Every time I eat some of Nidal Rayess’ apricot jam, which I’ve eked out with unusual willpower, I chide myself for not having shared the experience of our day visiting Nidal at his factory in Lebanon, last spring.

So, extremely late though it is, I am finally sharing another Lebanon highlight.

NidalApricotJam-7600

Nidal Rayess is the manager of Rayess Trading, a family business established by his grandfather Nemer Rayess in 1920, during the French occupation of Lebanon.

The business makes top quality cheese and dairy products such as labneh (strained yoghurt), halloumi and several local cheeses as well as a wide selection of mouneh, a catch-all term which describes preserves made during the harvest season and stored in the larder to be enjoyed throughout the year. Mouneh includes jams, pickles, fruits in syrup and even dried balls of labneh preserved in oil.

Lebanon-NidalRayess-0535 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0448 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0450
Lebanon-NidalRayess-0445 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0454 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0457

Before meeting Nidal, we stopped for a brief snack in his small traditional store in Chtaura, shelves stacked high with mouneh and deli counter well-stocked with fresh dairy products.

(One thing you learn very quickly is that you never go long without eating, on a Taste Lebanon tour!)

But the highlight of our day was heading to Nidal’s home and factory, where he showed us around the manufacturing premises and processes. First, we watched his staff making and branding halloumi and preserving candied orange peels.

During the First World War, Nidal’s grandfather Nemer was working in concrete construction for the French Army. Also working for the army was a Greek chef from whom Nemer learned the traditional recipe and methods for making Greek halloumi, as well as fresh and pressed ricotta.

Nidal still makes halloumi in exactly the same way, with milk from the business’ own herd of cows, pastured in the North of the country.

Lebanon-NidalRayess-0465 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0466

The halloumi is cooked in huge copper vats, which were hand made in Turkey in 1870 and formerly used to cook wheat in the Taanayel kitchens of Ottoman governors (who ruled Lebanon until the close of the First World War). Whilst many modern producers use stainless steel vats, Nidal says that copper handles a higher temperature, allowing the heat to better penetrate the halloumi during the cooking time, resulting in a difference in taste in the finished product.

Lebanon-NidalRayess-0495 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0494
Lebanon-NidalRayess-0496 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0497 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0498

Hot out of the pans, squares of halloumi are folded in half and arranged on a metal table between large wooden planks, which help them to set into the right shape.

Lebanon-NidalRayess-0501 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0502 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0504 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0508 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0510

After they’ve all been shaped, they are branded with a logo.

Lebanon-NidalRayess-0511 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0515

And then turned over to flatten the other side.

Lebanon-NidalRayess-0475

Labneh is traditionally made by straining yoghurt. Modern industrial manufacturers have switched to using centrifuges to spin out excess liquid, but the resulting labneh doesn’t have the incredibly rich and creamy texture of Nidal’s, which is still made the old-fashioned way. Nidal makes both cow and goat milk labneh, the cow milk coming from his own herd, as above.

Lebanon-NidalRayess-0478

Don’t assume that the factory is without any modern technology. Nidal doesn’t stick with the old ways unthinkingly but follows tradition where it creates a superior product. The factory uses modern equipment where and when it’s needed, such as this vacuum-packaging machine, above.

Lebanon-NidalRayess-0462
Lebanon-NidalRayess-0485 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0517 Lebanon-NidalRayess-0531
Lebanon-NidalRayess-0532

Orange peels are first prepped, then added to a hot sugar syrup, stirred regularly as they cook. They smell wonderful!

Lebanon-NidalRayess-0533

No jams are being made during our visit, but Nidal does share some of his tips for the astonishingly special apricot jam that both Aiofe and I fall head over heels for.

First, of course, is the selection of the fruit. As most jam makers know, the better the quality of the fruit you start with, the better the finished jam. But Nidal takes this to another level; for his apricot jam, he uses only the ripest half of each fruit, the half that was most bathed in sunlight, as it grew. I daren’t ask what happens to the discarded halves, though I’m sure they are used by someone to make a less magical product! There are also improvements to be made elsewhere in the recipe; Nidal uses three different types of sugar, balanced to contribute just the right flavour and consistency to the jam.

In our tasting of cheeses, labneh and jams we are blown away by the warm, fresh halloumi (better than any I’ve tasted), and the wonderfully creamy labneh (which really brings home why Nidal’s products are a favourite of the Jordanian royal family, no less). But it’s the jam that steals our hearts, and which we happily bring home with us. In fact, Pete and I bought a brand new suitcase, just to ensure we had space for our precious cargo!

