Once the warm weather has come, one wonders sometimes whether to do the cicada thing and bask in the sun, or be an ant and gather provisions for winter.
In the Lebanon, mountain tradition inclines towards the ‘ant’ version. The land and natural environment offer abundant produce in the spring and summer, and it’s up to man (or rather, women) to take the best of this and preserve it for the cold winter days. Kescek is one of the most important products of muneh, traditional food conservation and it is prepared by women, each of whom claims to make it better than the others.
To find the most fertile lands – and the most boastful women – you must go to Beqaa, the ‘granary valley’, which has been famous since ancient times.
In this region, spring and summer are a period of plenty, and the inhabitants use their good sense to make the most of it and put something by for the harder winter days.
This is how the ancestral Lebanese tradition of muneh began, consisting of the preservation of foods through various methods: drying, fermentation and concentration …
Thanks to these preserves all the available food products can be stored as provisions.
But today, with greenhouse production, frozen foods and preservation using chemical processes, mune preserves have almost become redundant and difficult to find, despite their unparalleled flavor and quality.
In some areas however, like the villages of the Beqaa valley, preservation traditions still survive.
Kescek is one of the most important muneh products. It is a milk-based preparation, but it is not simply a dairy product as it also contains burghol (crushed wheat). Kescek can be preserved from one season to another, it is easy to prepare and is appreciated for its high nutritional value. As one woman, quoted in Muneh, conservation traditionnelle au Liban by Aïda Kanafani-Zahar, points out, ‘…kescek contains the heart of wheat, starch, but also the best part of the milk. It would be inconceivable to face winter without a substantial stock of kescek’.
Kescek is a fine whitish powder obtained from a mixture of milk, yoghurt (laban), strained yoghurt (labneh) and burghol, all fermented, dried and lightly rubbed by hand to obtain a powder.
This is a long procedure and only the women are privy to all its secrets. A good kescek is not too acid but tasty, and can only be obtained with time and experience.
The main ingredient is burghol, steamed wheat, which is then ground into a powder or crushed into chunks. The larger burghol is used in cooked preparations, kebbeh, which are made from a mixture of burghol and meat ground in a mortar. Fine burghol is used for raw preparations like the famous tabouleh (a salad of burghol and tomatoes flavored with garlic, onion and mint, and served with lettuce leaves). When preparing kescek remember that coarse burghol will absorb a greater quantity of dairy products and give a richer product. A kilo of large burghol, for example, will absorb four kilos of laban, while the same amount of fine burghol only needs two.
The dairy products used – laban (yoghurt), labneh (strained yogurt) or curds (fermented at room temperature) may vary according to the area, both in type and quantity. Kescek is a typical product of the Beqaa Valley (at the center of the country), of southern Lebanon, and the Shuf and Kesruan mountains, but it is also known in the north.
Fresh milk is not used because it does not guarantee the right conditions for correct fermentation.
Goat’s milk is usually used to obtain the by-products necessary for the production of kescek because it has the right level of acidity. When goat milk is not sufficient, small quantities of cow’s milk are added. The best kescek is made between September and October when the milk is fattest. The Lebanese usually wait for the feast of the cross (September 14) because on that day the milk is said to be mussallab alé – protected by the cross.
First, the burghol is washed and mixed with the yogurt, by pouring the yogurt gradually over the burghol to obtain a doughy mixture. This is placed in open containers to ferment for a few days and later into special jars where the fermentation is slowed down but lasts for two or three weeks. During the early phase of fermentation, the kescek is mixed once or twice a day, adding laban or labneh if it is too thick.
To save time some women leave the kescek in the open containers for the whole fermentation period, but this can have a negative effect on the quality of the end product.
Kescek is ready when the flavor, aroma and appearance are right. At this point, it is divided into large balls, which are put out to dry in the sun, on the roofs of the houses, on ‘kescek cloths’. After drying, the dough is crumbled into powder.
Only a small part of the kescek is consumed in dough form; this is called kescek akhdar which means ‘green kescek‘, and it must be used up in a short time because it does not last (although it can be preserved for a while in olive oil).
Kescek balls dried in the sun are powdered by the village women, who gather together to help each other in the tiresome task, forming farrakkat – groups for powdering. The farrakkat move from one house to another every day to complete the task of making and powdering kescek for each family.
This is a perfect occasion for the women to chat and exchange gossip as they crouch or sit cross-legged on the ground, protecting themselves with large straw hats from the hot sun which dries the kescek.
The kescek needs to be sieved: the large dried balls are rubbed between the palm of the hand and the rough cloth to obtain a powder, which is then sieved to obtain the product to be preserved. If the powder seems to be still damp, it is left to dry a little longer, but not too much.
Kescek is preserved away from air and light until the following season. The powder can be dissolved in varying quantities of water to make: soups with stewed meat, garlic, and sometimes cabbage, a thick cream flavored with fresh mint leaves, fritters or even stuffed crepes…
It is like a magic powder, which can be transformed into delicious and nutritious foods, to reward men – and women – for all their hard work.
Kamal Mouzawak is a contributor to Saveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, the Lebanon’s most important f&w monthly.