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Summer 2008 Vol. VI, No. 4

Fast Track to Slow Food....

These are a few more of the Lebanese villages and the heritage foods that Sami Abdul Rahman (B S '08) discovered while working for the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Science (FAFS) project that was funded by UCODEP and executed through IBSAR... you'll fall in love with the Lebanese terroir and learn why the slow food movement is catching on fast worldwide. -Ed.

My research started at the tip of Akkar, in the small village of Rahbe, where I was told I would find a well-known shankleesh producer who was renowned for her good ripened cheese. On Waddad Skaff's front porch I was greeted with mammoth trays filled with the round cheese molds that she was drying in the sun. She explained that shankleesh is the only mold-ripened cheese native to the Middle East and is believed to be of Kurdish origin. It is essentially concentrated, skimmed milk yoghurt that is hand-molded and given a smooth outer surface, then ripened due to the colonization of yeasts, and finally coated with thyme and other herbs. It lasts a long time thanks to its high salt and low moisture content. This was especially important when and where refrigeration was not available. I also found out that shankleesh can be made from cow, sheep, or goat's milk. The type of milk will affect the taste of the final product, which is moderately pungent and somewhat musty and has a perceptible bitter note. It is also naturally very low in fats (around 5 percent) and is a very healthy source of protein and calcium. Shankleesh is usually eaten as an appetizer broken into small pieces, mixed with finely cut onions, tomatoes, and green peppers, and drenched in olive oil.

On to Ehden
Craving more cheese my next trip a couple of days later took me to Ehden, a village situated at 1,000 meters of sea level, nestled between the Cedar forests of the Cedars region in north Lebanon, where I met Youssef Maroun Douehi, one of the few remaining producers of Darfieh cheese. Darfieh is a goat milk cheese fermented in a goat skin pouch or darif. Like yogurt production, this is thought to have first evolved when milk was stored in containers harboring certain micro-flora. Darfieh is traditionally sold at butcher's shops and placed next to the meat. Douehi invited us over for an early breakfast on his balcony that overlooks a forest of over 30,000 trees across which the clouds meet the trees, sitting there makes you feel like sitting in heaven, hearing nothing for kilometers and enjoying clean, healthy and good food. Talking about his products, our producer explained that the actual goat skin in which the cheese is fermented, is shaved, cleaned, salted, sun tanned and then used, he stated that the secret lies in the pore size of the skin, they are perfect to let out water at a rate that allows proper fermentation when it is put in the grotto under their house. Darfieh cheese is considered to be a delicacy, only available a few months every year in that particular region of the north, people in Beirut didn't believe what I told them before I showed them the pictures of this surprising production method and gave them some cheese to try for themselves. It is important to note that many European producers of cheese, visited and spent weeks with Douehi trying to develop a industrial method to produce Darfieh cheese, resulting in failure every time.

The Beka'a Valley
On a steaming hot July morning I went to the Beqa'a Valley to visit two villages, Taanayel for their famous labneh and Laboue to sample and catalogue their kishik. Labneh, the most consumed dairy product in our country, is characterized by its white/cream color and its soft and smooth paste. It is easily spreadable and has a clean and slightly acidic flavor. In households throughout Lebanon, labneh is consumed on a daily basis. It is most commonly eaten fresh drizzled with olive oil and scooped with pieces of pita bread. Labneh production is relatively simple, starting from refrigerated yoghurt, the raw material is simply slightly salted and hung for a few days in clothe bags until the water seeps out producing the pearly colored paste, that is either eaten fresh or made into balls and stored in olive oil. In Laboue I discovered kishik, a preserved dairy product made from coarse flour or cracked wheat (burghul) mixed with sour milk or yoghurt

(laban), sun-dried, and powdered. This form of milk processing can be stored for years and is usually made into stews with cured meat and eaten for breakfast, which is the main meal of most farmers of this region. Zeinab Mohamad Balouti, who began making kishik to supplement her family's income, told me that as long as the situation in Lebanon is stable, demand is very high and she is able to provide kishik to many Beirut restaurants. Vegans can now also enjoy kishik al khameer or fermented kishk, which originated in Hawran in southern Syria. It consists of burghul that is fermented in water and later dried in the sun and ground into powder. Mona Jaafar Durr, who produces kishik al khameer, graciously welcomed us into her house in the southern village of Majdelzoun. She explained that many people are ashamed to admit that they produce this vegan cheese because it has been historically linked to poor people who couldn't afford milk to produce the real kishik.

