Lebanese Food / Wine and Culinary Traditions

Lebanese Food / Wine and Culinary Traditions
Spring time always inspires me...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Celebrating Lebanese olives

The Italian NGOs UCODEP and ICU in cooperation
with Slow Food Beirut are organizing a 2
day event celebrating Lebanese olives.
When? November 22 and 23, 2008
The event will be open to the public on
Saturday 22nd, from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm.
On Sunday 23rd from 9:00 a.m to 5:00 pm
Where? Khan el Franji, a beautiful location
by the sea in Saida, South Lebanon.
Here’s what’s going on
Learn about olive oil production in Lebanon
See live demonstration of oil extraction
Taste olive oils from all over the country
Participate in the competition for the best
Lebanese olive oil
Experience use of olive oil and wood for
handicraft production
Buy typical and local products from the
Earth Market
Join us to celebrate the olives of Lebanon!
The first day will be focused on producers, traders and wholesalers of olive oil in Lebanon.
Experts will offer workshops on olive production. There will also be an agricultural exhibition

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Terra Madre 2008

It's been a long time since I've last written...You want to know the truth, my muse had left me all alone with a blank page staring at me for months. But guess what, my muse is back! She's Italian, she's wonderful, beautiful, full of empathy, full of love, full of trust, full of creativity, full of pleasure, sensual, mesmerizing, powerful, political, loving, cherishing...She's always been around in my life and has never left me for good. Her name is: Terra Madre.

The first time we were introduced officially it was in October 2006. I had just published my first book at the beginning of the year and had many projects in my head. In July, war broke out and changed all our plans. I saw my country being destroyed. I saw children being killed. I saw Lebanon's precious lands, agricultural territories, expensive infrastructure being destroyed. I was devastated. I felt it was personally done to destroy me. I would recognize places on TV which had been part of my culinary journey to make my book. I couldn't understand, there was no hope...

A trip had been planned with the initiatives of the founder of Souk el Tayeb, Kamal Mouzawak. I was invited because of my book and the efforts I had been building towards Lebanese food and its production. I was so frantic that I even considered not going to Italy, but fate decided otherwise.

Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto turned out to be a true revelation for me as a person, as an author, as a human being sharing this earth with billions of others. Meeting Carlo Petrini, the god of Slow Food was so inspiring that immidiately I thanked him for giving me back my energy to go on and to face my country positively regardless of all our misfortune. We were treated like kings and queens... We were fed both physically and mentally. I was housed with chefs from all over the world, we spoke of our country...of our losses...of our hopes... over a scrumptious dinner with Italian red wine.

The healing process took over and I was able to continue what I set out to do .... always having in the back of my mind... my muse... my Terra Madre.

The year 2008: alot has changed since then in my life. I have learned lessons of life dealing with lost friendships, power struggles, corruption, total loss of inspiration, neglect, fear....

Once again, she's at my side... October 2008... Terra Madre 2008 : the comeback...this time I feel true sorrow to leave Italy in fear of loosing once again my muse... but does one ever loose one's muse? I don't think so...it just fades away to be reawakened abruptly with an intense feeling of energy and fate.

This year I've decided to take my son with me because perhaps this could be the best education I could provide for him. I wanted to share my muse with my son Albert, who by the way discovered oysters and ate them everyday with PASSION!

I was welcomed by a wonderful hostess, an Italian woman called Imma. She jumped at my neck and kissed me as if we were long lost friend. She gave us her bed and slept on the sofa. She fed us as if we were her children. She kissed us goodbye before we left in the morning. She provided love and nourishment, another Terra Madre characteristic.

Lebanon with the organization of Slow Food Beirut (www.slowfoodbeirut.org) showcased a range of products: zaatar planted in the south, frikeh (smoked green wheat) make in Chama', wine produced in the Bekaa by the Khoury family, kishek el khamireh made by Earth and co., and a new book called From Akkar to Amel, a study dealing with a food trail of traditional Lebanese products written by Dr. Rami Zuraik. My son played the derbakeh to entertain passersby. But our stand was not only about products or entertainment, it was about pride. The pride we as Lebanese feel towards our small but rich country, Lebanon.

Once again the Italians have done it .... 7,000 participants, over 130 communities will go home with inspiration, new outlooks, hope, and energy!

Grazie mille Terra Madre ... a la prochaine ....

For those interested to learn more about Slow Food, please visit their website at www.slowfood.it , or visit our local chapter mentioned above. We welcome new members with
open arms.

Friday, May 23, 2008

My trip to Warhanieh in the Chouf

It seems that there is going to be peace in Lebanon for a while, so off I go! Weds. I went to the Chouf again, this time to see Siham and Hani Ghanem in a village called Warhanieh. They were very hospitable to me. We sat in a terrace overlooking fields of fruit trees distilling 'jurri' rose flowers and making delicious rose petal jam. Siham makes this beautifully scented jam with absolutely no artificial coloring agents, so how does her jam turn out to be candied bright pink? The secret shall be revealed in the book!