Just as in the UK, the Lebanese enthusiasm for top quality artisan food continues to grow. After our day with Nidal and our visit to Abu Kassem’s za’atar farm, it’s not hard to see why.

Lebanon is a beautiful country to visit – striking landscapes, ancient history, a warm and welcoming people and some really fantastic food. Go! See you for yourself!

Jun 232011
 

We had a marvellous fortnight in Lebanon, as will already be clear from my recent posts about the overall trip and our day with Abu Kassem. After our Taste Lebanon tour was over, Pete and I stayed on in Beirut for 3 extra days, basing ourselves at The Phoenicia hotel, part of the InterContintental group.

About The Phoenicia

It was during Lebanon’s golden era in the 1950s and ’60s that Lebanese businessman Najib Salha decided to build a world class hotel on the shores of Beirut. With a group of like-minded investors, he founded La Société des Grands Hotels du Liban and invited American architect Edward Durell Stone to design his dream hotel.

The Phoenicia InterContinental opened its doors 8 years later in 1961.

It immediately became a firm favourite with the rich and famous jet set and was party central for royalty, world leaders, celebrities, businessmen not to mention wealthy Lebanese.

After years of closure due to the war, La Société des Grands Hotels du Liban decided to rebuild Beirut’s grand dame. After extensive refurbishment and extensions, it reopened in 2000.

In its new incarnation, it offers 446 rooms and suites plus a residential complex with serviced apartments. As well as its own range of restaurants, the larger complex also provides a home to a number of other stores and restaurants including the Beirut outpost of Gaucho.

This year The Phoenicia celebrates 50 years since its original opening.

LebanonPhoenicia-6958

Our Room

Invited for a review visit, we were allocated a Club InterContinental room which comes with its own check-in and check-out area on the 6th floor, a club lounge area in which complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea and an evening finger food buffet are served during the day, access to a business centre and library plus use of the meeting room if required, WiFi in the room and public spaces (and high speed internet in the room), complimentary limousine transfers (though these only seem to be offered for pick up from the airport and not drop off back to it), a butler service to help with in-room or concierge needs and a complimentary 15 minute neck massage, plus discount on any further spa treatments.

LebanonPhoenicia-0728

Our room was lovely and spacious. The king size bed was comfortable, a usable desk working area with internet, TV and mini bar fridge, wardrobe space plus a handy storage for suitcases and bags, so they didn’t clutter up the room. I would have preferred a two-seater sofa or two arm chairs to the chaise-longue but that’s just me.

LebanonPhoenicia-0834 LebanonPhoenicia-0816

I liked our little balcony, with side views of the marina and coast. The windows were well sound-proofed against the constant buzz of traffic below.

LebanonPhoenicia-0729 LebanonPhoenicia-0730
LebanonPhoenicia-0734

And the bathroom was super lovely, with a large walk-in shower closet, a separate bath, gorgeous L’Occitane toiletries and a separate toilet area.

What we liked about our room is that it was a space we were happy to relax in, and felt positive about coming back to during the day and for the night. You might think this is a no-brainer but, believe me, our first night in Lebanon (after which we moved quick sharpish) made it strikingly clear that this is not always the case!

The only negative with our room was the number of times we were interrupted for house keeping services, turn down service and then, the one that really annoyed, a manager check that the turn down service had been provided or offered. This was not just for us because we were on a review visit, but repeated along the length of the club rooms corridor, I think. I felt like responding that if they didn’t trust their staff to perform the duties they were paid for, they should employ people they did!

Public Spaces

 

As expected from a hotel of this stature, public spaces are enormous and sumptuously decorated, though they’ve been refurbished lately with a lighter, more modern touch, introducing sleeker silver check in desks, purples and greys in carpets and furnishings and less of the heavy gold and red that we were told used to be prevalent. At the same time, with all the gleaming marble, one doesn’t forget one’s in a traditional luxury hotel!

LebanonPhoenicia-6952 LebanonPhoenicia-6955
LebanonPhoenicia-6954

Outdoors is an attractive pool area with plenty of greenery, day beds, seating areas and the Amethyste bar area. We tried to enjoy a drink here one evening but a wedding party in a nearby building had their music turned up outrageously loud, not the fault of The Phoenicia. What made it worse was the hotel bar’s insistence on keeping their own loud music switched on – the clash between the two was unbearable and we gave up and retreated indoors to the Cascade lobby lounge. A shame as the seating areas around the pool are delightful; one of my favourite spaces in the hotel.