Next, my research took me deeper into the Beqa'a Valley to the rural village of Ham to explore salamouni wheat, a soft, low yielding variety that has survived because it is the raw material for burghul. Grown by the Mrad family, salamouni has been rescued from threatened extinction. Speaking of burghul, I drove back to Zahleh where I met George Saliba, who is a large-scale producer of burghul. Believed to have been originally a Kurdish product, burghul has been found in the Middle East since 1300 AD and has been traded by the Arabs along the Mediterranean coast since 1600 AD. Although it is still part of the diet in Levantine countries, since World War I it has been increasingly supplementing rice. Due to its minimal processing, burghul conserves most of the vitamins, minerals, and essential elements found in wheat. Saliba explained that to make burghul, whole wheat is boiled for several hours in large pots and then sun-dried. The processing procedure, specifically the boiling, takes place at the end of the summer after harvest and is a communal activity that brings families together.

I also visited the village of Chamaa in southern Lebanon, where 80 year old Mohamad Srour produces a unique and distinctively Lebanese product called freekeh, or roasted green wheat, which has historically replaced rice in this region of the world. Its name, he explained, comes from al-freek meaning "what is rubbed" and refers to the process of manufacturing freekeh, which involves rubbing the wheat grains to rid them of their shell. High in fiber and vitamins, freekeh is made by taking the green unripened wheat stalks, stacking them in bunches, then roasting them in the fields over an open wood or charcoal fire for approximately ten minutes until the spines of the wheat grain are removed. When cool, the grain is separated from the chaff and left to dry. The color of the final product is greenish and its shape, if not cracked, is similar to that of rice as is its texture, although it tends to be somewhat chewier. The flavor is nutty and smoky. Freekeh is cooked like rice to accompany meats or vegetables.

In early August I visited two new producers in the Beka'a Valley to wrap up the food trail in this region and to sample two new products, mawared (rose water) and Awarma (cured meat preserved in fat). For mawared I passed by the village of Qsarnaba, where I met Ali Khalil Al-dirani, who is a member of a renowned family in rose water production in the region. Ali explained that mawared, is a distillate produced from the petals of the Damascus rose; Rosa damascene, by a distillation process that uses a large scale Allembic, he told me that no sugar additives or colorings are added and the product is usually used to flavor Arabic sweets, drinks and some savory dishes as well. Awarma (or kawarma in classical Arabic), sampled in Nabi Chit, is a spiced, salted cured meat preserved in its own fat. Awarma is the basis for winter stews and can be combined with burghul as stuffing for many types of vegetables in dishes called mahasheh or used in cooking kishik. Late in every summer season, the fattened sheep which have been force fed all summer long are slaughtered, left to drain its blood, then the meat is diced and cooked in the sheep's own fat, during which is is heavily salted and spiced and then poured with the fat slurry into jars or terracotta pots and left to harden. As long as all the awarma is covered with the insulating fat, the product has a long shelf life.

I then went back to Baalbeck to visit the bakery of Omar Ahmad Solah, located in the victory roundabout in the heart of the village. It was a bustling small bakery, blackened from the smoke and fumes coming from the red hot clay pit in which he baked tannour. I have always heard of tannour but never knew what it was, so Omar explained to me that tannour is a thick flat bread baked on the walls of a barrel shaped clay pit built in the ground, with the fire being produced at the bottom of the pit by burning wood, it was this pit that gave the tastes and texture of this bread. I really couldn't understand why they needed the pit, so I did some research and found out that originally, the tannour was a stone pit ground from sheer stone in the earth, in which a fire was lit. The original purpose of the pit was not to bake but simply to prevent the flame from blowing out, over time, the tribes who used these pits noticed that their walls got very hot, and started applying pastry dough with a low water content that would stick to the surface. By now I was done from the Beka'a and headed off to another region to follow the food trail…

Aamchit
Off my pre-decided trail, I drove up to the small coastal village of Aamchit with my friend Nour to visit the small local furn (bakery) of a group of sisters called furn al-sabaya, the ladies' bakery. This bakery owned and operated by four sisters of the Zoughaib family was simply like sitting in your own house, the people were friendly, talking, drinking, and watching TV. The aroma was breathtaking. We went there to see a special product they produced called Mwaraka. I have never heard of this before but I learned that Mwaraka is a sweet pastry filled with walnuts and almonds and flavored with rose water, sugar and orange blossom water. It is a thinly rolled crunchy pastry with a dry filling, which is semi-sweet. What was more distinctive about this pastry is not its filling, but rather how it was rolled, piercing the center and rolling from the center to the outer edge, ensuring that there are no openings in the dough which may cause the filling to fall out during baking. I bought a dozen of these pastries, planning to distribute them to my family, I ended up eating most of them back to Beirut.

