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!