We didn’t make it into the outdoor pool during our May visit, as the weather wasn’t quite warm enough.

Spa Pool

fromweb phoenicia pool
located via Google image search, no photographer information found

Instead we used the indoor pool within the spa area. This has been well designed. The separate mens’ and womens’ changing areas each have steam rooms and showers. A large shared jacuzzi is in the open area next to the pool. The pool has high ceilings and is just big enough to do lengths if you want to exercise a little. (There is a gym nearby, for those who really want to work out; I walked past without giving it a second glance). I particularly loved looking out while I was floating in the pool, through immense glass windows, onto a residential scene that summed up Beirut – a number of beautifully refurbished buildings and one windowless shell, pockmarked by sniper fire and bombs.

Spa Treatments

Next to the indoor pool and changing rooms is the spa reception, and, up on a mezzanine floor, the treatment rooms. We booked a massage each, Pete opting for a 50 minute hour Ayurvedic Abhyanga massage and me for an 80 minute therapeutic deep tissue massage. Pete couldn’t work out why the treatment was classified as Ayurvedic, since it had no Ayurvedic aspects to it. At all. None. Moreover, it was an average massage at best. Not bad per se, but not good.

Mine was a bit of a disaster. Firstly, my therapist sulked when I didn’t take him up on his determined offer to split my treatment time between massage and therapist-directed (power) jet shower. This came up twice more during the massage itself, too. Then, we started the treatment to the thunder of drilling work, the treatment room clearly just on the other side of the wall from the construction work on Mosaic restaurant. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I could feel the vibrations reverberating through my head. My therapist quickly worked out this wasn’t going to work and left me lying there as he went off, for a very long time indeed, to find an alternative. Of course, the spa were not to blame, having not known about it, but some internal communications in advance would have allowed the spa to avoid accepting bookings for those treatment rooms during the noisiest works. Eventually, he returned and said we’d use a free bedroom within the hotel, where a mobile massage table had been set up. I was not very comfortable following him through the hotel in a too-small bathrobe, but eventually we got into the room, only to find it didn’t have a massage table. Off he went again to get the key for the correct room, and then we had to wait again for the massage oils and towels to be delivered. The massage itself, sorry to say, was also not very good, with the therapist refusing to heed my requests about where on my body to focus his time, or to work more gently. Nor did it help that he sat down for so much of it, meaning he didn’t get a decent angle with which to reach my back muscles. He stopped to grab himself a drink from the minibar in the middle too! Near the end, he wanted to work on my neck. Immediately, I told him that I’ve had some issues with my neck, something I’d mentioned during our initial discussion, and to go very gently indeed. He ignored me once again, actually strong arming my resistance away, insisting he knew best. I’m just lucky he didn’t do any damage and I was not a happy bunny. Five minutes before the end of our allotted time, the spa reception called the room to check whether he’d finished; surely better to wait until he called them than risk interrupting the client’s treatment. And to cap it all, he then insisted on asking me in person, what I’d thought of the treatment. Alone in a bedroom with a therapist who had delivered a bullying treatment, I was too timid to say anything other than “time will tell” before escaping as quickly as I could and feeding back in detail to management shortly afterwards.

Offered a replacement massage, I was reluctant but agreed to give it ago. I was assigned to Imad who took genuine time to check my medical details and requirements, and gave me, in complete contrast, one of the best massages I’d had in my life, though marred a little by the bruising left from the first treatment. With his excellent massage training, not to mention diploma in osteopathy and further training in reflexology, Imad was a great therapist and he fixed a lot of the pain caused the previous day and helped with some of the aches I’d hoped to heal in the first place. He is one of the best therapists I’ve ever encountered, anywhere.

Were all the therapists at The Phoenicia of the same calibre, I would not hesitate to recommend that you book a treatment here. But our 1 out of 3 hit rate means I’m loathe to do so; it’s a hit and miss affair and the hotel needs to invest a lot more effort into hiring and training better therapists.

Dining

The hotel offers a number of dining options from casual to formal.

I met with the hotel’s executive chef Jacques Rossel and with Rabih Fouany, Eau de Vie’s head chef, ahead of our evening meal there. Here’s an interview.

