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Voyage to Lebanon: Olive Oil, Lebanese cuisine, tasting wine

 

 
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Voyage to Lebanon: Olive Oil, Lebanese cuisine, tasting wine
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A VOYAGE TO LEBANON - Senses and Sensitivity - Text by Raghida Samaha

Here is an invitation to explore Lebanon sensuously through its gastronomy, music, and to live like its people for a while. It's a country where musical cultures often meet in a spontaneous "fusion" to create a unique production transporting us to enchanting places often located beyond space and time. With the opinion of an expert, here we reveal an inner side of Lebanon - and surely of ourselves - as we taste its olive oil, wine, cuisine and products from its soil just by stimulating the senses… the five senses of course… even though by experiencing Lebanon, you might actually acquire a sixth!

OLIVE OIL… TASTING ITS ESSENCE!

It's a delicacy that arouses the senses of smell and taste-and many find its sight irresistible. Michel Firneini, Lebanese olive oil taster as well as restaurant owner, guided us with the olive oil of his choice to North Lebanon, unfolding wonderful sceneries of olive tree orchards.

In small long glasses, the golden liquid was poured from its bottle. As he held it in one hand, he covered the glass with the other. It seems that the color is not a criterion for good olive oil. It could vary from pale yellow to intense green and gold green.

Our first step was to smell the olive oil soil. Holding the glass with two hands, we rubbed its base to heat the oil as the other hand covers it. Once we uncovered the glass top, we slightly brought the glass closer to our nose; surprisingly, a beautiful intense volatile fragrance of artichoke emanated! (It's an occurrence which, I learned, often happens in olive oil tasting). Images of that green vegetable, cultivated under the Mediterranean sun, in Lebanese soil of terra cotta color came to my mind! I could picture green silver olive leaves glittering and many series of twisted rough olive tree trunks stretching from 500m altitude at Koura plateau, North Lebanon, to almost embrace the sea!

The second step was to taste effectively in the mouth. A sip is carefully held on the sides of the tongue between the teeth in an effort to draw it down without really swallowing it. Suddenly a taste of bitterness followed by another pungent flavor is felt at the back of the tongue. Three essential criteria should be present and balanced to obtain a good quality of olive oil; fruity, bitter, and pungent.

Michel Firneini has made olive oil his passion. Trained in Italy, he became an olive oil taster and a real "fanatic" as he said, about that product. At his restaurant Lebneniyet in Beirut Central District, The olive oil is served like in Italy, in its green dark bottle thus protecting it from air, light, and heat.

In almost every Lebanese kitchen as well, an olive oil bottle is ready to dress every dish!

REVISITED LEBANESE CUISINE… BRINGS FLAVORS OF REGIONS!

A regional cuisine is marked by its country's cultural history. Once spread on the table, Lebanese cuisine reflects the colors of Lebanon's nature. It may be described as traditional and simple, but our cuisine is surely gastronomic. Revisiting a cuisine is to carry it a step forward with the best preparation methods and techniques, revealing the spirit of its origins.

Prepared with herbs, our national cuisine is an enchantment to the palate, the sight, the smell and the touch as well. It's with a scoop of bread that the mezze is perfectly savored. But the success in accomplishing a "revisited cuisine" is to maintain a thin line between the traditional and modern without losing the identity of the cuisine's soil. What makes it unique is our Lebanese culture; a blend of open, refined, and convivial way of life. With such words, Chef Maroun Chedid described the cuisine he signs.

I was invited for tasting. On the table, colorful re-visited mezze dishes were spread. The presentation wasn't really symmetrical or architectural. The view of herbs and vegetables in the Fattoush salad reminded me of the southern coastal plains where radish, mint, and lettuce grow abundantly.

Some dishes were also re-invented as new ingredients and methods were introduced. My favorite was the creamy hummus prepared with fennel. Its sight was irresistible. Tomatoes, cucumber, mint and parsley were finely chopped. The result: a reflection of the refined and elegant re-invented postwar Beirut Central District. But above all, it was an enchanting stimulus of senses; the fresh scent recalled our mountains' mornings. The creamy texture was infinitely agreeable to the palate.