Metn
Escaping from the heat of the summer, I headed up to the mountains to a region called Metn located to the northeast of Beirut. I visited the village of Kfar Aaqab and the Skaff family who are small scale producers of another two of our products- Miweih grapes and Arak. The Mirweih grape is a white colored, large berry grape grown in Lebanon since the second millennia, and is the premiere grapes used in arak production. The El-Metn region (Kada) has the largest commercial production area of Mirweih while Kada Bshareh, Jbeil and Kisirwan have smaller production areas of this type of grape. Grown at an altitude of 1,000-1,250 meters, Mirweih has been cultivated by the Skaff's for its distinctive, sweet, soft taste which is ideal for Arak. Arak is a clear, colorless, unsweetened, aniseed flavored, distilled, alcoholic drink usually served with mezze over lunch or dinner. When I was visiting the Skaff's it was not yet the season for Arak production, but after explaining how it is produced and showing me the machines they uncovered a large earthen vat which contains one year aged arak, filling the room with the strong scent of aniseed.

Into the Chouf
Still on the mountains facing the sea, we moved south to the Chouf region, where I have located Lebanon's land of milk and honey. I visited several producers in this region for a number of products, but here I will mention cedar honey and Sirdaleh Labneh from Barouk, and the thin flat markouk bread from Kfar Faqoud. Barouk, is situated at around 1,110 meters of sea level, famous for the largest cedar forest reserve in the country. Cedar honey, or asal al arz, is a honeydew honey produced in the cedar forests of Lebanon where the primary vegetation is the cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani. The producer we met is Nabeel Al-Aays, a modest beekeeper who practices migratory beekeeping around Lebanon. He puts his cluster of around 50 hives in the Barouk cedar forest from early July untill early September, producing a dark, dry, aromatic and smooth cedar honey that is used by many in cooking and as a treatment for disease. In the same region, we met Nabeel's neighbor, Farid Melhem Mahmoud, the largest producer of Sirdaleh (or Ambaress) labneh in the region. Sirdaleh is not a "true" cheese (as in hard, rennet-coagulated), but rather a type of labneh which is a slightly fermented dairy product less dense than cheese, spreadable like cream, but with a slight sour note. Sirdaleh is used by farmers to preserve goat milk for the winter season as a component part of their reserve called mouneh. Production of the Sirdaleh is straightforward: 20 parts of full fat goat milk are mixed with 1 part salt and placed in large earthen pots called Sirdaleh, then as the whey starts to separate it is released through a spout at the bottom of the pot. Once it has all dried the pot is placed in a cool place and can last up to 7-8 months. The last grain based product in the Chouf is markouk, a relatively common product in all Lebanese households, markouk is a thin flatbread baked on a hot plate called a saj, which resembles an inverted wok. This is the simplest bread that can be manufactured, the original rural bread of Lebanon. It is still commonly sold and some modern bakeries produce it semi-industrially. Zahredein told me that each loaf is baked individually, usually by women, who flip the dough on their arms until it is fully stretched and then place it on a round pillow before transferring it onto the hot plate. Baking takes 30-45 seconds, producing a flaky, almost translucent loaf which is ideally eaten hot with some sirdaleh labneh and pickled olives.

Saida
Before heading further south, I had a stop in the mountains surrounding the city of Saida where I visited three producers that had perfected the production of three different varieties of grape, pomegranate and carob molasses. Molasses is a keystone product in our culture. In my house we have always used pomegranate molasses (dibis el rouman) to add an aromatic slightly bitter flavor to our salads and meats, but I learned that several other types of molasses are used for other purposes. Grapes and carob are the two main sweet molasses processed in Lebanon. Dibs el inab, grape molasses, is typical of the mountainous regions where sweet white grapes are produced in large quantities. It plays a central role in the Lebanese winter-stored food, the mouneh. Its production is associated with the festivals that accompany grape harvests. It is manufactured by the women of the household, usually the eldest. Iman Abou Kheir, the producer I visited in Kfar Nabrakh, told me that they use grape molasses to replace sugar in many recipes, and in some refreshing summer drinks. Dibis el kharoub, carob molasses, is derived from concentrating the marinade produced after soaking milled carob beans in water. The carob beans used in this process are produced by the carob tree Ceratonia siliqua, an evergreen shrub native to Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus. Dibis el rouman, pomegranate molasses, is plainly produced by concentrating the juice of semi-sweet pomegranates by boiling the juice until a honey like consistency is reached, this molasses is ideal for fattouch and meat pie preparation. Dibis el rouman, has become a staple food in our house since this visit, and we use it almost every other day to replace lemon juice. It is perfect for basting chicken or lamb.

