I land in Beirut at about 5pm local time. Kamal arrives just after me and we embrace. For those who haven’t heard of him, Kamal Mouzawak is a food and wine journalist, leader of Slow Food’s Beirut Convivium, and a member of the Slow Food Award jury panel. After a tour of his ‘famous’ roof garden (‘famous’ because word of his monthly Sunday brunches there has reached even our ears) we begin our tour.
First stop – Bread Republic: a lovely open-plan bakery, opened just under a year ago by an architect friend of Kamal’s who tired of creating houses and decided to change sector entirely. He makes top quality bread, both typically European (baguettes, ciabatta) and Middle Eastern, with a version of almost unleavened round loaves made with wholemeal flour.
The bakery’s growing clientele demonstrates that the quality of his bread and pastries is very high, and worth the slightly higher than average prices.
That evening we eat by the sea with Mariam Nour, a true star of Arab television. This septuagenarian, passionately interested in meditation, macrobiotic cooking and alternative medicine, presents a television programme with Kamal about fine food and organic farming. We will be her guests on Friday morning, to talk about Slow Food in general and Terra Madre in particular. Just to give you an idea: Colonel Gaddafi, her number one fan, invited her to his secret tent in Libya… and she went! Incredible!
We leave early, heading south towards the Israeli border to visit Earth & Co, a sort of cooperative which buys local produce from peasant farmers and processes it to make moune (moune is the way foods are preserved in preparation for the harsh Lebanese winter: dried tomato paste, dried beans, pickled vegetables, burghol to be mixed with goat meat to make kebbeh, for example, or with a type of yoghurt to make kescek, olives in oil…these are all moune).
There is little traffic on the road leading south from Beirut, a new motorway which saves us a lot of time. The vegetation is very similar to the typical Mediterranean landscape and the soil is red, stony and rich. We pass by Sidon and then cross Tyre. School memories crowd my mind: the Phoenicians, ships, Baal Zebub (sounds strangely similar to Beelzebub, doesn’t it?), Ishtar and mystery cults-and Mesopotamia around the corner.
This land is certainly very evocative: Beirut itself, with its bullet-riddled buildings and new glass skyscrapers, calls to mind images of the early Eighties when the television news talked about Druse and Maronites, Shi’ites and Hezbollah, and no-one understood a thing about it.
Anyway, we reach the GHQ of Earth & Co. at about 10 in the morning and find a turmoil of activity: bread dough is being prepared, as well as the delicacies that form mezzè, a range of dishes that should be considered a kind of starter but often become the main dish because of their sheer quantity. Tabouleh (a salad of parsley, mint, tomato and burghol), hummus (chick pea purée), fattush (a rich seasonal salad of herbs and dried bread) and then beans in oil, labneh (creamy drained yoghurt) and olives.
Before we eat, we are given a tour by Nelly, one of Earth & Co’s founders, who explains how they buy the vegetables from local farmers and, with the help of about ten village women, prepare their products (tomato purée and dried tomatoes, dried beans, pickled vegetables, olives in oil, burghol, kescek…). The crops are ‘naturally organic’ since no-one uses chemical fertilizers or pesticides: the use of chemicals would require greater use of water, of which there is very little, so it’s impossible.
They are doing a wonderful job: as well as providing an income for these peasant families they are also helping repopulate the area with trees (mostly olive trees), following its almost complete destruction by fire when the Israeli army re-entered the borders after the occupation.
After the lunch described above we head back north but Kamal’s car (a brand new Alfa Romeo, how embarrassing!) breaks down and it proves impossible to start it up again. At this point we go our separate ways: Kamal stays to wait for the breakdown truck and I get a taxi to Sidon (people keep speaking to me in Arabic and seem surprised when I say I don’t understand…. I wonder why!).
I have a meeting with Nicolas Audi of the Audi Foundation who has restored a 15th century building and turned it into a splendid soap museum. The underground floors had always been used for soap production, and the tubs and equipment used over the centuries are still on display.
As well as his museum, Mr Audi devotes his time to fine quality typical Lebanese products: he created the Matkba Saida line which manufactures and sells jams (orange, cherry, apricot, fig), rosewater, orange flower water, olives, oil, labneh in oil and various traditional Lebanese sweets. He, too, is a former architect, who decided to revive traditional quality food production. Particular care is taken over the packaging.
After our visit he takes me back to Beirut and I meet up with a very annoyed Kamal. Never mind, dinner at Beirut’s very trendy ‘Casablanca’ is enough to restore everyone’s good humour.
The morning is entirely dedicated to recording Kamal and Mariam’s television show.