Saghbine, Chef Maroun's native town in West Bekaa valley, is his source of inspiration. An eggplant dish prepared with mint and thyme is dressed with hamod el hosrom or "grapes rob" - an acid ingredient prepared, traditionally, in summer to dress warm and cold dishes when lemon is scarce. An exquisite balance of ingredients transforming a simple regional dish into a gastronomic one!

Our chefs definitely satisfy the senses. In doing so, thay guide us to discover Lebanon's culinary traditions and regions by triggering our imagination!

THE EMPEROR MUSICAL PROJECT… SIMPLY TOUCHES OUR SOUL

He's Michel Elefteriades of Lebanese Greek origin, known for his eclectic style and creations. In Nowheristan, the empire that he built because "progress only lies in the realization of Utopias", the Emperor writes, composes, arranges and produces. His latest musical project is a wonderful Italian-Lebanese fusion that thrills our hearts. Tino Favazza Italy's best Tenor adds his Sicilian sunlight and sensitivity to our romantic Oriental music instruments.

The result is a powerful musical production conveyed by our most sensitive sense –hearing - which allows the listener to mentally go places. When Tino Favazza's voice accompanied by the Oriental Roots Orchestra becomes lustful, it drives the soul to a nostalgic world evoking images of our Lebanese enchanting valleys, palaces with gardens scented by jasmine and orange blossoms!
Yes, Lebanese people like Opera. It's there where they find their deepest and intimate emotions that vibrate by Tino Favazza's voice. Listening to Michel Elefteriades music arrangements is like experiencing warm Lebanese nights beating at the sound of our hearts.

They are also beats stamped by Elefteriades passion for music. With oriental music instruments such as el nai, el qanoun, often playing solo, Verdi and Puccini's music never sounded so poetic. Just like water flowing in Beiteddine palace fountains! According to the artist, the Italian-Lebanese fusion is a winning combination; the strong intense voice of an Italian tenor and an oriental orchestration that fascinates Westerners.

Granada Probably never souded so flamboyant. One can simply fall under its spell! Verdi's La donna e mobile starts with a Mowashahat rhythm evoking images of gracious movements to suddenly become cheerful, bringing to mind scenes of Venetian gondoliers humming the song as well as Andalusian troubadours! As for Gibran's Aatini el Nay wa Ghanni, tino Favazza's voice interprets in Arabic an opera aria, echoed in the author's Qadisha Valley in Besharreh village while shepherds played the Nai.

Michel Elefteriades' music arrangements are a mirror of the tolerant and open side of the country's way of life as well as its culture of dialogue. The Italian Lebanese fusion never sounded so harmonious. Bravissimo!

THE FIVE SENSES SHAKE, STIMULATE AND TRIGGER… OUR SENSITIVE SYSTEM!

We react sensitively and intellectually to what we see, touch, hear, taste and smell. When we deepen our senses, they become more subtle and refined. Then, we look for finding the pleasure in the things that stimulated them. The process isn't complicated. It's like an expedition to explore the most intimate part of us that, for many, is closely connected to our imaginative world. Dr. Nabil Khoury, Clinical Psychologist, explains.

All is stored in our memory bank. Once the colorful array of mezze food is spread on the table, the scent of fresh herbs, baked bread and eggplant stimulates our senses of sight and smell. "It's actually the optical nerve, in case of the sight sense that reacts to colorless ones," says Dr. Khoury. Many people are aware of the feelings it triggers. They often connect a sight, a taste or a smell to a period of their life. It's nostalgia.

"Taste is more important; it's the element that drives you to regularly eat the same type of food." According to Dr. Khoury it's a habit and physiological need as well. The habit is based on good tastes, "like a rhythm", he says. The sensation is felt in the brain leading to satiety. Touch, smell and taste are rather sensitive senses!

When a sight triggers strong feelings, our system is shaken and our heart beats faster; all is felt in the heart as we say. Dr. Nabil Khoury explains that "all types of feelings create a reaction; it's connected to the blood influx to the heart and the oxygen intake."
Every person tends "to build a valorization of his life standards" based on his culture and education, or what we call the art of living. There's a desire and a will to show that we are better than others. Dr. Khoury also adds that "the principal of variety is what makes human beings different from animals." The Middle Easterner, unable to resist beautiful images, would often go far in his choices, mostly food, believing it's the ultimate pleasure!

