“I spent half the yr consuming inexperienced zaatar!”
I heard that all through my childhood, each time my dad was complaining about his boarding college days at Mar Yacoub in North Lebanon.
He despised the varsity for a lot of causes, however the horrible meals was a significant one. As a toddler, he would go off into the wilderness to choose inexperienced zaatar (contemporary thyme) which grew within the spring months.
He would then combine it with contemporary onion, each time out there, and a few olive oil, wrap it in skinny, delicate Lebanese bread and fill his stomach with one thing he might digest each bodily and mentally.
At some point, it lastly occurred to me to ask what he did the opposite half of the yr.
“I ate out of my mouneh.”
Mouneh is an Arabic phrase that actually means provisions and is used to check with the preserves historically put up by Lebanese households yearly. They will embrace pickles, jams, natural teas, kishk (dried yoghurt combined with bulgur wheat), syrups, tomato paste, grape leaves, olives, zaatar, and dried greens like eggplants that we name “adeed”.
There was a time when our ancestors from Mazraat al-Toufah (the Apple Orchard), a northern village nestled in a valley throughout from Mizyara and slightly below Ehden, sustained themselves principally from the land.
They preserved a lot of what they planted and regardless of the bushes of their orchards offered within the spring and summer time months to hold them by means of autumn and the chilly snowy mountain winters.
This custom has been handed on from technology to technology. Though fewer and fewer folks practised it as time went on and extra Lebanese moved to the cities, it remained an essential ceremony of passage to get some mouneh from the village to eat again on the town. And at the moment, do-it-yourself mouneh is making a comeback.
My father’s mom, my Grandmother Asma made her personal mouneh yearly, and my Aunt Amaline, his sister, grew up watching her and studying her methods instinctively.
Aunt Amaline is now 85 years previous and nonetheless forages for zaatar, picks grape leaves, and makes her personal apricot jam.
She’ll let you know she prefers realizing precisely what her meals is manufactured from and the one option to assure that’s to make her personal stuff by hand.
For her, it’s all about style and high quality, though for others lately, price performs an enormous half in deciding to protect extra meals.
“Individuals within the village began planting once more as a result of issues are so costly, sure, however mouneh is greater than that.
“Apart from cash, after we have been younger, we didn’t have these items out there within the winters. Our village felt remoted at the moment. In case you didn’t put together your self, you couldn’t eat. Individuals ‘tricked’ nature to dwell off the land year-round.”
Aunt Amaline began making mouneh when she obtained married at 20, greater than half a century in the past, in Mazraat al-Toufah. It was simply what was accomplished and felt pure to her.
There was no different method.
I referred to as Aunt Amaline to talk and to see when could be time to go see her. Her son was visiting from the US and I didn’t wish to get in the best way of her time with the children and grandkids, however I did wish to see her and get my family time.
Driving in Lebanon will not be for the faint of coronary heart, and I solely do it when completely obligatory, renting a automotive and gritting my enamel as I get on the Autostrad with folks zooming previous.
Then I’ve to maintain heading north to the ˜village on a two-lane freeway with no median. Not a lot better.
The nervousness solely begins to dissipate once I flip onto the tree-lined village street, exuding the odor of pine to welcome me. My aunt’s home is on a curve that some village folks name “Kou’ Amaline” or “Amaline’s Curve”
She lives on the bottom ground and her eldest son lives upstairs together with his household, she will usually be discovered on her giant terrace, particularly if there’s some afternoon daylight. I often name out her title as I stroll in, so I don’t startle her, and she or he all the time responds together with her heat “Ahla!” (welcome) from wherever she is in the home.
On this go to, I had instructed Aunt Amaline on the telephone, I wished to get some grape leaves and see if I might protect them myself. After all, the mere point out of this concept to her meant that Aunt Amaline would make a dish of stuffed grape leaves, able to eat as quickly as I arrived.
The tangy vegetarian stuffed leaves have been so so tender, the yoghurt was so cool and creamy. In some way, dipping them in that yoghurt introduced out the tanginess much more,
There are two methods to protect grape leaves, Aunt Amaline tells me as we eat – one entails brining them and the opposite is to pack them right into a jar so tightly that there is no such thing as a room left for air.
“That is the most effective time to choose them. In case you don’t use water and salt to pack them, it’s a must to test on them after every week or two to ensure they don’t mould. If there’s no mould by then, they’re good. You’ll be able to freeze them too however that’s now not an choice in Lebanon.”
See, the place Aunt Amaline lives, in Mazraat al-Toufah, there are solely 4 hours of government-provided energy a day, and she or he and the opposite villagers need to complement that with just a few hours on a generator. So freezers are difficult.
It’s been like this throughout for the previous two years or so, as Lebanon’s financial disaster tears on the nation.
Proper now, as a Beirut-dweller, I’ve no electrical energy for about eight hours a day. Once I do have energy, it’s partly as a result of I take part in a shared generator service in my neighbourhood.
It’s exhausting to determine which hours are offered by the town and which come from the generator, so I’ve gotten used to unplugging the fridge once I want to make use of the washer (for instance) as a result of the generator can’t help each and I by no means know when it’s operating.
However, I hold reminding myself, whereas my labneh doesn’t final so long as it used to, not less than issues should not as dangerous as they have been in October final yr – when there was no authorities electrical energy in any respect for a number of days.
