Preserving traditions

Preserving traditions

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
7 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667661
Photographer
Matt Harvey

In rural communities around lebanon the annual handson tradition of bottling and pickling food is very much alive and well. It’s known as mouneh, which roughly translates as ‘provisions’, and encompasses the many all-important foods that are carefully put aside every year to tide families over the long cold winters. The list includes jams, jellies and preserves, pickled vegetables, molasses, flower waters, sun-dried fruits and vegetables, home-grown herbs and spices, and kishk (a fermented yoghurt and burghul wheat powder, used to make a soupy porridge).

Two sisters, Leila Maalouf and Youmna Goraieb, have turned the production of mouneh into a highly successful business, which they run from their village of Ain el Kabou near Bskinta, in the heart of the country at the foot of Mount Sannine. Their products have become so popular that the distinctive packaging of their ‘Mymouné’ brand is now seen on the shelves of Dean & DeLuca in New York and Bon Marché in Paris.

We met Leila Maalouf, an immaculately groomed middle-aged woman, on a sunny morning in the ‘tasting’ room of the large stone barn that houses her company’s factory. Through the glass window that separated this room from the factory floor, we caught glimpses of women in white coats and hats bustling around a kitchen. Every now and then a door opened and the heady smell of orange blossoms wafted in.

The idea for Mymouné came to the sisters in the winter of 1989, just before the end of the civil war. ‘People were so sick of it all,’ sighed Leila. ‘Everyone was shooting at everyone else. There was no work for the villagers here and the road was cut off so people couldn’t get to Beirut to find work. We felt so isolated. We desperately wanted to find something that we could do to help give employment to locals. Especially to the women.’ She chuckled to herself. ‘The first thing we thought of was knitting. But somehow we couldn’t get excited about that. And then my sister Youmna thought of food.’

The full range of Mymouné’s jars, bottles and boxes were arrayed on a dresser behind her. ‘We started with just one or two products,’ Leila told us in her charming Arabic–French accent. ‘It was springtime, like now, and the very first thing we made was rose cordial from the roses in our garden.’ She laughed. ‘We were so excited about our first batch. But really, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. We just knew that we wanted to make good-quality products that people would want to buy.’

The family house had a large storage barn that wasn’t being used so the sisters cleaned it out, white-washed the walls and began researching recipes. They hired local women and quizzed them for favourite family recipes. Children were put to work drawing labels and sticking them on jars. Husbands were used as taste-testers and the sisters turned to their Uncle Timothy, a nutritionist and chemist, for advice on hygiene and pasteurisation.

‘We found an old still among all the junk,’ said Leila, ‘and that was the beginning of it all. We made things as they came into season, starting with rosewater and orangeblossom water; jams and jellies came next. The most important thing to us was that our products would be of excellent quality. We didn’t want to use any preservatives, we wanted to make our products … in good conscience.’ Leila paused, and when she continued her voice had become serious. ‘I know it all sounds very romantic, two middle-aged ladies making jams, but it was critical to us that we made it work as a business.’

Leila and Youmna have certainly made a success of it. Their range now extends to nearly thirty products, including rose-petal and fruit jams, flower waters, pickled vegetables, pomegranate and mulberry syrups, kishk, apple and grape vinegars and sugared citrus peel – all the mouneh staples of the Lebanese pantry. Mymouné employs a core of fifteen local women – more at the height of the summer season – and they even employ the occasional man.

While Leila had been talking, a stream of goodies had been coming out from the kitchen for us to taste. Sweet preserved dates and pumpkin, tart mulberry jam, crystallised lemon peel and the pièce de résistance: ‘Fruits Folies’, an extraordinary mixture of conserved tangerines, bitter oranges, almonds, pine nuts and pumpkin that according to Leila makes the perfect last-minute dessert spooned over ice cream. At last we were ushered into the kitchen, a large bright room with huge picture windows looking onto the mountains in the distance. Massive pans of orange-blossom jam were bubbling on the stoves and two laughing young women were dipping pieces of orange peel in sugar. The atmosphere was contagiously light-hearted and warm. Before leaving, we stood for a moment on the verandah of Leila’s family home to gaze out over the valley. ‘You know,’ said Leila happily, ‘Mymouné actually has a double meaning. As well as meaning “provisions” it also means “blessed by God”.’ She swept her hand towards the horizon in a gesture of pure joy. ‘When I look at all this, and think about what we’ve achieved, I think this meaning is very true for us.’

