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EATING IN LEBANON
Our trip to Lebanon was, gastronomically speaking, an extremely flatulent, exciting and avoirdupois-gaining experience. An abundance of chick peas saw to the first, a host of hitherto unknown dishes took care of the second and an abundance of delicious breads dealt with the third.
Overall we had 7 meals, although it seemed to be a great deal more. Those who lingered for the extra two days had eleven. Plenty of time was consecrated to these repasts, as no ridiculous requests had been forwarded to our hosts for light lunches – an abominable habit sadly adopted by the Institute of Masters of Wine on its Wine Study trips such as ours.
Our arrival was momentous and cannot be left unsung. Rarely I feel is one plunged quite so deeply and rapidly into the heart of a new culture. We had exactly fifteen minutes to wash and brush up at our hotel before being trundled off in our bus on a long, twisting and mysterious drive, through the dark, to heaven alone knew where. It turned out to be the Hotel Mounir. Here we were catapulted straight into a full-scale Lebanese wedding for 300 guests. The dancing was amazing, the decibels right off the scale and the food an unending stream of unknown delights. We were encouraged to join in as though we were absolutely part of the family. It was an evening of great warmth and emotion, and the food, which was served throughout the entire evening, was a more exotic version of what we were to eat at every meal during the days that followed. It gave us an immediate, if rather overwhelming, introduction to the immense variety of Lebanese cuisine.
Of course we must not forget the breakfasts, three of them for the regular tour and five for the stoppers-over. In the Bekaa Valley hotel these were relatively spartan, but at the Radisson Hotel in Beirut they were copious buffets covering the full spectrum of breakfast foods and rather more – a savoury chick pea and broad bean stew by the name of Foul Moudamas Balila delicious drizzled with the unfiltered olive oil from the north of Lebanon. Also Halaweh, a very sweet and delicious paste made from sesame and sugar. The finest, and indeed a memorable breakfast, was that enjoyed, in the sunshine, on the roof garden of Heritage Winery. Fruity red Nouveau accompanied many of the usual Mezze dishes – hummus, Baba Ghannouj, white cheeses, raw vegetables, fruits and a truly delicious, warm, fresh bread - menouschi - copiously covered with sesame seeds. This was a feast in its own right.
Most of us were new to Middle Eastern and Lebanese cuisine and eager to discover all that we could about its extent and its delights in the short time allotted to us. Fortunately all our hosts were only too eager to assist us, to explain all their dishes to us and to help us to spell and to pronounce them. As Virgil said, “I will not waste your time by enumerating the impressive variety of dishes that appeared on the table as Mezze”, but of course that is exactly what I am going to do. Between them they provided a bewildering array of small dishes of contrasting colours flavours, textures and aromas. I have done my best to list what came to our table during our visit, but there are surely many omissions. There was not always enough time to get all the explanations from our hosts, so busy were they making sure that all was well with us.
No meal was served without three of the national dishes mentioned below. Firstly the famous TABOULEH (bulgur wheat, parsley, mint, green onions, olive oil, lemon juice, sliced tomatoes, salt and pepper). Secondly the “incontournable” FATTOUSH (minced garlic, salt, pepper, Lebanese mint, lemon juice, olive oil, chopped Romaine lettuce, diced cucumber, and the absolutely essential crisply toasted flat bread). Thirdly Kibbe – ground, almost emulsified, meat, malaxed with bulgur wheat, onion, salt, black pepper and spices and often served with a yoghurt sauce. Here we go!
Toum: garlic paste
Hummus (Hommus bil Tahini): chick peas with olive oil, garlic, tahini,
paprika and parsley
Coffee: western or Lebanese, sweetened or unsweetened, with or without
All these dishes appeared at least once if not many times and some of the staples came with every meal.
In addition to the above, and among the more unusual dishes for us, were cubes of raw liver and raw tail fat from freshly killed lambs, as well as raw kid-meat and goat-meat kibbe.
