The wheat season

Two men, crouching against the wall just inside the Damascus Gate. Spread out before them were three piles of spring’s freshest bounty — crisp grape leaves, green chickpeas still in their pods, and what was that last one? I squinted. Wheat. Fresh, green wheat berries.

Ariella and I stopped. What do you do with it? I asked one man. He turned to his friend — he didn’t speak Hebrew. You eat it, the second man told me. I nibbled a plump green grain. It was rich, chewy and slightly nutty — far more flavor than dried cooked wheat — and smoky overtones. The soot left black smudges on my fingers. This was freekeh, the biblical grain. The wheat is harvested before it’s fully ripe, and then the chaff is burned away, giving it its characteristic smoky taste. But this was fresh, not dry like most freekeh sold. That meant it was available only for the few weeks of the wheat harvest, which began in late April and now is in full swing.

Fresh wheat is not widely available, at least not in the markets that I frequent. Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda and the old city markets currently are teeming with stone fruits, grape leaves, chickpeas and Armenian cucumber, yet we found only two Arab vendors selling green wheat, both of them near the Damascus Gate.

Chickpeas and grape leaves in Mahane Yehuda.

Despite the language barrier, the sellers were enthusiastic, telling us that the wheat would dry out to be kept all year, which meant the fresh stuff had a shelf life of only four days — after that, it becomes hard. (Update from 2012: It will actually keep for a week or two in the fridge; this year I’m going to try freezing some.) And the chickpeas could be roasted in their pods to make a crunchy snack. (I’d always wondered how dry roasted chickpeas were made. Apparently from fresh chickpeas, not dried ones.)

I bought half a kilo of wheat for a very reasonable 5 shekels. As we walked, I couldn’t keep my hand out of the bag. Vegan bacon, Ariella’s husband would later term it. I should have bought more, I thought. At least a kilo, maybe two kilos, maybe the guy’s entire stock … I could hoard it, bathe in it … but four days. In four days it’ll be dry and the magic will have passed. Oh well.

The view from the Austrian Hospice roof, near Damascus Gate.

Ariella writes about our day: Where and what to eat in Jerusalem.

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