 

Eau de Vie

The Eau de Vie is The Phoenicia’s flagship restaurant, situated on the eighth floor, with views out over the sea and the city and offering French and Mediterranean cuisine. It’s recently been refurbished and we all found it a calming space, in muted colours and simple, elegant lines. Window tables were each separated by chiffon curtained partition walls, giving welcome privacy. Live music was pleasant, but not too loud to preclude conversation. Service was helpful, friendly but not overly obsequious.

LebanonPhoenicia-6975 LebanonPhoenicia-6969 LebanonPhoenicia-6978 LebanonPhoenicia-6974 LebanonPhoenicia-6973

Foie gras was served in a generous slice though more brioche would not have gone amiss; rich and unctuous, as it should be.

Caesar salad was brought on a large trolley and assembled in front of the diner, with the dressing made fresh. The only question asked was whether the diner wanted anchovies and, disappointingly, these were not crushed and mixed into the dressing. The romaine leaves were very fresh and sweet, but the dressing was deemed so-so.

Cod croquettes were given the thumbs up.

The tomato tart with lobster salad was light and sweet from the small tomatoes. The lobster had a nice texture but didn’t have much flavour.

LebanonPhoenicia-6983 LebanonPhoenicia-6980 LebanonPhoenicia-6982LebanonPhoenicia-6981 LebanonPhoenicia-6979

The wagyu burger was deemed excellent – cooked pink inside, as agreed on ordering, and decent moist meat.

Chicken chasseur was rich with the flavour of mushrooms and bacon in a thick sauce, and served without fussiness, befitting the nature of the dish.

I had been about to order a regular steak but was encouraged to try the wagyu version instead. All the beef, wagyu and regular, was from Australia, by the way. I gave in to the upsell and was pleasantly surprised. My steak had great flavour but was also far more tender than I would normally have expected from the cut (though which cut has slipped my mind, and I failed to note it down).

The stand out dish of the meal was seabass with mushroom sauce. The seabass was absolutely superbly cooked, if I’m pressing this point, it’s because it really was a perfect balance between firm, moist and tender. And, to our surprise, the robust and rich marsala mushroom sauce did not overwhelm the fish, the flavour of which came through very clearly. Vegetables were simple and cooked with a light touch. The odd pipette of extra sauce stuck into the croquette at a jaunty angle was an odd touch, an out of place nod to molecular cuisine, perhaps.

LebanonPhoenicia-6988 LebanonPhoenicia-6987 LebanonPhoenicia-6989

An assiette of chocolate desserts was decent, with mousses, a chocolate lychee shot and a macaron.

A chocolate praline (not pictured) was excellent, with great flavours and just the right crunchy texture.

The crème brûlée trio – vanilla, raspberry and sumac – was the winner for this course. Pete is very fussy about the texture of the crème custard and gave it top marks. Both the vanilla and the raspberry flavours were tasty. But, oh my, that sumac one was delicious, imparting a refreshing citrus flavour to the custard. I hadn’t thought it would work but everyone tried and really liked it.

With our meal we enjoyed a Ksara rosé Gris de Gris before and with the starters. With our mains, the restaurant General Manager, Nicki, recommended a Massaya red which she described as fruity and full but which would still work with the fish dish as well as the meat ones. She was right, the three red drinkers agreed!

After our meal we enjoyed a digestif each – two chose whiskies from the extensive whisky bar menu and two of us had a glass of dessert wine.

LebanonPhoenicia-6993 LebanonPhoenicia-6996

Coffees and teas came with a visit from the petits fours trolley, which is fun to choose from.

Our meal was on the house, but the bill would have been approximately $470 between four of us. That said, the red wine selected for us cost more than what we’d have selected on our own and both Pete and I were encouraged to have wagyu burgers and steak rather than regular. And we were invited to try the whisky bar too. You could dine for a fair bit less here, but you are still paying a premium for the view, the exclusive environment, the posh hotel level of service and the location within an expensive hotel.

That said, we did have a very enjoyable evening.

Caffe Mondo

LebanonPhoenicia-7032 LebanonPhoenicia-7033

At the other end of the scale is Caffe Mondo, a casual Italian eatery that Bethany told us was a favourite hang out during her student days. The prices here were on par with many lower to middle range Beirut restaurants and we thought it great value and tasty too.