I don’t know if it was a success or not, but yours truly dwelt at length on the Slow Food projects, especially Terra Madre of course. It was to be broadcast on Saturday morning: if I hear of amazing reactions and crowds storming the doors of the Mouzawak home demanding membership of Slow Food, I’ll let you know!
In the afternoon we went to the mountains (1,100m) to visit another cooperative of women making preserved products: jams, mainly (fig, apricot, orange, mulberry) as well as candied orange peel, rosewater and orange flower water. The cooperative, Mymouné, began during the war and has become a reference point for local peasants. It was nominated for the Slow Food Award in 2002 because it has gathered many traditional Lebanese recipes and saved them from oblivion, as well as creating employment for 15 village women and 30 producers in the surrounding area.
The workshop is situated inside a beautiful house, over a terrace where roses and oranges grow; in front the sea, to the rear the snows of Mount Lebanon. Awaiting us with the host was a numerous delegation of Lebanese journalists who wanted to find out what a dumb Italian was visiting them for. I tried to be as clear as possible, with the touching collaboration of Kamal (whom I hereby nominate as International Vice-President of Slow Food for proven dedication to duty!) and I think the journalists appreciated what we had to say, apart from one sourpuss whom I would cheerfully have beaten with sticks – but I’m a gentleman and treated her with kid gloves.
Anyway, the only article I have seen so far was wholly positive. In the evening we returned to Beirut and enjoyed a homely dinner with some friends of Kamal.
We head north again to visit the salt works of Enfé and the Renée Moawad Foundation. We pass Byblos (another very evocative name) and stop just a little further on, on the coast. Here we find a salt works that is gradually falling into disuse. We are told that until before the war the sea water was sucked up using beautiful mills; but then the war came and with it the decision to use more prosaic diesel autoclaves. The mills were naturally destroyed by grenade blasts.
We find a few elderly folk intent on preparing the tubs that are still usable for the summer season. Only 10% of the tubs used before the war are still used today and although production is of a high standard it is not recognized as such. The salt is sold to distributors who have no interest in its origins: it is simply packaged and sold on. Kamal assures me that the best salt in Lebanon is produced here, and I see no reason not to believe him.
We proceed on our way north, climbing into the hinterland. The Renée Moawad Foundation (named after thefirst post-war Lebanese president, assassinated 17 days after being instated) is a NGO concerned with social issues, health and hygiene-related problems and agricultural matters. In this particular case the two projects we were principally interested in concerned olive oil production (sold in France by Oliviers & Co) and cheese.
As well as a good, semi-industrial level of cheese production there is a project underway to re-introduce native goat breeds in the Ehden area and save a typical goat’s cheese called Darfjie. The day after I meet the person responsible for the project and it’s love (platonic, of course) at first sight.
After talk, tasting (cheese and ice cream) and various discussions we face the umpteenth Gargantuan lunch. Here they eat like horses and I have real difficulty keeping up. During lunch, which finishes at about 4pm, another journalist asks countless questions about Slow Food and seems very interested. Exhausted, we head for home, a quiet dinner in and a quick trip round Beirut by night: outstanding, if you take my meaning.
Today we are purely representatives: we are guests at a ‘mountain chalet’ belonging to some of Kamal’s friends, for a picnic. A magnificent place, deep in the countryside, with a stream and birdsong thrown in. It turns out to be more of a banquet than a picnic, with over twenty guests. We explain what Slow Food is, with a lot of smiling and leg-pulling (it is quite complicated to explain to businessmen that we are a non-profit organisation). We leave with the promise of several new members and much appreciation for our work.
When we return to Beirut, we still have two more meetings before dinner: first with Raghed Assi of the Agrobiodiversity Project, and then with Chadi Hosri, the goat man of the Moawad Foundation.
Assi tells me about their projects (as well as seed saving and in situ cultivation of various species threatened with extinction, they organise courses and workshops for peasant farmers and make themselves generally useful in all those aspects of protecting biodiversity which we know about) and we find we are in complete agreement regarding the problems they face.
They will come to Terra Madre, as will Chadi, a young agronomist who has been supervising the repopulation of the Ehden area (north Lebanon) with goats for two years, and is working on detailed research of Darfjie, a type of goat cheese which is aged in goatskin for a couple of months. Chadi is absolutely devoted and made me very interested in this cheese.
We dine with the family then say goodbye. I have to wake up at 4am so I try to get to bed at a reasonable hour. But it’s impossible: on the ground floor is a recently restored nightspot where there is singing and dancing until 1. And then it’s time to get up again. .
Nicola Ferrero is the Asia and Oceania area coordinator on the Terra Madre project
Adapted by Ailsa Woods
Photo by the author