And in addition, not less than Lebanon will all the time have its flagship, unspoilable, meals: zaatar.
How one can zaatar
Zaatar is one thing Aunt Amaline is aware of effectively.
She explains how it’s used in a different way relying on while you choose it. In case you choose it younger, you’ll be able to eat it contemporary or in salads as a result of “It’s most tender earlier than it flowers.
“As soon as it flowers, you make dried zaatar. It’s essential choose it with its stalks, dry it, then take away the stalks and grind it. You add the sumac and the toasted sesame seeds with a minimal quantity of salt. Your grandmother used to grind it in a big mortar and pestle however now we’ve got meals processors and locations that grind it for us.
“It’s additionally finest to not combine all the things directly. Sesame has oils that change the style of the thyme. Hold them separate and blend simply sufficient for what you want.”
She is aware of this appears like an insane quantity of labor for the typical metropolis dweller.
“Sure, it’s simpler to purchase zaatar however how will you understand what’s in it? They may put grass or wooden in it to mass-produce.”
Dried zaatar can be utilized as a herb in salads or sizzling meals. Mostly, it’s combined with olive oil and wrapped in a pita or used because the topping for aromatic manaeesh – what my Aunt Amaline likes to make at dwelling for her grandchildren on weekend mornings.
That odor, whether or not inexperienced zaatar simply plucked or dried zaatar permeating our days because it wafts from the bakeries, is so inherently acquainted to the Lebanese that it’s the very first thing folks assume to ship abroad to their family members within the diaspora as a reminder of dwelling.
In Beirut, I nonetheless had zaatar in my kitchen, left over from presents made to me by 4 completely different family members, every with their very own particular combine and flavour. It’s a protected breakfast for these days when the meals within the fridge spoils as a result of the facility is out – or I wanted to do a load of laundry and needed to unplug the fridge.
Proper now, at Aunt Amaline’s these ideas are straightforward to push away as we benefit from the stuffed grape leaves and I lean again in my chair after we are accomplished.
By no means one to sit down idle, Aunt Amaline puttered a bit then recommended we go go to her sister, my Aunt Mary, who’s round 99 years previous and lives close by together with her daughter, my cousin Salma.
Really, Aunty Mary might be older, as a result of throughout her technology they might usually register newborns gone their precise birthday.
Salma’s natural tea
My Aunt Mary and my cousin Salma dwell in Dahr el Mghara overlooking the village. Salma’s dwelling is gorgeous, the results of her a few years of exhausting work as a instructor.
Now retired, the 72-year-old is caring for her mom and making magic out of her rambling terraced backyard.
Once I instructed Salma I wished to speak about mouneh at the moment, her face lit up. Her backyard is stuffed with bushes – figs, apricots, plums, olives – and she or he makes mouneh repeatedly.
There are all the time roses too, though this yr there are fewer rose bushes as a result of there was a water scarcity that stored her from planting too many. She nonetheless goes out to choose wild flowers for her natural tea, which has 11 elements.
“I wash all the things earlier than I dry it. I make my mouneh as a result of that method I’m certain that it’s clear and natural.”
Rising up, Salma realized so much about preserving and the meals rising round her from the time she spent together with her paternal grandfather, Moussa Elias, who was very educated in preserving meals and an skilled on honey.
She additionally realized some from my Aunt Mary, however Aunt Mary was busy with seven different kids, most of whom have been youthful. So Salma, left to her personal units, would enterprise to different properties within the village, connecting with the village elders and studying how every household made issues their very own method.
Strolling into Salma’s kitchen is like strolling onto a vivid, ethereal terrace. The massive home windows throughout look out onto the plush inexperienced pines that encompass the home and the daylight streaming by means of them makes drying herbs straightforward.
“Individuals are making much more mouneh now,” she says. “Issues have gotten actually costly and folks realised the value of the land. They’re respecting what they’d forgotten.
“We’d dwell higher if all of us had that connection. You’ll be able to’t choose a wild flower, take a look at it, odor it and never really feel good.”
She’s completely satisfied to indicate me the various things she has made and put up in her pantry, a few of the jams she makes use of when she’s baking a dessert, or just unfold on a little bit of bread at breakfast.
“That is my plum jam. I left the pores and skin on once I pureed it as a result of it has lots of nutritional vitamins. That’s simply my very own method, others might let you know in a different way.”
Salma’s satisfaction in her preserves is clear, she exudes that sensible data that comes from lengthy years of constructing one thing by intuition. And he or she doesn’t use fancy phrases to explain what’s what.
“In case you maintain up the plate sideways and the jam doesn’t slide off, you understand it’s accomplished.”
Apart from plum preserves, Salma’s cabinet cabinets groan beneath the burden of berry molasses, olives, olive oil, natural tea, dried mint, even handmade cleaning soap. And sure, in fact, there’s zaatar, fastidiously gathered, dried and floor by Salma’s personal palms.
Within the time since I used to be there visiting together with her, Salma has despatched me a number of voice notes and pictures of recipes on WhatsApp – cherry jam and apricot compote.
Curious, I requested her who took the pictures, and she or he instructed me it was her grandnephew who had come to spend a while together with her.
Seems to be like she’s passing on the mouneh baton her elders handed on to her.