Ras el matn

Ras el matn

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

We woke to a dingy-grey dawn, made gloomier by the realisation that one of us was going to have to brave the motorway to drive to the arranged meeting place where our driver, Michel, could take over. Our final destination would be the small village of Zandouqa, deep in the hilly Ras el Matn region, directly east of Beirut.

Greg drew the short straw, and soon we were caught up in the maelstrom of morning peak-hour traffic. The road was the busiest we had seen it yet, jam-packed with commuter buses, battered service taxis, beemers and army trucks roaring around us on all sides. Greg’s method of steering a direct course and simply allowing other drivers to move around him seemed to work, however, and we arrived intact, if nervous wrecks, to hand over the car keys.

We were headed for Zandouqa to meet an old school friend of Amal’s called Hady Zeidan, on a mission to find out more about one of the most expensive and desirable ingredients in Lebanese cuisine: pine nuts. These resinous little kernels are native to the southern Mediterranean and are prized not just for their flavour, but for the soft crunch they add to all sorts of savoury and sweet dishes. Eighty per cent of Lebanon’s pine nuts come from the Ras el Matn region.

With Michel at the wheel it was a peaceful half-hour drive up into the hills, and Beirut’s suburban sprawl quickly gave way to thick forest and deeply shadowed ravines. As we neared Zandouqa, the sun broke through the clouds.

Hady’s house looked out across a frothy sea of pine trees and a picturesque valley, dotted here and there with the red-tiled rooftops of traditional Lebanese houses. We sat in the sunshine on the verandah, sipping coffee and munching on home-made ma’amoul biscuits, and listened as Hady told us a little about pine nuts.

‘We grow the best pine nuts in the world here in Lebanon,’ he declared. ‘They have the best flavour because of their high oil content.’ Greg was quick to agree, pointing out his frustration at having to make do with the poorer-quality, stubby Chinese pine nuts that are most readily available in Australia.

Hady gave a sigh. ‘Lebanon exports pine nuts all around the world – to Europe, to Canada and to Australia, too,’ he said. ‘But we are a small country and our harvest is not as big as China’s. Also, it is very labour intensive to farm pine nuts and the yield is not so large. It takes ten years before you get the first harvest and then you must collect thirty kilos of pine cones to get one kilo of pine nuts.’

On the plus side, stone pine trees (Pinus pinea) appear to be ridiculously low maintenance: they grow wild and need virtually no water or fertiliser; they propagate themselves; and they live well over 150 years. Most of the trees we were looking at belonged to one landowner who leased his trees’ crops to the highest bidder at the start of each season. The successful bidder – in effect a kind of pine-nut middleman – would then send in workers to harvest the crops and arrange for them to be shelled and processed before on-selling them, either for the export market or to local sweet and pastry manufacturers.

Suddenly our attention was caught by a stocky fellow propping a rickety ladder against the bottom of a nearby tree. As we watched, he climbed nimbly up the ladder and then shimmied up the rest of the skinny trunk, before disappearing into the green treetops. ‘Ah,’ said Hady. ‘You are lucky to see this. It’s the last week of the picking season and most of the workers have moved on. I spoke to my neighbour this morning who needed a picker – he was prepared to pay US$40 a day, which is a very good price – but there was no-one around.’

Harvesting pine nuts is dangerous work and most seasons, we learned, there are fatalities. A picker generally earns US$35 a day, compared with a mere US$12 for the less risky job of collecting and bagging up the cones that have fallen on the ground. The cones are spread out on plastic sheets in the sunshine, and as they dry they open up and the precious seeds fall out.

It was easy to believe that there were fatalities. The trees grow up to fifteen metres high and most of the lower branches are neatly clipped away, leaving impossibly long and slender trunks. The treetops bend in the wind and look far too fragile to be climbing about in. The man we were watching wasn’t secured to the tree in any way and he was wielding a vicious-looking sickle-shaped knife, sending small branches crashing to the ground as he worked.

Suddenly Hady leapt to his feet. ‘Come’ he said. ‘We’ll go to visit my neighbour.’ We piled into our car and followed him around a slalom run of hairpin bends to the next village to find his friend and neighbour Georges Neaimeh.

Georges’ main work was making carob molasses (known as dibs), but he and his cousins also harvested and processed pine nuts during the season. His face and hands were blackened, his clothes dusty and he looked weary, but he shook our hands and greeted us with a polite ‘As’salaam aleikum.’ Hady translated his welcome for us. ‘He welcomes you to his home and apologises that he is very tired. He and his cousins have been working all night, trying to finish processing the quota of pine nuts that must be delivered this afternoon.’

We looked on in fascination as an antiquated husking machine took in the blackshelled nuts at one end, sent them on a bone-shaking journey through a series of graduated hammers and completed the task by spitting out a stream of golden nuts at the other end.

Nothing is wasted. The pine nuts’ hard shells are gathered in buckets and sold for fuel. The precious pine nuts are soaked to loosen their papery skins and panned by hand in a large sieve to separate the creamy kernels. Georges scooped a handful from a sack propped against a wall and handed them around. We’d been longing to taste them, and found them strongly resinous yet sweet, with a soft, buttery texture.

Our snack of pine nuts had whet our appetites and it was time to get back for lunch.

Recipes in this Chapter

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