Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for Trees and one of the most beautiful events in the Jewish calendar, is considered a minor festival and often neglected. But it can be special, particularly for food-lovers. Tu B’Shvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, was established by Talmudic rabbinate to determine the age of trees and calculate when they could be harvested.
The Torah says that after a fruit-tree has been planted, the fruit cannot be eaten for three years. Then the following year, that fruit is for God only, and only after that can it be harvested. The anticipation of watching a sapling grow, and waiting for five years to taste the fruits, merits a celebration in itself.
Why are trees so important in Jewish custom? Many rabbis believe that the tree is a metaphor for man; that we are cold during the winter but in the spring, the blood or sap begins to rise again.
We talk of a Tree of Life — Etz Chaim — and often the Torah is seen as a tree that cares for us and nurtures our minds. And the wooden poles that support the Sefer Torah are called etzim, meaning trees. Then again the Chasidic communities will take the last year’s etrog which they pickled or candied, taste it on this festival and pray that this year’s fruit — whether that be success in bearing children, spiritual, educational, or financial — will exceed last year’s.
Sephardic groups became passionate about their fruit (much food in warmer countries is fruit-based). They called the religious event Las Frutas, establishing a ritual similar to the Pesach Seder; using different types of wine and tasting at least 12 fruits and nuts that grow in Israel or are mentioned in the Bible.
This has become a custom in certain communities and, as there is no fixed liturgy, a variety of different types of celebrations occur. The Fruit Seder is dedicated to three types of fruits and nuts – beginning with the hard or inedible shell or skin, such as, oranges, bananas; pomegranates which signify fertility, almonds which represent divine reckoning, and pistachio nuts. This is followed by the fruits which contain an inedible stone, such as peaches, plums, nectarines, cherries, apricots and olives. The last group are those fruits that can be eaten whole, such as strawberries, grapes, figs and raspberries.
So how should we celebrate this wonderful festival? Maybe with an evening meal, or celebratory brunch featuring a luscious pancake stack (see below) and your own fruit tower. This can be created by wrapping oasis from a florist in clear-cellophane wrap, in the shape you require— a cone would look fantastic. Then peel and cut your fruits into bite-sized pieces. Spear them with cocktail sticks and fix to the cone either in a random pattern or following lines in colours – which looks hugely effective.
Older children will be happy to help. Decorate your table with flowers and leafy branches, if possible, and lay bowls of shelled nuts and olives. Then serve a hot tomato soup – tomatoes are a fruit after all — adding cooked barley which is mentioned in the Bible. Serve stuffed vegetables, such as stuffed vine leaves, and maybe holishkes, for something more substantial. Or hummus and falafel with toasted pita and bagels. Follow with a Tu B’Shvat fruit salad laden with fresh and dried fruit which should tempt the most jaded palate. Then process your favourite dried fruits — dates, figs, sultanas and apricots — moisten with a little lemon juice, form into balls and roll in toasted sesame seeds for fruity sweets.
And after eating you could always plant a tree — that way you get to eat well, celebrate and save the planet all in one day — what other festivals offers this opportunity?
lemony pancake stack
Makes 10 large or 16 small pancakes
● 175g, 6oz Self Raising Flour sieved with 2 teasp baking powder and pinch of salt
● 135 ml, 4floz soya yoghurt or dairy if you prefer
● 15ml, 1 tbs lemon curd
● 3 large free range eggs plus 150ml, ¼ pint
● soya milk or milk
● Grated rind of 1 orange (or lemon)
● 1 teaspoon vanilla essence or scraped seeds of a vanilla pod
● Olive oil for frying
● Sieve dry ingredients into a large bowl. Make a well.
● Separate the yolks and whites. Whisk the whites.
● Beat yoghurt with lemon curd, grated rind, eggs and vanilla. Whisk all ingredients together – you should have a fairly thick batter.
● Try one pancake. You may need a little more liquid – it depends on your yoghurt and dryness of the flour.
● Pour a little oil in large frying pan . It should be hot but not smoking.
● Pour away excess into a glass. Drop tablespoons of the batter and cook until bubbles appear on the surface then turn over and cook until both sides are golden. Drain on kitchen paper.
● Serve with Quick Rote Grutze by warming a 450g bag of frozen raspberries or fruits of the forest with a cinnamon stick, thicken with 2 tablespoons arrowroot mixed with some of the drained juice and sweeten to taste.
● Add a glug of Kiddush wine if desired.