LebanonPhoenicia-7034 LebanonPhoenicia-7036

Most of the starters were intended for one but Pete’s caprese di bufala al pesto was enormous, easily enough for two and priced at similar point to my starter, labelled as for two. It was lovely good with moist, flavoursome mozzarella, decent tomatoes and a pleasant but not overpowering pesto.

I really really fancied the deep fried calamari rings (described on the menu as for two people) so ordered it anyway and stuck to my guns in not finishing it, so I’d have room left for my pizza! Fresh squid, a light batter, cooked for just the right amount of time, served hot with two dips, it was just the ticket.

The starters were on the pricey side, ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 Lebanese pounds (1,500 LP = $1).

LebanonPhoenicia-7038 LebanonPhoenicia-7039

Most mains were much more reasonable with pastas costing 12,500 to 19,000 Lebanese pounds and pizzas between 20,000 and 27,500 though fish and meat dishes ranged from 26,000 to a whopping 120,000 for a grilled wagyu sirloin.

The pizza chef worked at a counter open to the restaurant, so we could watch him tossing and stretching the dough, before adding toppings and cooking the pizzas in a proper pizza oven. They were both excellent and as good as my favourites in London and Italy.

LebanonPhoenicia-7041
LebanonPhoenicia-7042 LebanonPhoenicia-7043 LebanonPhoenicia-7044

Grazers also be interested in the lunch and dinner buffets which are extensive and varied, and I think priced at around $20. The buffet shelf features an integrated chiller unit that keeps the food cold. I have often found restaurant buffet selections disappointing but I’d have been happy to dine from this one.

LebanonPhoenicia-7048 LebanonPhoenicia-7049

Tiramisu (10,000) was pretty good. But hazelnut pannacotta (also 10,000) was awful, with about 10 times the amount of gelatine required, it was like spooning into solid rubber, and after a couple of bouncy bites, I gave up. A shame, as the flavour was decent.

Other Dining

LebanonPhoenicia-6951

Also in the hotel is Wok Wok offering pan Asian cuisine, Amethyste bar offering drinks and bar snacks and the Cascade Lobby Lounge serving drinks and light meals. The hotel’s all day dining restaurant, Mosaic, is currently undergoing major refurbishment, and is scheduled to reopen later in the year.

Service and Ambience

A friend had visited Beirut last year, accompanying her husband who was there on business. She had described The Phoenicia a little impersonal, and said that service (for their large business group) was a bit slow, so I’d been nervous about how we’d find it. To my relief, we genuinely enjoyed our stay, and were treated with courtesy and a helpful attitude by staff throughout the hotel. Of course, with over 400 rooms, there is a vast army of staff, most of whom will interact with any given guest only once, if at all. However, the staff in the Club lounge, who look after a smaller subset of guests, clearly made efforts to remember and interact personally with all their customers.

Certainly, The Phoenicia is a more traditional style of hotel than we naturally gravitate towards, but it’s attractive, comfortable and offers good service, albeit for a price (see below).

Additionally, my friend had commented on the views from the hotel out over derelict neighbouring buildings, finding them unappealing to look at. But I must confess, I found them a bittersweet reminder of Beirut’s war-ravaged history and often could not tear my eyes away from the contrast between new or refurbished buildings and derelict buildings standing cheek to cheek.

Even the Stop Solidere signs intrigued me, a political protest against state-approved but privately owned building projects that are erasing all trace of Lebanon’s conflict-ridden past. Returning Beirut to its pre-civil war appearance, argue the protestors, amounts to state-sponsored amnesia regarding a period that had such impact on Lebanese lives and culture. I’m not remotely qualified to hold an opinion, but find this debate fascinating, drawn as I am by the history those war-pocked shells evoke.

If you prefer modern style to traditional, my friend recommended the more intimate Le Gray, which has an excellent location in the heart of town, near the new souk shopping district, Place de l’Etoile, Martyrs’ Square and many other sites. The Phoenicia is about a kilometre or so further from these sites, so still well located for both business and tourist visitors.

 

Costs

 

The Phoenicia is not a budget option, by any stretch of the imagination. Standard rooms cost from $400 a night. Our Club rooms cost from $700 a night. (This is very comparable with other high end hotels in Beirut, including Le Gray).

Spa treatments are at the top end of what I’ve come across, even in hotel spas, with Pete’s 50 minute Ayurvedic massage priced at $110, my first (80 minute) massage priced at $133 and the replacement massage priced at $100.

The dining options range from very reasonable to pretty high. (We found eating out in Beirut was more expensive, generally, than we’d expected; on a par with London prices).

