Group campaigns to protect traditional foods from ‘extinction’

16 Aug 2005 | English

BEIRUT: There’s nothing unusual about campaigns for saving endangered species like whales or pandas, but how often do we hear about groups trying to protect a typical dish or a traditional cheese from extinctionCertain foods disappear when their small local producers surrender to large food companies and multinationals.

But in some countries a number of dedicated activists are prepared to fight to safeguard local culinary traditions. In Lebanon, Kamal Mouzawak, described by his friends as an enthusiastic and dreamy food lover, is one of these pioneers. Mouzawak is committed to helping local food artisans continue making their traditional products.

This year, his focus has been on Darfieh, a type of goat cheese traditionally made using dried goats’ stomachs by farmers in Lebanese mountains.

He will be launching this exceptional star product worldwide at the International Cheese Festival, which will be held in Italy in September.

Thanks to his connections with Slow Food, an international association that promotes food culture and defends food biodiversity, Mouzawak has succeeded in promoting Lebanese culinary specialties at past international fairs.

Last year, he helped 40 local Lebanese producers participate in Terra Madre, a world meeting of food communities, which was held in the Italian city of Turin.

Visiting Lebanon for the first time, Alessandra Abbona, the international coordinator of Slow Food, is trying to study the possibilities for the creation of a more vibrant Slow Food social movement in Lebanon. Such movements currently exist in Italy, Japan and the United States.

In few words, the mission of the group is to link food and pleasure with awareness and responsibility, said Abbona.

Slow Food boasts 86,000 members worldwide. However, only 15 of those members come from the Lebanese branch launched by Mouzawak in 2000. For an annual fee of $60, members help support local food culture and receive a quarterly publication called Slow: Herald of Taste and Culture.

But Abbona is confident in the success of the Slow Food movement in Lebanon. I was impressed with the huge diversity of food traditions in Lebanon and the openness of the people, she said.

Opposing the standardization of taste, the group aims, as Abbona said, to protecting from extinction forgotten food items which are of high quality and deeply rooted in local traditions.

The movement promotes eco-gastronomy, a concept encouraging the production of good quality food without harming the environment and … [selling it] at prices fair to the producer.

The group has spearheaded several initiatives to raise public awareness about the importance of foods cultivated and processed using traditional techniques.

Since 1999, we have created in many education institutions in Italy, school gardens to put students in touch with local food producers, said Abbona.

Describing Slow Food as a virtuous globalization movement, Abbona recalled the group’s efforts to help locals start their own pastry shop in the Amazon.

We discovered amazing cakes made with locally grown nuts in a village in the Amazon. But since the quality was not very good, we have sent a pastry maker to the village to assist local producers, she said.

Slow Food has a special research unit formed of a team of experts who travel around the world in search of high quality edibles.

Our group would like to help local Lebanese producers find markets in Europe, she said.

Abbona is hoping the pending visit to Lebanon of Slow Food guru and founder, Carlo Petrini, will help lay the groundwork for close cooperation between the group and the local Lebanese government. Petrini was named one of Time Magazine’s European Heroes in 2004 for his pioneering work in promoting food culture around the world.

Meanwhile, the local representative of Slow Food, Mouzawak, continues his efforts to create a bridge between independent food producers and the broader Lebanese public.

Every week, he organizes an open-air market for all kinds of healthy – organic or not products in the Saifi quarter in Beirut.

Last Sunday, Mouzawak decided to move his market, Souk al-Tayeb, to Batroun. From local wine to rustic bread and artisanal jam, we wanted to support local products that are not usually sold in food stores, he said.

One of the products on offer at the market was Batroun Mountains. It’s a new wine made of grapes grown in the fields of Batroun, said Aim_ Bassil, responsible for marketing the wine.

Hoping the product will become known across the country, she added: Although, for the moment, we only sell our wine in Batroun, we’re present at festivals and wine-tasting events all around the country.

Other items promoted at Souk al-Tayeb included home-made marzipan. Prepared by Nouha Khairallah, these confections are crafted according to traditional methods in the northern village of Fghal, known for its high quality almonds.

I don’t add colorants or preservatives like they do in factories. My marzipan are all natural, explained Khairallah.

Khairallah has been making marzipan since she was a young girl, following in a tradition passed down by her ancestors.

I used to sell them to people around me in the village, but slowly the word spread and business grew. Now, I get a lot of calls from people I don’t know who want to order my products, she said.

The market attracted both foreigners and locals. Florence Denian, a French expatriate living in Beirut, drove all the way to Batroun to discover the town’s traditional food.

I love the diversity and the quality of Lebanese food, she said, recalling her experience as a former owner of C™te et Court, a French restaurant in Beirut.I am astonished by the closeness among Lebanese people which makes it easy for consumers to establish real contact with food producers, she added.

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