Siham and I stayed hours discussing mouneh recipes while the distilled rose water slowly poured into a glass bottle. The smell was truly amazing. Later, she set up the barbecue to make barbecued akoub! It is simply a true delicacy. It's very simple, after cleaning the akoub thoroughly, a fine coat of olive oil is spread on the thistles with a kitchen brush to give added flavor. When the akoub is cooked, salt is added. Voila! Enjoy... I can't wait till school is over, I'm going back to Warhanieh to show my children this beautiful village.

Culinary subjects apart...

Hani took me to see a very gifted family made of very talented sculptors called the Assaf family. I was really impressed by their work. They have built a beautiful house surrounded by a large piece of land. They are working on making a museum on the land to display their work. The sculptures seemed alive, they were so neatly done. If you have the chance, go and visit them, it is really worth the trip.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A very interesting website

If you are interested in knowing more about wild edible plants in Lebanon. Check out this wonderful site created by a friend Dr. Malek Batal on the subject. The address is : www.wildedibleplants.org You will love it!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Picking akoub in the mountain of Niha Chouf

It was last week on the 7th of May... It's Wednesday - My children's school has decided to open it's doors which means in my mind the political situation is not as dramatical as one thinks. The days that followed proved me wrong! But now my dear readers, this is besides the point! I have been dreaming of going in search of akoub (gundelia tournefortii) for two years now. Nothing was going to stop me. Akoub is a spiny perennial herb thistle that is edible. Its taste is in between asparagus and artichoke. It grows wild in plains and mountains. It is usually harvested in the early morning a group of women of a given village.

I contacted Rima Massoud - a mouneh producer from Ramlieh, who also makes delicious manakish at Souk el Tayeb every Saturday. I arrived early to enjoy the ride into this picturesque village. I have visited Ramlieh many times before, but I am always amazed by its beauty. Before heading with Rima to the mountains of Niha, I visited her neighbor Sowsam to get a glimpse of preserving akoub in jars. She explained to me in details how akoub was cleaned, how the stems are peeled, and how to preserve the akoub in a salt and water solution with lemon juice. Technical data such as this is very important to me to write the recipes of my book. I listened to her carefully and jotted down all the information taking photos along the way. This was very interesting, but my real goal was to actually see these weeds in the wild and to live through this experience.

So off we went, Rima and I got into the car and bid Massoud, her husband farewell. He didn't look worry so this helped me continue my journey without any guilt. We rode through the Chouf mountain, passing by the Barouk and into Niha. We arrived to Samira's house, Rima's sister-in-law, who had been waiting for us since dawn. She was so eager to go up the mountain. She gathered her picking utensils, and a large bag full of delicious foods. Nada, her daughter accompanied us. We drove up the mountain in a steep road that was not asphalted. That didn't really matter, but it did make me a tiny bit nervous. Regardless, I had told them that we did not need a man to accompany us and that we four women, were strong enough to handle everything ourselves.

I cannot begin to describe this place. I think if there is a heaven on earth, this is probably very close. I understood why Samira was so anxious to go up the mountain. Nada her daughter described her mother's passion with nature. Every opportunity she had to go up and pick akoub, she would jump at the occasion. She would walk from her home. It would take her 3 hours, then stay for 3-4 additional hours picking akoub, then go back home satisfied with her day. Did I mention that Samira is a woman of over 65 years old? We settled on the ground, ate our carefully prepared lunch made of stuffed grape leaves with laham bi ajin and freshly cut tomatoes with green olives. After lunch Nada made for us a cup of fresh arabic coffee. Heaven!

Samira refused the coffee and went of to the uncultivated fields in search of the young thistles of the akoub. You should have seen her, she was tireless. She skipped over the fields and pebbles, climbed up the hills with determination. You could see that she was not new to this. Her hands skillfully uprooted the weeds, she cut them delicately, and put them in a pouch she had made with her skirt. It was truly amazing. I couldn't keep up with her! I stayed with Nada and Rima as we roamed around the mountain in search of this delicacy. It was really agreeable to be up here with these wonderful women whom I admire a lot.

Then the real adventure began...my husband called me asking me where I was, I shyly told him I was in the Chouf. He told me to be careful because the political situation was getting worst and that it would be advisable to start heading home. What a deception! Then my brother-in-law called to ask me the same questions because he had heard that the roads leading to the Bekaa were closing. I started to feel panic. I told the women that I must get home quickly. That couldn't be possible being that I was an 1 1/2 hour away from there, but regardless, I had to start somewhere. We packed up our belongings and the harvested akoub. We drove off with great regret. I dropped off Samira and Nada who hugged me very tightly. It only took this akoub- picking experience together for us to bond. I promised them another visit. I drove off quickly. I won't bore you with the rest, but just to let you know my car broke down... it took 2 1/2 hours for a mechanic to fix it. I got home at 8:00 pm exhausted, but happy... I finally got to pick akoub in the high mountains of Lebanon and I made it home safely to my husband and three excited children...

Now I'm waiting for all this mess to go away to continue my culinary journey...