Extras are not cheap either; for example, we found the taxi service used by the concierge service was (literally) twice the price of the one we’d been using throughout the week, as recommended in our Taste Lebanon information pack.

LebanonPhoenicia-6956 LebanonPhoenicia-6960
views from the penthouse suite, an incredible and enormous space on the 22nd floor, yours for $9,000 a night…

For all that, you do get what you pay for. The Phoenicia of 2011 still reflects the opulence, tradition and service of i’s jet set hey day and offers what you’d expect from a hotel of its style and calibre.

Beirut is an expensive city, but one I am eager to get back to.

Kavey Eats was a guest of The Phoenicia hotel.

 

Southern Lebanon is not much visited by tourists, given its volatility. Only a few days ago, six Italian soldiers were hurt in a bomb attack on the main highway near Saida (Sidon). Less than two weeks before that, there were 11 fatalities and many injuries, during clashes at the Lebanese Israeli border. The region is considered to be a Hezbollah stronghold, and the British Foreign office advises against all travel South of the Litani River, and most especially to the Palestinian refugee camps in the area.

However, this political and news-lead summation of the region as little more than a war zone misses out the human stories of those for whom this area is home.

Had we shied away from our visit, we would have missed one of the best days we spent in Lebanon.

Our journey from Beirut took a couple of hours. As we headed South on the main coastal road, the views soon began to change. Nearer Beirut, the coast is densely built up, with many newly built and restored buildings between the remaining ruined shells, and a flurry of work in progress. Reaching Saida (Sidon), the urban areas felt more static, with less of the new and shiny, though a beautiful new mosque was impressive. More striking was the plethora of enormous political posters adorning buildings, poles and billboards – giant portraits of Hezbollah leaders, the Ayatollah Khomeini, local politicians… It was very different to Beirut and felt like we’d travelled much farther than we had.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7498

Heading inland from Saida towards Nabatieh, we were quickly looking out onto far greener natural and agricultural landscapes interspersed with small towns and villages. By the time we made our way from Nabatieh to Zawtar (Zaoutar) we were firmly in a rural setting.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7462 Lebanon AbuKasem-7449 Lebanon AbuKasem-7661
Lebanon AbuKasem-7657 Lebanon AbuKasem-7463 Lebanon AbuKasem-7662 Lebanon AbuKasem-7458

Here, we finally arrived at the home of Abu Kassem and his wife, Fatima. Their (fairly newly built) home sat amid fields of za’atar and tobacco, with polytunnels flapping lightly in the breeze. Pale silvery-leaved olive trees gave shade to the za’atar and bright red poppies. Chickens pecked and clucked happily, a cock stood to attention, guarding his ladies and geese honked noisily between the plants.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7440 Lebanon AbuKasem-7416 Lebanon AbuKasem-7588

Immediately, we are warmly welcomed with tea and learn more about our host and his business, Za’atar Zawtor.

Za’atar is Lebanese wild thyme. It’s also the name for a spice mix containing dried za’atar, dried sumac (another plant used widely in the region, which produces red berries with a tart, citrusy flavour), roasted sesame seeds and salt. Traditionally, the za’atar herb is harvested from the wild, where it grows plentifully over many a hillside.

But Abu Kassem is ahead of his time.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7417 Lebanon AbuKasem-7421
seeds, which Abu Kassem carefully saves from the za’atar he cultivates

When he first decided to cultivate za’atar, his neighbours laughed. Why spend all that energy harvesting seeds, sowing and caring for seedlings and tending fields when it’s freely available all around? But Abu Kassem knew that his way would allow him to gradually (using natural selection) breed desirable traits into the plants, such as higher yields and disease resistance. He also cited a wish to conserve the natural landscape – with commercial enterprises for za’atar increasing demand, he did not wish to see the hillsides stripped bare by excessive foraging.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7430 Lebanon AbuKasem-7432
Lebanon AbuKasem-7446 Lebanon AbuKasem-7434 Lebanon AbuKasem-7444

After tea, Abu Kassem took us on a tour of his farm.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7454 Lebanon AbuKasem-7436 Lebanon AbuKasem-7452
Lebanon AbuKasem-7459

Seedlings are nurtured in an immense polytunnel before being transplanted outside into the olive garden area and then into open fields, nearby. Abu Kassem showed us the roots and gave us lessons in cultivation.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7466 Lebanon AbuKasem-7487
Lebanon AbuKasem-7492 Lebanon AbuKasem-7469 Lebanon AbuKasem-7471 Lebanon AbuKasem-7475

In the fields, the za’atar grows fast and is harvested multiple times in a year. We examined the plants and tasted the leaves.

