A culinary tour with the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library

Nisf Jubeil

It’s gone 8pm and we’re hungry. We’ve driven two hours to our meeting point in the small West Bank town of Sebastiya. It’s dark, and there are a lot of tractors. But we’re going further. It’s another ten minutes, in convoy, along narrow roads in the pitch-dark, to the tiny hillside village of Nisf Jubeil, which is where dinner will be served.

By now I would eat literally anything, and with a preschooler in tow who will inevitably be late to bed, I am convinced that tomorrow will be hell. But, in an instant, my mood is transformed. Through a wooden doorway in a windowless wall, is a tiny Utopia.

The darkness is replaced by strings of fairy lights, softened by the corn-coloured stone of the courtyard. In the middle is a table, set for 11, heavy with Palestinian produce. In fact, most of what is on the table has come from this tiny village north of Nablus; cactus, stuffed vine leaves, tiny balls of creamy labneh in olive oil and za’atar, olives, fresh bread, salad and plenty of seasonal fruit. It’s summer and the peaches and nectarines are the best I’ve eaten.

Dinner with the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library

“Eighty per cent of what we are eating is from the village,” explains Khader, one of our hosts and a local farmer.

He, like many others in this mixed Muslim and Christian village, is working with the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library to grow forgotten-about varieties of fruit, vegetables and cereals.

He is joined by Vivien Sansour, founder of the seed library and the brain behind this culinary tour. She tells us about some of the varieties they are trying to revive; the baal tomato, which can survive without irrigation, a giant watermelon called Jadu’i and Abu Samara, or ‘the dark handsome one’, an heirloom wheat with distinctive black hair. We pass him around, and stroke his mane.

According to Vivien, “the seed library is about eating Palestinian heritage, rather than saving it in a museum,” and we are more than happy to oblige. This history tastes good, and we have a whole weekend of it to get through.

How a tiny village in the West Bank, population 350, could keep us busy for an entire weekend had certainly intrigued me, but It turns out Nisf Jubeil is an eco-movement in itself. 

The village provides 70 per cent of its own food. There is a farmers cooperative, a women’s cooperative, a guest house with three rooms, linked to a communal kitchen (where we dined on the first night), and a ceramics center.

And there is Khader, or Khader’s family to be precise. Including his aunt, whose garden we visited. In the small plot next to her house, Um Nisreen grows enough to feed her family and sell a surplus. We drink sweet mint tea under the olive trees, surveying the tomato plants and trying to spot shiny purple aubergines, while the kids take turns on a tiny wooden swing.

Most people have some livestock too, she tells us. Rami next door has six sheep on the roof. 

For lunch, it’s a short stroll up to Khader’s house, where his wife Ransis and mother Um Khader have prepared maqluba (upside down chicken with rice), and a chicken and vegetable stew, (all local, of course), served with salad, olives, yogurt and a fibrous green stew made of molokhia, or mallow.

I wonder if we will need to eat again this weekend, but a few hours later we are picking our own dinner; heritage tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes fill an assortment of wicker baskets. The searing heat of the summer’s day has subsided and our hosts have set up a campfire, ready to cook our modest harvest. 

Reinforcements arrive with blankets and mattresses and we settle down to watch the sun set, trying to avoid the tufts of thyme poking through the sheets beneath us. As darkness falls a single light bulb is suspended from a tree, and dinner is served. 

The most delicious, simple vegetable stew, is served with mujadara and yogurt. Turns out Khader’s mum and wife were busy in the kitchen again. Rami, of sheep fame, turns out the huge pot of steaming rice and lentils in one go.  And there is fried okra too, sprinkled with salt. 

By the time we finish eating it’s late, so we head back to Khader’s for desert. It’s 11pm and the kids are still up, eating sugar-drenched pastries stuffed with local cheese. 

Tomorrow it’s on to Nablus to explore the souk, find out how they make tahini and eat Knafeh, another cheese-based sweet famous in this region. 

More info on our stay…

This culinary tour was organised by the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, with accommodation at the Mosaic Guest House in either Nisf Jubeil or Sebastiya.

To find out about future tours and initiatives, go to their Facebook page.

To book either guest house directly, go to mosaicguesthouse.org.

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