Why can't they just understand that it's our differences that make us so special and that we can live together as Lebanese!

Friday, April 18, 2008

My trip to Zawtar

Yesterday I set out to meet a man who grows fields of zaatar (origanum syriacum) in the South of Lebanon. His name is Mohammad Ali Neimeh, better known as Abu Kassem. I had met him a few months ago at Souk el Tayeb one morning. We hit it off immediately. I could see how passionate he was about what he was doing. He spoke about his zaatar fields as if they were his children. He showed off his products with pride and asked me to taste his zaatar mixture made traditionally with zaatar, sesame seeds, sumac, and salt. For a skeptic like me, when it comes to zaatar, I found the mixture to be delicious. I promised him to come visit him in his village in the near future.

My first destination was to get to Nabatieh, from there Abu Kassem said that his village would not be far. I headed to Saida and took the turn where one heads towards Nabatieh. To make my life easier, he sent a friend of his (who happens to be a chauffeur) to guide me to the winding roads to reach his house. I was taken by surprise with this route and drove very slowly capturing every detail with photos of carob trees all along the side of the road. The contrast of the trees with the color of the earth was gorgeous (I won't bore you with any more details).

I was welcomed by Abu Kassem with his warm smile, which for me, is what makes him so special. He shook my hand and welcomed me to his home. Immediately we went in the garden to discuss the zaatar. Suddenly, we were interrupted by two young men in a white van. "Marhaba!" they shouted. I was a bit disappointed that our meeting was to be interrupted, but decided to be patient and listen to their conversation. We sat down at the front of the house with a cup of fresh tea made by Abu Kassem's youngest son. One of the men was interested to have Abu Kassem plant a parcel of land full of zaatar in a nearby village. I also learned that he was a beekeeper who had trained with different organizations on how to make honey. I was intrigued and suggested that he puts his bees with the flowering zaatar, once his land had been planted. I had always been surprised why in Lebanon, honey made of the flowers of zaatar was not popular. He listened and approved. In my mind, I thought, this could be the start of something new. They spoke of technicalities like watering the land and seasonality of the zaatar and the price per plant. Then my mind shifted to thought of, "oh how I long to be a farmer and be able to have fields of whatever I may fancy, zaatar for example!" Ok, dreams aside, the meeting was ended abruptly by a firm statement by Abu Kassem excusing himself and telling them of our appointment. They left pleased with their talk and promised to return next week for the final deal.

Shall we? We got into my car and drove to see the village. What a village! Beautiful sceneries, fields of zaatar mixed with the contrasting fields of tobacco. Abu Kassem led me to the first lot. I was mesmerized, amazed at this wonderful site. Who says we can't grow zaatar? I knew that it could be done in an amateur way because a few years ago my husband took some zaatar from the wild and stuck them on the window sill in our balcony and ever since, we've had zaatar grow from year to year. What struck me was to see a field of zaatar growing healthy, organically, and without too much fuss. I didn't want to leave, Abu Kassem laughed at me and said, "there is more, come I'll show you."

We drove through the village stopping to see Abou Kassem's brother and other field workers on a tobacco plantation. They welcomed me with enthusiasm and started to pose for the camera. What I really admired is their love of life and knowing how hard their labor is, they joked and laughed as if they had no cares in the world. Their faces showed lines of sacrifice and obviously, they had a hard life.

Abou Kassem led me down a steep road, it led to the banks of the Litanie River. We met up with a shepherd. He was amused by me taking his photo and told me that I should photograph the cluster bombs nearby. I told him I was simply not interested in doing that. I was here to photograph the mouneh. Later on my way up, a voice inside me said take the photo, so I did! It frightened me being so close to these objects that have harmed so many people in the world. It was time to leave, I bid the shepherd farewell and was on my way to capturing the beauty of a spring day.

I was shown different fields of zaatar that Abou Kassem had planted. He also introduced me to neighbors who had been converted by his planting revolution. His aim is to stop the planting of infested tobacco in Zawtar to organically grown zaatar. He says that the market can handle it and that there is alot of potential.

We stopped off at the village bakery where the baker had made us dozens of sfiha bi lahmeh. I was definitely starving with all this zaatar business. We went back to his home and shared a delicious meal with his family. He spoke to me about his life and introduced me to his wife and three children.

While visiting Abou Kassem, a phrase kept coming up, "I am finally living a true love story." I asked him about it, he described how his life had changed. In the past, society did not respect him, socializing with different people from various communities was a problem, gaining individual's trust was very hard. Presently, Abou Kassem has joined farmer's markets all around Lebanon with farmers and producers from all over the country forming one big family. Customers are lining up at his stand. People are telling their friends about Abou Kassem's zaatar. His business is flourishing and he is spreading the word and know-how to others. "I want to teach everyone how to grow zaatar, it's not my secret to keep."

"When zaatar is grown in fields, it helps keeps the zaatar that grows wild in our mountains and in our environment forever for future generations to enjoy. "

Zaatar is very much part of our Lebanese culinary heritage.

Thank you Abou Kassem for making a difference!