TASTING A WINE… ENCOUNTERING ITS PEOPLE

They were the gestures of every oenologist and wine grower passionate of his wine. He was sitting in his favorite seat at the Saint John Convent cellar, Khonshara. He's Father Charbel Hajjar who made wine making his second passion, as it seems. Looking at him didn't only bring to my mind images of mystic convents nestling on our mountains' peaks. It brought the image of a painter balancing harmoniously his colors.

That day was incredibly hot, and the convent seemed engulfed in sun rays. Father Charbel was busy working in the cellar. With a discrete pride and goodness, he brought the bottle of white wine that I picked for its refreshing characteristics.

It's a blend of Viognier and Muscat. Poured in the glass, it revealed itself stimulating first our visual sense. According to father Charbel, there are three stages to discover a wine. I should probably say that wine inspires our sight, smell, and taste. Its net clear color evokes early mornings just when the sunrise softly casts its rays on our mountains. It's then that the Viognier grapes are picked.

The glass is slightly inclined to see its age by observing the rim edge. Father Charbel asked me to swirl the glass to awaken its fragrances and stick my nose into it. I couldn't help but inhale its natural aromas… When I tasted the wine, Father Charbel once again asked me to roll the sip around in my mouth to feel its first impression and acidity. It tasted like some exotic fruits, perhaps pineapple? It would perfectly accompany a Lebanese fish meal.

Four elements determine the wine's character; the soil, the types of vine, the climate and the knowhow of the wine-maker. Grown at almost one thousand meters, the vine gives fullness because of the humidity on altitudes; the soil is clayey, and the wine-maker's knowhow is as inventive as any creative artist!

At the cellar there are rose, menthe, wild cherry, mulberry and walnut liquors. An old tradition has it that liquors, arak and wine are made in our mountains for medicinal purposes as much as to enjoy gatherings on cold winter evenings by the fire!

MOUNEH… A JOURNEY INTO RURAL CULINARY TRADITIONS

Traditionally, mouneh consisted of food provisions prepared during summer for winter, rural communities collected vegetables they grew in their gardens. They were times of hard labor- picking, cooking and drying in the hot summer sun their tomatoes, beans, nuts and fruits. Soaked goat cheeses, vinegar, molasses, honey, garlic, onions and many more products were all kept in the cellar in good preservation conditions. But time hasn't changed.

At Namlieh shop in Beirut, people become aware, more than ever, of the unique healthy Lebanese cuisine and soil products. They are made by rural women's cooperatives from different regions where you see them patiently preparing their mouneh. Long ago, when fridges did not exist, such products were kept in the namlieh, a wooden cupboard whose shutters were of sieve screen net wire cloth.

If postcards capture landscapes, those products capture all the soil and scents of Lebanon. On the shelves are colorful glass bottles of bitter orange blossom, blueberry, grenadine, rose and sage syrups and soothing extracts. The jars of figs, walnuts, and bitter orange jams stand next to jars of olives, pickles soaked in vinegar, and tomato sauce… the list is long and includes dried grains as well as zaatar (thyme) and a variety of other Lebanese herbs. The product's scents hold in their molecules fragrances of dried food grown in our rural regions. Touching them is like grasping a handful of our soil.

Their places of origin are from all over the country. Pine nuts are from Jabal el Sheikh, the holy mountain of the Bible. Laurel soap is brought from the south as far as Deir Mimas. Bitter orange jam and rosewater were prepared in Bater, Shouf, and the vine leaves come from Wadi el Arayesh - the vines valley, zahleh.

As my camera browsed the products on the shelves, I was already walking up the majestic Jabal el Sheikh that overlooks the picturesque village of Rashaya. The image of hanging grapes "like gold chandeliers" under the Bekaa sun also came to my mind. By the way, surprisingly, saffron and caper from Hermel were there as well enriching our mouneh with new flavors! Information courtesy of Natalie Chemaly (Namlieh shop, next to National museum of Beirut).
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