In Israel, Tu B’Shevat is heralded by the white blossoms bursting from the bare branches of the almond trees, filling the air with the sweet perfume of spring. Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, is celebrated with fruits and nuts that have been gathered and saved from the summer harvest. Since the times of ancient Israel, fruits were preserved in varied ways. Fruit syrups or “honeys” were cooked from dates, figs, grapes, carobs, and pomegranates. Jams were made from sour cherries, bitter oranges, baby eggplants, and carrots. They were flavored with cardamom, rosewater, and saffron. Dried dates and figs were pressed into leathers and cakes for later consumption. In the early spring, fruits that had been stored in this way would be presented at the festive Tu B’Shevat meal.
For the ancient Israelites, Tu B’Shevat was the beginning of the time period when the fruit tithes for the Temple in Jerusalem began to be calculated. After the destruction of the Second Temple, this tax was symbolically transferred to a coin, much like in the pidyon haben ceremony marking the redemption of firstborn boys. Tu B’Shevat evolved into a mystical holiday. The kabbalists created a Tu B’Shevat Seder featuring fruits from the Land of Israel.
Jews brought their recipes and preservation techniques with them wherever they went. In ancient Israel, grapes that were not processed into wine, and other ripe fruits, were dried in the sun to make raisins. Some fruits, like apricots, were pounded into a pulp and spread out to dry into fruit leathers. Dried figs and dates were sometimes compacted into “energy bars” for long distance travel. The Jews introduced these fig “breads” to Spain and Portugal. Fig bread is called “pan de higos,” and is prepared in Spain to this day.
Following the expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1492, many Jews fled to the New World. One of the oldest preservation methods they brought with them was preparing fruit in syrup. In ancient Israel, fruit syrups were cooked from ripe fruit. The fruit was slowly simmered with water until it became a thick syrup to make Biblical “dvash” or fruit honey. This “honey” is still widely used in Middle Eastern cooking. Date syrup, called silan or halek, is featured in charoset recipes from the Jewish communities of Iraq, Iran, and India. It was not always possible for the Jews in America to get fruits from the Land of Israel to celebrate Tu B’Shevat. They adapted these recipes to the exotic new tropical fruits they encountered. One of these fruits was the guava, a member of the myrtle family. Jews introduced the technique of cooking the guava peel in sugar syrup.
Pan de Higos: Fig Bread
Adapted from Spanish Kitchen
2 cups dried figs
2/3 cup roasted almonds
2 tablespoons sherry
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground anise seeds
Grind all the ingredients in a food processor.
Line the bottom of a casserole dish with parchment paper.
Press the fig paste into the casserole dish.
Cover with a clean kitchen towel.
Set aside for two days to firm.
Cascos de Guayaba en Almíbar: Guava Peels in Syrup
Adapted from Cocina Zuliana
4 lbs. fresh guava
1 lb. sugar
Cut the guavas in half.
Scoop out the pulp and seeds.
Place the water and sugar in a large pot.
Bring to a boil.
Add the guavas.
Simmer until the guavas are soft.
Ronit Treatman is the creator of Hands-On Jewish Holidays.