With no end in sight to West Cork’s Mediterranean summer, Skibbereen farmer’s market basked under a china blue sky on Saturday, September 27. And amid the mounds of colourful, locally produced vegetables, plants and fresh-baked loaves was a stall reminding patrons that at the far end of the Mediterranean, and despite obstacles that would deter even the most dedicated growers, Palestinian farmers still struggle to harvest olives from ancient trees, including some as many as 1,500 or even 2,000 years-old.
Jenin’s organic olive oil is produced from olives that are rushed to village presses within 24 hours of being picked. The result is what must be some of the finest olive oil produced anywhere in the world. Somewhat more expensive than the supermarket variety, although probably not, given the difficulties of producing, marketing and exporting it (more than one million Palestinian olive trees have been destroyed in the current crisis), if you want the taste of authentic hummus, or baba ghanouj (aubergine dip), you need Zaytoun olive oil. Now this Fairtrade brand produced by Palestinian farming cooperatives is available for the first time in West Cork.
In addition to the olive oil, dates and za’atar, a spice mixture containing thyme, sumac, oregano, marjoram, toasted sesame seeds and salt (although many localised varieties also exist), were also on sale for the first time. Za’atar is eaten by dipping bread first into a pool of olive oil and then into the dried spice mixture. But it can be used in so many other ways, including in marinades, rubbed into chicken before roasting, or sprinkled on tomato salad. This Palestinian specialty was a particular hit on Saturday with foodies and adventurous cooks, always on the lookout for a new and healthy food experience.
There is of course another side to this story of healthy eating. Over 500 children were killed over 51 days this summer, when 20,000 tonnes of explosives were dropped on Gaza, a tiny enclave one twentieth the size of County Cork with a population of nearly two million. According to a UN report, 400,000 children in Gaza are currently exhibiting symptoms of mild to severe trauma.
Proceeds from Saturday’s sale went to 25 bereaved Gazan families. And sad though the background story is, the public response was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, heartwarming and generous. Over €300 was raised from the mark-up on products, donated items and a rousing performance from local musicians.
As well as supporting Palestinian producers, the Skibbereen stall offered information on Palestine, present and past, and how it was described by travellers to the Orient in more peaceful times. In 1876, for instance, the French guide book Guide Indicateur described Jaffa: “In February, groves of orange trees, grafted with lemon boughs, release a profusion of blossoms, which scent the air around Jaffa to a distance of two leagues. Boatmen this distance out to sea can inhale the fragrance of numberless orange trees, later to yield extravagant crops of delicious fruit.”