Last supper in Beirut

There is a warning the foreign office of my government has not included in its advice on travel to Lebanon: don’t expect to get anywhere fast if you have even a passing interest in food.

I hit the streets of Beirut on a crisp, sunny January morning, knowing exactly where I was heading. But in less than a minute the smell of baking had lured me off my route. Following my nose down a side alley I ended up at Ichkhanian in Beyham Street, a bakery with an unassuming shop front, behind which was the most cavernous wood-fired oven I’ve ever seen.

Three men worked seamlessly to knead, roll and bake the flatbreads, for which, I later found out, they are famous. The unleavened, ultra-thin pizzaish discs, known as lahm bi’ajeen, are topped in a few different ways. I opted for minced lamb and pinenuts, which had been baked crisp, then hit with a squeeze of lemon and a shake of paprika. Things could not have got off to a better start.

Despite being British to the core, I’ve always felt that the Arabic world was my spiritual foodie home. Mezze is probably my favourite way of eating: I love having little bits of this and that, mixing it up, clearing your palate with some pickles, then diving in for another little trundle round the beautiful bowls. Over the years my passion for mezze has taken me to Israel, Turkey and Morocco in search of new recipes and ingredients, but it was in Lebanon, widely believed to be the country that invented mezze and the jewel in the Middle Eastern culinary crown, that I felt I would find authenticity.

My guide was Kamal Mouzawak, a dedicated foodie who used to sit on the board of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity in Bra, Italy. He became disillusioned with the politics of the movement and decided he could achieve more by working at grassroots level in his own country.

He was right. Since leaving he has instigated project after project designed to preserve, promote and celebrate traditional Lebanese cuisine. Initiatives include the Kitchen Workshop in Beirut, a culinary institute that offers cookery seminars and classes, and the first insiders’ guide to his country, featuring essays on architecture, music and cinema by key Lebanese figures, as well as more practical information on places to stay and eat. His current mission is to document ancient and little-known recipes, which he plans to publish in a cookery book. He is also the man behind Souk el Tayeb, Lebanon’s first farmers’ market, which aims to “safeguard and promote the knowledge about food traditions and heritage”.

In some ways Souk el Tayeb is not unlike our farmers’ markets. Go there on a Saturday morning or Wednesday evening and you will find middle-class locals browsing stalls brimming with healthy, shiny vegetables. For me it was a great place to sample some local dishes, such as kibbeh, a street snack and veritable national dish, made of finely ground lamb or goat meat mixed with soaked fine bulgar (cracked wheat) and then deep fried (although sometimes the meat is raw). There were also little pastries filled with spinach or lamb, and in the corner I found Mona and Nellie, preparing man’ousheh, delicious wraps made from a dough of barley, wholewheat and corn, cooked above coals on a big metal dome and then filled with local goodies such as soft and salty cheese, olives, tomatoes, huge rocket leaves and za’atar (a mix of herbs, sesame seeds and salt). Mona was 27 before she learned to read, and it is only through her stall at Souk el Tayeb that she is now able to support her family.

Kamal wanted to take me to his home town, but not before lunch. Halabi, on the outskirts of the city, proved to be the ultimate education in mezze. Among the 26 dishes put in front of us were a divine oven-baked potato mash, mixed with olive oil and roast garlic; an incredible muhummarra (crushed walnuts, spices and chilli mixed with olive oil to a pesto-like consistency); boiled brains with lemon; and some stunning local spinach-like greens, steamed, then sprinkled with lots of deep-fried shallots. Laughing kids were running around while the men (and me) puffed on hubbly-bubblys as the meal stretched on for hours.

We eventually rolled out of Beirut at 4pm. Our first stop was Byblos, thought to be the birthplace of modern writing and the site of some excellent Roman remains and a beautifully preserved 11th-century church and castle. After sauntering around the ruins we watched the sunset from the Byblos Fishing Club, overlooking the ancient harbour, and I had one of those moments of extreme bliss brought on by a campari soda and the best fattoush salad I’ve ever eaten.

After that perfect sundowner we headed 20km further up the coast to the fishing town of Batroun, where we were spending the night at Kamal’s house. He took me to his favourite local, Chez Maguy, a classic beachfront restaurant complete with outside wooden tables, well seasoned by sun and wind, and a menu based on what the fishing boats brought in earlier. This included an enormous platter of little grilled crabs, with a delicious garlic mayo dip, some of the most tender calamari I’ve ever eaten and a small army of succulent grilled prawns. A digestive walk along the famous Phoenician wall and a toe in the sea completed our evening.