From the fields, we were lead inside and shown through the process for making the za’atar blend.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7504 Lebanon AbuKasem-7509 Lebanon AbuKasem-7513
Lebanon AbuKasem-7510 Lebanon AbuKasem-7517 Lebanon AbuKasem-7516

First, dried za’atar and sumac are weighed, to ensure the correct ratio in the final mix.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7521 Lebanon AbuKasem-7532
Lebanon AbuKasem-7523 Lebanon AbuKasem-7525 Lebanon AbuKasem-7527 Lebanon AbuKasem-7535
Lebanon AbuKasem-7531

The za’atar is fed through two machines which, together, break it down and thresh it.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7545 Lebanon AbuKasem-7546 Lebanon AbuKasem-7551
Lebanon AbuKasem-7559
Lebanon AbuKasem-7570 Lebanon AbuKasem-7560

In batches, the sesame seeds are carefully toasted to bring out the best flavour.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7574

The za’atar, sumac and toasted sesame seeds are mixed together, along with salt, into Abu Kassem’s own special blend.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7577

Abu Kassem does not sell only this dried za’atar blend. He also preserves the herb in jars, alongside other mouneh (preserves) such as vegetables, jams and labneh (strained yoghurt). And he also distills oils and flavoured waters from za’atar, lavender and sage.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7581 Lebanon AbuKasem-7583
Lebanon AbuKasem-7585

After our tour of the “factory” area, it was time for another tea break – this time we enjoyed an aromatic tea, made from za’atar water. Throughout the morning, Abu Kassem had been telling us all about the health benefits of za’atar.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7673

It’s a long list including encouraging hair regrowth, boosting one’s immunity, lowering blood pressure, easing menstrual cramps, eliminating phlegm, aiding circulation, curing coughs, fevers and stomach problems and many more besides. Later, Sherbil (our driver) allowed Abu Kassem to rub some of his distilled za’atar oil onto the small bald patch at the back of his head. (I can’t say we noticed any improvement in following days, though!)

Lebanon AbuKasem-7592 Lebanon AbuKasem-7603 Lebanon AbuKasem-7606 Lebanon AbuKasem-7610

Refreshed by our tea, we took a short excursion out to the countryside nearby, where Abu Kassem showed us wild, uncultivated za’atar.

It quickly became clear that there are a number of different but related herbs that seem to be grouped under the name za’atar.

My guess is that they may all be members of the genus Thymus which contains about 350 species of aromatic, perennial herbaceous plants native to temperate regions across Europe, North Africa and Asia. Or possibly even broader, taking in other members of the Lamiaceae family including Origanum. Certainly, the herbs we picked, smelled and tasted varied greatly and reminded us of common thyme, oregano and marjoram, amongst others.

From these, Abu Kassem made his selection and then bred selectively for many years, to produce the cultivar he grows on his farm.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7649 Lebanon AbuKasem-7653 Lebanon AbuKasem-7654

After our first, short excursion it was time for another; we set off to the nearby Litani River, passing through breathtakingly beautiful peaks and gorges, along narrow winding lanes.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7645 Lebanon AbuKasem-7614

There on the banks of a peaceful spot, we came to a beautiful shaded veranda planted with attractively trained trees and with a small building providing storage, cooking and toilet facilities. It belongs to friends of Abu Kassem and Fatima, and is used by many of the local community.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7613 Lebanon AbuKasem-7618

Fatima, and the friends who own this lovely space, prepared an amazing feast for us. I was so busy chatting and eating and laughing that I didn’t take a single photograph of our meal, but can tell you that, in that place, at that time, with those companions, it was a truly wonderful meal indeed.

Simple chargrilled mutton, a traditional red lentil dish, a meat and potato stew (that reminds me, unexpectedly, of my mother’s simple Indian aloo), fresh flat bread and lots of fresh salad and vegetables. After, tea and coffee and more talk.

It has not been an easy few years for those living locally. Not only was there terror and destruction, during the 2006 conflict with Israel, when bombs fell on this land, but also the on-going disruption to normal life and livelihoods caused by the hundreds of unexploded cluster bombs that remained strewn across the land. Whilst roads and town centres were cleared more quickly, it was not until 2009 that the Mines Advisory Group lead a battle area clearance project to clear the lower priority rural areas.