The following day we’d arranged for our drivers to take us back to the Ras el Matn region. Our destination was Qsaibe, a tiny village that was famous for its dibs (carob molasses); our contact, Georges Neaimeh, who had been busy husking pine nuts when we’d last met. It was squally weather and the pine trees that covered the hillsides were swaying violently in the wind, but as we got out of the car we could smell something sweet, unfamiliar, almost raisiny in the air.

All sorts of molasses are popular in Lebanon and they are commonly made from grapes, pomegranates, dates or carob. We were familiar with pomegranate molasses, a lusciously thick, purplish syrup that adds a tart yet sweet flavour to many Middle Eastern dishes, but neither of us had seen carob molasses before.

We asked Georges and his wife, Rita, what dibs was used for and Amal translated their answers. ‘I use it instead of sugar in all sorts of cooking,’ said Rita. ‘It’s good in cakes and cookies and it’s also lovely spread on bread with tahini. We often have that for breakfast.’ ‘Dibs is much more healthy than processed sugar,’ added Georges. ‘And it’s also used to perfume the tobacco that’s smoked in nargileh pipes.’ He jumped to his feet. ‘Yallah! Come with me and see for yourselves.’

Dibs production takes place mainly over the cold winter months between October and April. It’s a continuous business of crushing, soaking, boiling and bottling, and is hot, dirty work. Georges inherited the family business from his father, who was still on hand to offer advice and help out during the busy times.

Georges stuck his hand into a sack of pods and handed a few to us. They were curious, prehistoric-looking things, like very hard, dark brown broad beans. Georges lifted one to his ear and shook it gently. ‘Listen,’ he said. We dutifully copied him and could hear the seed rattling inside. Georges snapped the pod open and handed it to me. It felt dry and tough and I found it hard to believe that it was the source of any natural sweetness.

In one room a series of terracotta sinks were full of crushed carob pods soaking in water to dissolve the natural sugars. After five hours the dibs water would be drained off and transferred to a massive pot. ‘This dibs water is very good for stomach problems,’ declared Georges. ‘It’s much better than date water.’ This water would then be taken to the wood-fired furnace in the next room to be boiled for three hours to thicken and form a concentrate.

The small, dark room next door was like something from the industrial revolution. It was lit only by a small window high in the wall, and shafts of light pierced the gloom to illuminate the sickly sweet smoke that rose in dense clouds from the bubbling pot. A wooden paddle fixed above it churned the sticky contents mechanically and Georges bent to shovel more coal onto the flames.

Despite the coolness of the day, the heat in that room was unbearable, and we were relieved to go back to the soaking room where Georges showed us the finished molasses – a sticky, thick, butterscotch-coloured goo in plastic pots. ‘Taste!’ he ordered, plunging his finger into a nearby saucepan. We followed his example and tasted the intense, almost overly sweet dibs, which had a hint of fruitiness and, yes, an almost chocolate undertone. Over time the dibs would darken to a treacly black colour, and the flavour would further intensify.

I found the carob pod in my jacket pocket a week later, and put it to my nose. It smelt sweet and mysterious. The broken edge of the pod was faintly speckled with a few tiny beads of moisture. I stroked my finger along the broken edge and tasted it, and the memory of that day flooded back to me in a rush of small details: I could smell the sweet, raisiny aroma of boiling molasses and feel the heat rising from the pan. And in my mind’s eye I could see Georges, bending low to shovel another load of fuel into the furnace.

Recipes in this Chapter

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