On Lebanon’s coastal plain and along the spurs of its mountains, the start of summer is heralded by patches of broom that light up the landscape with the bright yellow of their flowers.
Another indication of the approaching summer is frisco, made by EchEch… For most readers these words will be meaningless, but not for the natives of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, who love the freshness of frisco, a typical sorbet, brings to their hot summer days. EchEch is a stall which sells the stuff.
Frisco encapsulates all the aroma and flavors of the local lemons and oranges. It is not by any means a new addition to Lebanese menus; on the contrary, its origins lie in the distant past.
Traveling back through time we note the wealth of riches Middle Eastern countries generously distributed beyond their own borders. Long ago, cedar wood from the trees that shade the slopes of the mountains overlooking the sea were one of Lebanon’s main sources of wealth. The Pharaohs of Egypt, Old Testament prophets and the powerful sovereigns of Babylon and Assyria coveted this precious wood and praised the beauty of Lebanon’s cedars.
In the shade of the cedars was snow lay perennially. In the more sheltered recesses of the mountains, some patches remained from one year to the next. Today mountain dwellers still know where to find what they call ‘ice houses’, crevices in the rocks shaded from the hot summer sun where the winter snow remains intact.
Before the invention of refrigerators, nothing was more precious for the inhabitants of hot countries than this cold, compact snow. Hence the Mameluks – sovereigns of Egypt and members of a dynasty that ruled this land from the 13th to the 16th century – sent their ships to Lebanese shores to stock up on the mountain snows and transform them into sorbets, sweetened with sugar, treacle or fruit. A meal in their palaces was never complete without these exquisite sweets.
Tripoli, washed by the waters of the Quadisha river, is famous for its rich, fertile land, The source of the Quadisha lies in a sacred valley at the feet of the cedar-covered mountains. Travelers have sung the praises of these lands: al-Dimashqui, a medieval traveler, describes houses hidden by trees and branches, sycamores and sugar cane plantations, while one German friar tells of the delightful places – a mountain covered with trees of delicious bananas, grapes, walnuts and all kinds of citrus fruits – he discovered on his pilgrimage towards Jerusalem.
Sugar cane was grown extensively around the city. The crusaders found this new ingredient here and imported it to Europe. Under the Mameluks, the demand for sugar increased and in the 15th century the city became an important production center.
Hence the ingredients for frisco – lemon juice and a little orange juice from the citrus trees with the dark green leaves that grow on the coastal plains, sugar (only small quantities of which are produced in these parts nowadays) and ice or, better still, snow! – are all typical of Tripoli.
These days few people prepare frisco by hand, without the help of electrical equipment. Yet the principle is very simple. All you need is a bowl of ice and salt with a cylindrical metal container submerged in the center. Pour in a syrup of lemon and orange and sugar as if you were making lemonade. Now all you need to do is fill up a glass with the mixture, serve and taste with a spoon. Drink up the remaining liquid with a straw, so nothing is wasted.
Summer is also announced with an important event: “Job’s Wednesday”. This is the Wednesday of Holy Week, and local tradition demands that this is the first occasion for a swim in the sea. On this day women never clean their homes, because it is said that this would attract ants!
Men, women and children go to the beach with a picnic, and it is customary to have a swim. The day ends in the best possible way, when on the way home they stop off at EchEch, hoping that the seasonal salesman has already opened his summer stall. And even if frisco is not yet available, there are many alternative sweets. Tripoli, in fact, is considered the best place for cakes in the whole of Lebanon.
Kamal Mouzawak lives in Beirut and is an editor and photographer for Saveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, the most important Lebanese monthly food and wine magazine.
Photo: Tripoli, Lebanon