The last dance

The last dance

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

It was the last leg of our journey, following the road from Damascus back to Lebanon. A mere fifteen minutes on the road and we had left the congested city outskirts, passing a Palestinian refugee camp bristling with satellite dishes, and had reached the border crossing. After our frustrating experience entering Syria, getting out was a breeze. At a drive-through tollbooth, our passports were collected and stamped, and we were on our way again.

Eleven years ago this same border crossing had been little more than an untidy collection of fibro huts. It had grown into a gleaming great retail development where travellers could spend hours agonising over the vast array of duty-free spirits, perfumes and cigarettes.

We sped off through the countryside towards a looming dark bank of cloud before taking the turn-off to Zahlé, where Greg’s family originate. We had visited the village on our honeymoon and remembered it as a comfortable, red-roofed place in the foothills of Mount Sannine above the Bekaa Valley. It’s a popular summer resort and its main attraction is the Bardouni River which tumbles down from the hills through the heart of the city. The promenade along the Bourdani is lined with open-air restaurants, and in the summer months it teems with visitors.

It was raining when we drove into Zahlé and the streets were emptying fast. A street vendor was wheeling his ka’ak stand down the deserted street, the sesamespeckled horseshoes of bread dripping in the grey drizzle. The Bardouni promenade was empty and the shops were closing their shutters. We ducked into the one restaurant that was still open and took grateful refuge in the cavernous, brightly lit dining room. The restaurant’s speciality was ice cream, so despite the weather, ice cream we were going to have.

The proprietor proudly showed us his display of tempting flavours – mulberry, orange, apricot, pistachio, lemon and rosewater – and we chose the famous stretchy mastic ice cream that we remembered so well from our previous visit to Zahlé. We were now thoroughly chilled, both inside and out, and could stand it no longer so we headed straight to Zahlé’s Grand Hotel Kadri for a night of warmth and comfort.

The next day we woke to blue skies and sunshine, and what had seemed dismal and dreary the previous day was now charming and quaint. It was easy to accept Zahlé’s alternative name of ‘Bride of the Bekaa’.

By midday we were winding along a familiar dusty road to Massaya for a winter vineyard luncheon, at the invitation of co-owner Ramzi Ghosn. ‘Our cook is a local village woman and she makes very different food from the fare you normally find in Lebanese restaurants,’ he’d told us on our previous visit to the winery.

We basked in the sunshine in a spectacular setting, surrounded by mountains still capped with winter snow and vines that were just starting to sprout delicate fronds. Lunch was a procession of truly delicious dishes: a Lebanese-style bruschetta on chewy brown bread; a green herb salad of chervil, mint and chives; tangy silver beet in a creamy tahini-lemon dressing; crunchy potato kibbeh and fassoul – a comforting stew of slow-cooked red beans. Plump quails and marinated lamb cutlets were cooked over the coals of an open fireplace in the rustic ‘rest house’ and, of course, it was all washed down with liberal quantities of some of the vineyard’s best offerings.

On our last evening in the Middle East we went for a final stroll along the Corniche to watch the sunset. A few old men sat along the waterfront, their long fishing rods doing a delicate dance over the waves. Dusk was falling and the street vendors were opening their stands for the evening. And then, out of the darkness, the muezzin started up. The doors to the mosque opened to admit the faithful, and a pool of golden light spilled out onto the pavement.

We chose a pavement café on Rue Maarad in Downtown for our last supper. It was a warm night, and the streets were busier than they’d been over the course of our four-week stay. It was nine thirty – early by Beirut standards – but the cafés around us were full.

At a nearby table a group of touring Spanish musicians spontaneously produced their instruments and began to play. They were interrupted by the restaurant’s ‘real’ entertainment, an Arab clarinettist, who started his set with a Fehruz classic. A Muslim woman at the table next to us got up and did a belly dance, all sinuous hips and shy, seductive smiles through her lowered lashes. The tempo moved upbeat and a couple started a spontaneous ‘dabka’, the national folkdance of Lebanon.

The party atmosphere escalated with a string of traditional Arab folksongs. The maître d’ was beside himself, clapping and laughing and exhorting us all to have a good time. And then, the clarinettist paused for a moment and the crowd looked up expectantly. As the first few notes of his next tune began, there was silence. One by one, people got to their feet and I saw a young man behind me brush a tear from his eye as, old and young, men and women, Muslim and Christian, they started to sing Lebanon’s national anthem. And for a few precious moments it was as if the whole of Lebanon was united in one voice.

Recipes in this Chapter

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