When Zaytoun was set up 10 years ago as a community interest company to develop a market for artisan Palestinian food in the UK, its portfolio was easily dismissed as a ‘solidarity’ purchase for activists. Five years ago, it became clear that Palestinian olive oil was too good a secret not to share when The Co-op started stocking it. Then Yotam Ottolenghi listed Palestinian products, such as grape molasses, Medjoul dates, and sumac, in his mail order pantry, evidence of how Palestine is carving itself a distinctive profile that stands out from the generic Middle Eastern pack.
A year ago, when I walked into M&S and found that I could buy smoky Palestinian freekeh - surely the trendiest of grains - and maftoul, a speciality bulgur wheat, it was clear that Palestine’s agricultural products were heading mainstream.
“West Bank farmers resolutely keep producing great food ”
But how can this be? Palestine is widely perceived as a zone of irreconcilable conflict and devastation, a perception heightened by the latest Israeli bombardment of Gaza, yet throughout the West Bank, Palestinian growers show extraordinary resilience.
The carnage in Gaza apart, Palestine is a fertile, beautiful country, and West Bank farmers resolutely keep producing great food.
A silver lining for beleaguered growers is that with all the restrictions on what can be brought into the country, they have largely made do without many modern inputs such as pesticides, so organic production is normal and human labour still trumps mechanisation.
As a result, Palestinian products genuinely merit the much-abused term ‘artisan.’ I saw for myself the impressive women’s co-op near Jenin, where women who have lived in UN refugee camps for more than 30 years hand-roll wheat to make maftoul and sun-dry it in a greenhouse.
Yet Palestine is up-to-date where it matters; its co-ops have managed to invest in clean, modern equipment for olive pressing to ensure the hallmark low acidity required for the finest oils.
For the time being, Palestine struggles on the world stage to be recognised as a state, but meanwhile its agricultural products - a persuasive cultural ambassador for that proposition - receive a warm reception in the UK.
Joanna Blythman is a journalist and author of What To Eat