As Fatima said, when we talked, with the help of Bethany as our translator, “it’s been a good but hard life”.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7630 Lebanon AbuKasem-7623 Lebanon AbuKasem-7624

Abu Kassem, with his wife and children, have built and continue to build a strong business. Neighbouring farmers have followed Abu Kassem’s lead and are also cultivating za’atar, a potentially better long term product than the tobacco that is also grown in the region. Abu Kassem is considered an authority, and his expertise is much in demand. He has travelled around Lebanon selling his produce, as part of the farmers market established by Kamal Mouzawak (which is, in large part, responsible for the growing renaissance of Lebanese interest in traditional and regional produce and recipes).

Lebanon AbuKasem-7636
Lebanon AbuKasem-7607 Lebanon AbuKasem-7465
Lebanon AbuKasem-7572 Lebanon AbuKasem-7669

Before we left we were gifted some packets of Abu Kassem’s za’atar blend and we also purchased a variety of za’atar, sage and lavender oils and waters.

As is often the case in Lebanon, we arrived eager to learn about Lebanese za’atar. We left not only with our heads full of knowledge and our bags full of treats but our hearts full of friendship.

Lebanon AbuKasem-7492

 

What comes to mind for you when I ask you to think about Lebanon?

Is it the mass exodus of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948?

Is it the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, during which Beirut in particular was so often on the news? Internal conflict between political and religious factions within Lebanon, Invasions and attacks by Israel, counterattacks of Israel by the PLO and other Palestinian Liberation organisations and factions, and a Syrian intervention to name but a few facets of a long and very complex period of history.

Or perhaps the more recent 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon that resulted in 1,200 Lebanese deaths and 160 Israelis ones?

Or do you think of the Hezbollah, the militant political party and paramilitary resistance movement that emerged in the early 1980s, in response to conflict with Israel?

For me, it is all of the above, yes, of course – the civil war was almost a permanent news story during my childhood – it’s inevitable that it’s part of my consciousness about Lebanon.

Sometimes, though, it seems these responses are all that people associate with the country.

But what about the food and culture of Lebanon?

I have long been fascinated by the (much longer term) history of the wider region, reading tales about the Phoenicians sea-traders and the fertile crescent, often considered to be the cradle of civilisation.

And I’ve been drawn by the reputation of pre-1975 Beirut as a glamorous, cosmopolitan city much appreciated by commercial and tourist interests alike. In it’s heyday, Beirut was popular with the rich and famous and was said to offer the best of both the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

More than once I’ve heard it said that the Lebanese must surely be one of the most welcoming and hospitable people on earth.

And, of course, I’ve enjoyed what small fraction of the cuisine I’ve been able to try here in the UK.

Culinary Tour

So it was without any hesitation at all that I signed us up to Taste Lebanon‘s culinary tour of the country, lead by Bethany Kehdy, fellow food blogger and also food writer, photographer and nascent tour operator.

The tour is designed to give participants a “well-rounded taste of Lebanon through each of its region’s specialties” and is very much aimed at food lovers.

I won’t share every activity and place we visited – all the better reason for you booking to do the tour yourself.

But over the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing a short series of posts on some of my favourite foods and places from the trip. I hope they give you a small taster of this wonderful country and encourage you to book your own holiday there soon.

In the mean time, here are lots and lots and lots of food and drink photographs from the trip:

LebanonFoodPicsBlog-8113 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6545 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6890 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6558 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7118 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6510 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6511 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-8095 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7320 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6570 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7582 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7489 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7577 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7583 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7849 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7106 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7863 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-8131 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-8132 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6601 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6863
LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6990 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6524 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7897 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6532 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6956 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7035 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7099 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7039 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-8115 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7919 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7052 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6514 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7097 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7101 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7026 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7111 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6536 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7123 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6880 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7329 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7173 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-8121 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6531 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7256 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7317 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7904 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7322 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7328 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6513 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7332 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7129 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7337 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7408 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7871 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7410 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7436 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7711 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7736 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6992 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-6981 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7834 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7892 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7921 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7924 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7997 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7047 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-8119 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-8014 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-8118 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-8120 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-8114 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-8122 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-8123 LebanonFoodPicsBlog-7929

© 2006 - 2014 Kavita Favelle Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha