The increasingly tragic situation in the Middle East is also causing us to have concerns about the food communities who are supposed to come to Terra Madre from October 26 to 30 in Turin. Counting Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, there are around forty groups of small farmers, artisans, fisherpeople, transformers and cooks. These precious microeconomies are now experiencing unbearable conditions and risk disappearing.
In these areas, agriculture is one of the most important resources. In places where there are few opportunities for developing commerce or trading resources with other countries, traditional methods of cultivation are the sole source of food. They are essential to achieve self-sufficiency and alleviate periods of serious crisis.
To cite some examples, we have received a lot of documentation on the state of Palestinian agriculture, which has to reckon with confiscation and destruction of land, reduced access to resources, restrictions on the movement of raw materials and people, the actual closure of some areas, difficulties in obtaining sufficient water for irrigation and harsh customs barriers. Imagine what it means to cultivate the land in these places and how difficult it is to maintain a minimal level of profitability in business. The worst thing is when there is destruction and food literally disappears.
I have spoken about Palestine because just recently I received their documentary material, plans for the future and the stories of those working to resolutely defend local agriculture. But their counterparts across the border are not faring much better. Several months ago I was in Israel and visited Terra Madre communities: producers of oil and cheese are paying an incredible price and are all at the limits of endurance.
I do not dare imagine what is happening to the Lebanese communities. The twenty two that we are expecting in Turin are involved in horticulture, organic agriculture, traditional processing of vegetables and legumes; there is a community of fisherpeople from Batroun and a community from the market of Souk El Tayeb. There are also a couple of Presidia, one actually by the Israeli border: on the south coast of Lebanon, about ten kilometers from the ancient city of Tyre, is Majedl el Zoun, a small village of Muslim farmers, sited in a dry stony landscape.
Their Kechek el fouqara or ‘poor man’s cheese’, in fact uses no milk and is produced using corn fermented in water. It is also called Jebnet el burghol (burghul cheese). It was a very common product until 25 years ago (before the other war), when it was mainly found in the poorest areas in the south of the country, where small farmers often did not even possess a cow.
The freshly harvested corn is left to ferment in water for at least eight hours and is then cooked in a large pot on a wood fire. After cooking for 4 or 5 hours, it is dried in the sun on large white sheets. At this point it is taken to the mill and made into burghul (fermented, ground corn). Water and salt are then added and it is left to ferment from two to four weeks according to the season. It is then ground, left to ferment for another week and finally worked by hand until a homogenous, elastic mass is obtained.
The mass can have spices added, such as thyme, cumin, orange blossom, sesame seed, red or black pepper. When the mass is still moist it is shaped into a large ball which is subdivided into small balls. They are then preserved in local extravirgin olive oil. Poor man’s cheese can then be kept for a year or longer.
This product is one of what are called mune products, from the verb mana, which means to lay in supplies. These are food reserves which every family had to obtain in order to cope with the continuous alternation of periods of plenty and scarcity.
I am speaking about one product, and its appeal, to refer to them all: I am convinced that food can be a form of peaceful diplomacy, saving these traditions also means to some extent opposing war. Give some extra support to those involved, the small farmers who, as always, are among the first to suffer.
You do not hear anything in the media about the destruction of communities such as Majedl el Zoun and their age-old traditions. Those firing missiles and dropping bombs do not realize the havoc they wreak on the humblest members of society: apart from its obvious violent damage, war also destroys civilization, it is a profound negation of human beings, what they are, know and do. I implore you to stop: return to dialog and stop this absurd madness. The simple food communities stand for peace: listen to their cry of distress.
First printed in La Stampa on July 23 2006
Adapted by Ronnie Richards