the place to be if you want to fill your car with fresh, seasonal produce, get detailed cooking tips and support the local economy.
Some people and places just click with you. When we first met, Imad reminded me of my grandfather, who, although worlds apart, also grew up working the land, respected it and worked hard all his life. They’re the same earthy hands that now offered me a slice of a juicy fennel bulb that once offered a plum or a tomato. Imad is the first person I ever interviewed. Talking about earth, blood and memories tends either to separate people or bring them together; he’s now a little bit like family.
What do you grow in your field?
In the winter lettuce, parsley, spinach, arugula, cabbage, cauliflower. We also have chicory and fennel, that’s it. In the summer we have tomatoes, zucchini, black eyed peas, baladi (local), non irrigated tomatoes that are called “baaliyeh” and cucumbers. Because of the water here, our cucumbers are the best in Israel; people come from as far as Tel Aviv for them. We also grow mulukhiyah (Jew’s mallow), one of the favorite foods among Arabs.
Do you have a favorite vegetable?
Here? Mulukhiyah. It’s really good; we cook it with a bit of spinach. Because it’s a seasonal green, some people cook and freeze it for later, while others dry the leaves of mulukhiyah and add as a seasoning to spinach. I eat it only in season, not frozen.
When did you start working here?
When I was about 15. After school I came here with my dad.
Do you have any memorable experiences from your childhood here that you’d like to share?
I’m the tenth child out of 12 brothers and sisters. I remember that we used to work here with my mom and dad. Mom cooked food on the grill; we laughed and worked together – it was fun. We didn’t have a car, so my dad took us in the tractor trailer; we had to lie down so the policemen wouldn’t see us.
There was no drip irrigation system and we watered by hand. My older brother and I used to fight who’d water the plants and who’d pick. We liked going to the water pump, playing and splashing around in the cold water. The stream was closer; it was later redirected toward the forest. Now when it rains the water collects in the lowest part of the field where once flowed the stream.
I really liked driving the tractor and plowing the field. This work is in my heart now; I love the forest and the vegetables. I see it as my father’s and grandfather’s land. It’s the place where my father [Ahmad] was born. His mother died when he was 2 or 3 years old and he worked only in agriculture since he was very young. He talked to us a lot about this land, their life here, and how they took care of it. I got the love for the land from him.
My father used to sit here under the [mulberry] tree and make sada coffee; he died a few years ago from cancer. More than a father, he was a friend to me. Everyone who knew him would agree that he was an extraordinary and generous man.
Do you think your children will continue working here?
No, I wouldn’t want them working in the field, but I bring them here a lot, just for fun. Two days ago we went elsaineh picking (Jerusalem sage). When they forage and pick the plants, they learn how everything grows; I want them to appreciate and respect nature.
Do you know of other places in the area like these gardens?
There are in Ka’abiyye, Kafr Manda, Uzeir, but nobody has spring water like we have here. Spring water makes our vegetables taste better. Everybody else gets water from the Mekorot [water company].
Have you seen any changes here in all those years?
Life was simple, but people used to love each other; they were close. Now there is no love, even between brothers.
Have you thought of doing something else?
I used to work in construction. My uncle is a contractor and I worked for him in Tel Aviv and Herzliya. But I prefer this place over any other. I come here every day and go to the forest when there is no work to do. There’s fresh air and good water; many people told me they would like to change places with me.