In Saida we also added to our list mazaher (orange blossom water) and figs. The village of Maghdouche, known for its fragrance during the springtime blossoming of the bitter orange groves, has perfected the production of mazaher. It is considered a form of distillate produced from the flowers of bitter oranges, known as "bigarade" or "Seville oranges" (Citrus aurantium L.) or Bou-sfeir in Lebanon. It is generally used in cooking to flavor food as well as in drinks. The producer I met, Hanna Hakim, told me that orange blossom water is as old as the history of the Bou-sfeir orange tree which is said to have been planted first in Saida in the south of Lebanon, around 200-300 years ago (which I could not confirm). It is said to have been introduced into the village of Magdoucheh in the neighborhood of Saida by a farmer called Abu Ibrahim Semaan who was joined subsequently by Abu Maroun Usta and others in propagating orange trees. Prior to this trip, I had always refused to eat figs-too grainy, gooey and often rotten! I spent the whole day in Roum, a rural village set on the top of the eastern chain of mountains of Lebanon with a local farmer called Khodr Husssein Salami, we walked through the orchards guided by a local resident of the village, George Matta, who had us sample every one of the seven varieties of figs they had propagated in that region. They taught me how to pick the figs by twisting the stems, and then for the first time I discovered a ripe velvety red fig bursting with the flavor of summer, unlike anything I had ever tried. The fig is a fruit produced by the fig tree of type Ficus carica. Records, relics, traces and tools related to fig cultivation dating back 2,500 years have been found in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Further south... discovering moullat al-smid, mishtah jreish and zaatar
On an early Thursday morning I met Khalil Ollaik, an agricultural engineer and extension advisor working with Land and People. He took me to the Deir Kanoun Cooperative where two of the three products were produced. I met Daad Ismail, a southern woman in her mid forties who was working hard to provide job opportunities for some 35 women and girls in her village by making products they can sell in festivals and farmers' markets all over the country. She has been able to do so with the help of local and international NGOs. Daad took me into the co-ops common room where all the women were working and told me that mishtah el jreesh is a type of bread specific to south Lebanon (Jabal Amel). It was traditionally produced during the pilgrimage season and consumed over the first few days of the journey to Mecca. Today it is associated with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and is eaten with labneh and olive oil when the fast is broken, she added that the specificity of the mishtah al jreesh is due to the use of cracked soft wheat flour, and to the addition of whole aniseed, sesame seeds and mahlep, the tiny dried fruit of the wild cherry. She then took me to an adjacent room where they had a wood burning wooden oven where they were baking the second product, millet al smeed, a burghul semolina cracker made from flour, burghul (cracked wheat), sesame seeds, and olive oil. Due to this unique and relatively dry mixture this bread did not rot or go stale and could provide long distance travelers with essential nutrients for long periods of time. Millet al smeed is delicious, flaky but with a distinct olive taste and crackle due to the burghul, filling and perfect with labneh for breakfast. The third product took us to the village of Zawtar, near Nabatiyeh in the south, where I met. Mohamad Ali Neimeh, who pioneered the cultivation of zaatar (thyme) which has historically been collected from the wild. It was not the actual plant that I was after but rather his unique zaatar mix. The mix is composed of thyme, sumac (rumex dentatus, a powerful acidulant), toasted sesame seeds, salt and sometimes other spices. This mixture of dry herbs and spices is typically used as a garnish for labneh and other dairy products such as shankleesh as well as serving as the main ingredient in the topping for manakish (zaatar pies). Mohamad also told me that the best quality zaatar comes from Lebanon, while other regional zaatar mixes are well know they are all inferior in quality and are basically dried, flavored and well minced thymes stalks that are blended and packaged and sold at rock bottom prices. I left the south, hoping to visit it again soon, I will never forget the snapshot of the city of Tyre from the high mountains leading us into Chamaa, I will never forget the smell of thyme in Mohamad's fields, I will never forget the smiles of the women in the coop of Deir Kanoun, and I will never forget the generosity of the people I met all during my trips.