GILBOA, WHERE THE MIGHTY FELL – and a nation rose…

When I first saw the movie The 300 Spartans I was only seven-years-old but it made an impression on me that has endured for the following fifty years. The story of King Leonidas and his heroic stand at the Pass of Thermopylae lit a touch paper in my young spirit that shaped the course of all my future careers, and even perhaps the way my life has panned out.

Artist & Illustrator
This is a detail from my painting “The Pausanias Wedge at Platea”  – I used it on my business card during my years as a commercial illustrator.

Most peoples and nations on Earth have their own such iconic tales of heroic defeat, which seem to lend themselves to idealistic notions of ultimate sacrifice for the sake of freedom. For instance, the (European) Americans have their Little Bighorn, the British, their Charge of the Light Brigade and the French, the last stand of the Old Guard at Waterloo.

The thing however, that distinguishes the action of the 300 at the Hot Gates back in 480 BC from all of the above, and gives it such universal and lasting allure to most peoples of the Earth (with the possible exception of Xerxes’ modern heirs) was its almost total contextual non-ambiguity.

The actions of Yankee Blue Coats against the Plains Indians, Cardigan’s “Cherry-Bums” in the valleys of the Crimea, and Napoleon’s “grognards” (grumblers) in a Belgian wheat field; for all their undoubted courage were primarily in the interests of conquest — the very thing that Leonidas was attempting to halt. Custer, Raglan and Napoleon — their widely varying military abilities notwithstanding — were all closer to Xerxes than to Leonidas in the context of their respective battle objectives. Thus, in many ways, the Spartan King offers us an historical rarity; a genuinely noble defeat in the purest of causes — defense of the homeland; more of a Wounded Knee than a Little Bighorn.

About two years after my young imagination had been fired by the story of Leonidas and the 300, I became familiar with an account of a similar military engagement in the even more ancient annals of my own people’s narrative. And so enthralled was I by the story of King Saul and his son Jonathan’s defeat at the hands of the Philistines on the slopes of Mount Gilboa I actually wrote a book about it some forty years later. (That book, among other things, led me to setting up this blog and so it’s probably high time I posted an article along these lines.)

And just as Leonidas’ death was a powerful inspiration for the following Golden Age of Greece, the defeat of Saul and Jonathan actually secured both the concept and the durability of Israelite, and then Jewish nationhood.

However, while Leonidas is lauded by the modern Greeks as their consummate national hero, for reasons too complex to go into here, the only monuments to Saul’s act of ultimate sacrifice at Gilboa are the exquisite seasonal wildflowers which annually defy the curse of David upon the mountain’s slopes (2 Samuel 1:21). My book was a vain attempt to rectify the situation; to raise the status of Saul within the national consciousness of modern Israel and Jewish people everywhere, so that instead of heading straight from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem and the other “holy sites” ; they would instead make for Gilboa, where a nation was forged in the blood of its first, and most noble king. So noble in fact, his own usurper felt obliged to concede as much in his timeless lament (abridged here)…

Battleground
 “A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.
    How the mighty have fallen!.. 
Gilboa Massif from the Jezreel Plain
“Mountains of Gilboa,
    may you have neither dew nor rain,
    may no showers fall on your terraced fields.
For there the shield of the mighty was despised,
    the shield of Saul—no longer anointed with oil…
Gilboa summit
“From the blood of the slain,
    from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
    the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
Saul and Jonathan—
    in life they were loved and admired,
    and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles,
    they were stronger than lions…
Gilboa trees
“Daughters of Israel,
    weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
    who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold…
On Gilboa
“…How the mighty have fallen!
    The weapons of war have perished!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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JEWISH ALCHEMY – or how to make schmaltz and grieven…

Many posts ago (in https://adamhalevi777.com/2015/01/08/an-illustrated-guide-to-making-gedempte-chicken/) I promised to do a piece on schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) and its delicious byproduct, grieven (or gribenes), and at last, a couple of years late, here it is.

I should point out that now poultry fats are once again in vogue, and have even been declared healthy (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-j-wurtman-phd/saturated-fat_b_5107298.html ) one can purchase ready-rendered duck and goose fat in most supermarkets and grocery stores. But unless one has access to a kosher butcher, rendered chicken fat remains mysteriously elusive. This is a shame, for when made properly it is not only lighter and every bit as useful and tasty as its “posher” cousins, but also indispensable to genuine Ashkenazi (central and eastern European Jewish) cookery.