The range of white cheeses, fresh, soft, dried, mixed with herbs and spices or crumbled with oil, was remarkable, as was the range of dishes made with chick peas and with aubergines. Most of these are included in the list of Mezze above.
Lebanese food is healthy and “sain”. Butter is almost never used and olive oil, fresh, fruity and unfiltered, is used extensively. Parsley, mint, coriander, aniseed, sesame and fragrant Lebanese thyme were among the herbs and spices most frequently used.
Every meal included a large selection of raw vegetables piled high on attractive platters – enormous, deliciously flavoured tomatoes, carrots, onions, salad greens, green and red peppers (both sweet and searingly hot), as well as cucumbers. There was also, without fail, several platters of fresh fruits at the end of each repast: – bananas, green oranges, mandarins, persimmons, apples, pears, custard apples, loquats, satsumas, melons, fresh and half dried dates. These were served at the same time as a variety of desserts, which always included Loukoum, various pastries and other exotic sweetmeats.
After the Mezze came a main course, or often two. One could imagine that our hosts had liaised with each other so varied and unrepetitive were the dishes presented to us. Fresh fried trout straight from the waters above which we sat to eat them, herb encrusted frogs legs, kibbe pockets. These last were fascinating, being raw lamb or goat or kid meat, pounded with herbs and spices, made into pockets and filled with fat to keep the meat moist whilst being cooked. When served and opened the fat had to be scraped out before eating the meat. One of our longer dinners had a powerful and pungent dish of little pasta balls and chick peas with a rich meat sauce (beef this time) ladled over them. Known as Moghrabiyeh, it was a dish ideal for ravenous agricultural labourers returning from the fields, rather than for over-sated and sedentary wine-tasters at the end of a long, energy-sapping day. There were also highly flavoured lamb stews and chicken stews with Bulgur wheat as well as a variety of Kebabs of various meats, savoury and spicy little sausages, grilled sausage meat patties and grilled lamb, goat, kid and chicken pieces.
One Winery offered us a choice of more or less Western dishes in their excellent winery restaurant and produced, for Petronella and myself, a perfectly cooked, rare steak and a fine piece of sea-bass cooked on a hot rock.
I was stupid enough to eat some raw, unknown mushrooms up in the stand of Lebanon cedars and suffered acute stomach ache that night. This was cured with aniseed tea dosed with orange blossom water – a cure that I shall take as often as I can in the future!
Nine of us, out of the original twelve, stayed in Lebanon for two extra days. Being on the coast, in Beirut, and having had very little of it, we went resolutely for fish. The recipe in these restaurants is simple and excellent. The fishes are colourfully laid out on chilled slabs, packed with ice. One discusses and chooses a selection of them. These are then picked out, weighed and one is charged accordingly, by weight. One then tells the restaurant exactly how one would like each fish to be cooked – grilled, fried, baked, in sauce, etc. Fish is expensive and it is better to choose local fish, which is absolutely spanking fresh and flavoursome, rather than imported fish. Most of the shellfish, lobsters, prawns and shrimps for example, are imported from Kuweit or Turkey. The Blue crabs are local and simply marvellous as are the red mullet, sea-bass, sand and rock grouper and some mysterious fishes known as “mouse” and “Sultan Brahim”. These are all fished offshore and should not be missed. There are no native oysters or mussels. There are an abundance of fish restaurants along the coast, ranging from delightful, rustic, simple terraces on the beach, to elegant, fine, crystal and white linen tablecloth palaces, with glass fronts facing the sea. Both of these are enjoyable and exhilarating experiences.
If you think that all of the above was squeezed into three days for
some, or a maximum of five for others, then you will not be surprised
that some of our group had firm intentions of dieting upon their return
home. It would be interesting to know how many fulfilled their good intentions
and how many, like me, were immediately led astray by an “entrecote aux
sarments” and a bottle of 1966 Chateau Palmer.
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