The next morning we drove to Tripoli, famous for furniture and sweet pastries. I can’t think of anywhere better to indulge in the latter than Hallab & Sons, a seven-floor temple to sweetness run by the fourth-generation Samer Hallab. It’s worth trying to get the full tour, but failing that a coffee and a little sugar rush in the café on the ground floor will more than satisfy. They produce about 65 kinds of sweets and pastries, all handmade — be sure not to miss out on the halawet el jiben, their particular specialty, a kind of sweet, cheesy cream in the most incredible stretched pastry.

Having consumed several thousand calories in an hour, I was keen to work some of them off, so I stormed through Tripoli’s ancient souk, past piles of dates and vine leaves, chunks of tripe, rows of trainers, live chickens, pyramids of nuts, dried fruit, herbs, books, chadors and half cows on hooks. Jostled along by the throng, the tea boys touting their wares, ready to refresh the sellers with little glasses and a steaming pot on a tray, I felt like I was part of a magical, untouristy side of everyday life.

Having soaked up the market’s sights and smells, I attacked the citadel with a zeal that might have impressed even the crusaders who built it nearly 1 000 years ago. It’s a magnificent fortress built on the highest peak in Tripoli, almost totally deserted apart from a group of Lebanese soldiers, and offering breathtaking views of the city.

Amazingly, I was peckish again, so I set off in search of Danoun, a no-frills, booze-free restaurant — and reputedly the best place in the city for pulses. The ful (dried broad beans), hummus and fatteh (chickpeas cooked in yogurt with bits of fried bread) were the best I had on this trip.

Kamal and I headed back to Beirut with the snow-peaked mountains on our left and the Mediterranean on our right, back to the Hotel Albergo, which has a stunning rooftop pool and a terrace bar with a panoramic view across the city from the sea to the mountains, and an Italian restaurant, Al Dente, should you fancy a break from local cuisine.

Early the next morning Kamal picked me up for our last jaunt: a visit to the lush Bekaa Valley, the country’s bread basket and a great wine-producing area. It was about 7am as we crossed the first range of mountains with blue skies above and Syria in the distance, and saw the famous valley in front of us, overflowing with thick morning mist. As the ground warmed up the mist thinned, and by the time we reached the ruins of Baalbek the air was clear and crisp, broken only by the sound of several thousand voices all shouting in unison, “Hizbollah! Hizbollah!” We had come on the remembrance day of one of Mohammed’s martyred followers.

The roads were closed, so we walked directly through the rally, where we were searched by multiple security women who could not have been nicer or more apologetic for inconveniencing us. “No problem,” we said, smiling and heading at a firm pace for what promised to be one of the best set of ruins I’d ever seen. Baalbek is quite simply breathtaking: its size (there is a colonnade of the six biggest columns in the world), beauty, the state of the ruins (amazingly complete given their age) and the location (seated between mountain ranges) make this an awe-inspiring place — it’s not surprising that they used to think it was built by giants.

After such exertion and excitement a restorative gin and tonic was in order at the legendary Palmyra Hotel overlooking the ruins. From there we drove to the Massaya vineyard, set up by brothers Sami and Ramzi Ghosn. Britain and Ireland are already their second-biggest export market after California. We walked through a hall of enormous vats, each labelled with its own little chalk-board: the Tate takes the rosé as one of its house wines and you can buy it in Harvey Nicks too. Massaya also makes arak, the traditional aniseed drink similar to raki.

We enjoyed a few of their reds (Classic 2007 and the Gold Label 2005) at the wonderful little onsite cafe and lapped up a stunning local soup called keshk — cabbage, onions, spuds, preserved lamb and home-dried milk — followed by pumpkin kibbeh.

As the clouds burst for the first time, we made our way back to Beirut for our last supper, at a wonderful Armenian restaurant called Onno. This small family restaurant does the sort of food I enjoy best: simple, confident, beautifully cooked. I tried the delicious and beautiful mante — a giant pie made of tiny individual lamb parcels simmered in sheep’s yoghurt just before being served. I munched and crunched on sparrows (traditional in these parts) cooked in pomegranate molasses and tried gall bladder with chilli (liverish), as well as more regular delicacies such as pastrami with fried quails eggs and a lamb dish with dried cherries and cashews that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. But then that also goes for the whole trip. —

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