Written by William Dobson
Back in the summer, I was lucky enough to spend a week travelling around Lebanon with Bethany Kehdy of Taste Lebanon (and several other ventures). A former beauty queen with her debut Middle Eastern cookery book coming out next year, she knows Lebanese food like no one else. Now, she is offering three people the chance to join her for an all-expenses paid food trek in the Spring/Summer 2013. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a unique side to the country, taking in places that you wouldn’t know if you were travelling on your own. Indeed, as Kamal Mouzawak has famously said, in Lebanon ‘food is the greatest expression of our traditions,’ and this idea is paramount to the tour.
For details on how to enter, see here and you can read about my experiences on the most unforgettable trip I’ve ever taken below:
Maguy stands dripping wet at the entrance to her house-turned-restaurant, which is perched on a rock above the glistening Mediterranean. As we enter, she hugs us and gives us an impossibly quick series of kisses on both cheeks. Music blares out from a party boat moored in the bay, filled with young locals enjoying themselves in the late afternoon sun. Five minutes earlier she had been roaring around on her jetski, but now it’s back to work, cooking a mighty supper for the evening’s guests.
We are sitting on Maguy’s ramshackle balcony, watching the setting sun. She grew up in the town, not far from here, and trained as a professional diver. She built this place as a fishing hut, but loved it so much she decided to move in. Then she set out a few tables, and pretty soon her makeshift restaurant had become a local legend.
Tonight, we’re treated to a non-stop procession of seafood delights, caught that day and barbecued in front of us. First comes scallops, both raw and grilled, with just a squeeze of lemon juice, garlic and a sprinkling of herbs. This is followed by calamari, octopus and local fish, accompanied by tabbouleh, hummus, chips and batenjan el raheb (aubergine salad). After dinner, Maguy takes each of us out on the jetski in turn, while the others look on.
We are in Batroun, a busy fishing village and weekend resort for rich Beirutis, on the second day of Taste Lebanon, a culinary tour of the country. It’s run by Bethany Kehdy and her appetite for wonderful food is matched only by her seemingly endless knowledge about her country’s culinary history. Formerly a Miss World competitor, Kehdy is now a cook, writer and a bit of an entrepreneur to boot. “Taste Lebanon tours attract people from all over the world: foodies or those who just want to travel around Lebanon but are hesitant to do so on their own,” says Kehdy. “We also get a few Lebanese expats returning home for the first time since the Civil War.”
The tour is part sightseeing, part learning and a big part eating. The week started with a walk through Kehdy’s old Beirut neighbourhood of Achrafieh in search of some of her favourite childhood haunts. “The places I select for the tour are not places you would know about when travelling around on your own,” she says. “Sometimes even Lebanese haven’t heard of the places we go to.”
Already stuffed from another huge Beiruti lunch, we stop off at Boubouffe, a restaurant that seems not to have changed in 40 years. There are hundreds of places to pick up a shawarma in this city, but nothing tastes quite like Boubouffe’s. Cooked over charcoal instead of gas, I ask the withered old lady who owns it what spices she’d used. “Over 20 but they’re a family secret,” comes her curt reply.
Our week-long trip isn’t just about eating, it’s about discovering how things are made and the importance of food in Lebanese culture. Standing in his olive grove north of Tripoli, Youssef tells us about his life growing up in Paris. He studied there before returning home to take over the family business, eager to implement advances he had learnt. The air is sharp and clear and the olive trees stand squat like oversized bonsais. It feels as if nothing has changed here for centuries. But inside an ancient stone building, Youssef has installed an incongruous collection of state of the art machinery, that he uses to extract the optimum amount of pure, peppery and deliciously pungent extra virgin oil.
Beneath the shadow of the towering ruins of Baalbek, we discover the process behind sfiha, the open meat parcels said to have originated here. Lamb is minced by the butcher before being spiced and mixed with tomato, parsley and chilli. From there, it’s taken across the road to the bakery, where it is stuffed into dough and cooked in a wood-burning oven. It’s a practice that harks back to an age when houses didn’t have ovens, and it almost feels as if a whole community has joined together to create these delicious morsels.
We head far south to meet Abu Qassem, who claims he was the first man to sell wild zaatar commercially. He treats us to shots of zaatar water, which has been used as a local cure-all for generations. Its intense bitterness burns the back of the throat, bringing tears to our eyes and a perfect smile to the old man’s face. He takes us to his fields where he removes a scythe and, with an ease that belies his skill, demonstrates the age-old technique that he and his small team still use to reap the herb by hand.
As the week draws to a close, we’re sitting in the Kehdy family farm on Mount Lebanon making jam with freshly picked cherries. “Sharing our cuisine is so important to me,” says Kehdy. “It lets me express myself and shed a more honest light on our culture.” Food is a national obsession and it’s easy to see why: olive oil from the north, sfiha from the east, zaatar from the south and cherries from the centre of the country. With such incredible ingredients and passionate chefs, Lebanon is like one vast kitchen and we’ve devoured a week-long meal to remember.