Fortunately, making schmaltz is as simple as it is rewarding. Turning a heap of chicken fat and skin into a refined golden liquid is as close as a cook can come to culinary alchemy.

When we’re in Spain, our market butcher Pepe, gives me bags full of skin and fat which would otherwise end up in the stomachs of the local pigs. This saves me the work of butchering a chicken myself and means that I can make months worth of schmaltz at a time. When in the UK however I normally do everything myself from scratch.

The kind of schmaltz one ends up with depends entirely on the type of chicken the skin and the fat originates from. The best quality schmaltz comes from old boiling hens, but these days, in Spain and England at least, these are hard to get hold of, and extortionately expensive when available. The rendered fat they yield has a mildly gamey quality, ideal for cooking things like gedempte beef, while the grieven (resultant pieces of fried chicken skin) is slightly chewy. The next best choice would be any kind of free range chicken, and corn-fed birds produce an especially golden schmaltz. But, if one is economising, then a large, fat supermarket broiler will do the job just fine, with the added bonus of a light grieven that melts in the mouth.

The illustrated recipe below was made using the latter variety of bird, but is applicable to all types of chicken – although with an old hen you will need a cleaver in addition to a very sharp knife. If shopping from a proper butcher, one could of course ask him/her to prepare the bird for you and proceed with the rest of the process from there.

The small amount of effort required to make schmaltz is more than worth it, and its uses are almost limitless. From humble egg and onion, to chopped liver, to kneidlach, to chicken blintzers, to latkes and potato kugel and all kinds of ein-gedempte meats and fowl, or just scraped on your breakfast toast with a little salt, schmaltz is to Ashkanazi cuisine what butter is to Belgian and olive oil is to Spanish. It is the essential  flavour constant that gives Yiddisher cooking its distinct, and moor-ish character.

My mother and grandmother only used koshered chickens and would drop finely sliced onion into the grieven for the last few minutes of the rendering. While this resulted in a salty and rich flavoured grieven, it also made the grieven slightly soft and greasy and in addition gave the schmaltz a salty, oniony taste. I, on the other hand use non-koshered chickens and omit the onion, giving a more neutral tasting schmaltz (similar to unsalted versus salted butter) and a lighter, dryer and crispier grieven. It’s all a matter of taste, and completely dependent upon the whim of the cook, though I would suggest, if using a koshered chicken do be careful about adding extra salt.

Finally, once made, one can store the schmaltz for months, either in the fridge (where it will become opaque and solidify) or in a cool, dark pantry.

ILLUSTRATED RECIPE:

Schmaltz 1
1) Make sure to buy a large chicken, at least 4 lbs (about 2 kilos) in weight, to be certain of having sufficient fat and skin for a decent amount of schmaltz…
Schmaltz 2
2) Retrieve every last piece of skin (even from the wings) and every trace of fat from the bird. Skinned chicken is brilliant for things like schnitzel (in the case of the breasts), southern fried chicken, and Indian dishes, such as tandoori, tikka and lime and lemon chicken curries. The bones make an excellent stock or broth…
Schmaltz 3
3) Roughly chop up the fat and the skin…
Schmaltz 5
3) Put the chopped fat and skin into a heavy based (preferably non-stick) saucepan and cover with water. Put over a medium-high heat and bring to the boil, then turn the heat to medium-low…
Schmaltz 6
4) Boil gently until all the water has evaporated from the pan and the skin is crisp and golden. Some sticking is inevitable but stirring towards the end of the cooking keeps most of the skin free. Once the skin is golden and crisp remove the pan from the heat. It’s important not to overcook the skin as this will ruin the grieven and give the schmaltz a burnt taint…
Schmaltz 7
5) Strain the fat thoroughly into a heatproof bowl…
Schmaltz 9
6) Allow the fat – the schmaltz – and the skin – the grieven – to cool. Once cooled, refrigerate the schmaltz and enjoy the grieven with a cold beer or a glass of scotch. For non-Jewish people and non-observant Jews reading this who have never tasted grieven, you’ll wonder why grieven has never become a beer snack staple like pork scratchings (rinds). They’re twice as delicious and so much easier on the teeth…
Schmaltz 10
7) Once fully chilled, the schmaltz solidifies like lard and takes on an ivory opacity. Before you use it in cooking, as a first taste, try it for breakfast, scraped on toast, with a light sprinkling of salt.

BETAYAVON!!!