Lebanese Cuisine and Wine

At one time the mere mention of the country Lebanon would conjure up images of sun-drenched beaches, snow-capped mountains and a cultured, hospitable population bearing a vibrant, healthy cuisine. With its world class museums, universities and exciting nightlife, Beirut was often referred to as "the Paris of the Middle East." Unfortunately, because of the war most only remember the violence and destruction that came close to annihilating this beautiful little country.

Lebanese food can be found throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean no doubt spread by the Lebanese sailors, merchants, and adventurers over the years. Lebanese dishes across the region may be prepared or seasoned somewhat differently. Because of this, the cuisines of the Middle East are often sadly lumped into one homogenous category but to view the cuisines of the Middle East as one is like proclaiming that all cuisines of Europe are alike. Lebanese food is unique in that it combines the sophistication and subtleties of European haute cuisines with the exotic ingredients of the orient.

The cuisine of Lebanon is the epitome of the Mediterranean diet. It includes an abundance of starches, fruits, vegetables, fresh fish and seafood; animal fats are consumed sparingly. Poultry is eaten more often than red meat, and when red meat is eaten it is usually lamb. It also includes copious amounts of garlic and olive oil and hardly a meal goes by in Lebanon that does not include these two ingredients. Most often foods are either grilled, baked or sauteed in olive oil; butter or cream is rarely used other than in desserts. Vegetables are often eaten raw or pickled as well as cooked. While the cuisine of Lebanon doesn't boast an entire repertoire of sauces, it focuses on herbs, spices and the freshness of ingredients; the assortment of dishes and combinations are almost limitless. The meals are full of robust, earthy flavors and much of what the Lebanese eat is dictated by the seasons.

With the recent emphasis on the health benefits of Mediterranean cuisine, people across the world are discovering and embracing authentic Lebanese food. The awareness of this ancient cuisine has also inspired professional chefs and restaurateurs across the world to feature exciting Lebanese items on their menus.

Situated between the east and the west, Lebanon is a culinary and cultural crossroads. Lebanon is located on the eastern most shore of the Mediterranean in the Fertile Crescent, where western civilization is said to have begun. The cuisine of this ancient land is diverse and steeped in history; both the eastern and western influences in its cookery are apparent. Though its mainstream popularity is relatively new, the cuisine is not; the cuisine of Lebanon has been in the making since pre-biblical times. The influence that Lebanon has had on the world is totally out of proportion to its size; culinary contributions from this tiny country have had the greatest impact on modern Middle Eastern cuisine. Roughly encompassing an area of land the size of Connecticut or New Jersey, the people and cuisine of Lebanon are known throughout the world-Lebanese cuisine is a true reflection of its welcoming culture.

Lebanon has two national dishes, Tabouleh (Tabouli) and Kibbeh. Tabouleh is a salad made of fresh cut parsley, minced tomatoes and onions. Mixed with cracked wheat (bulgur wheat) and seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice. Kibbeh is an emulsified paste of the freshest lamb and bulgur wheat. Think of kibbeh as a sort of Lebanese pate. Originally, kibbeh was made by pounding lamb with a jorn (mortar) and modaqqa (pestle), then kneading in spices and soaked bulgur. To some, that are unaccustomed to this procedure, this can be an unpleasant sight. The informative English food writer George Lassalle, in his book Middle Eastern Cuisine, East of Orphanides, describes kibbeh-making in the rural villages of Lebanon as "frightening." He found the incessant pounding and kneading of the meat and bulgur both dreary and alarming. With the advent of the electric grinder and food processor this ancient method of kibbeh-making has all but stopped, except in rural mountain villages.

Kibbeh can take on many forms, the famous being kibbeh nayee (raw kibbeh) which is somewhat like steak tartar. Two other common forms of the food are kibbeh bil-saneeyeh (baked kibbeh) and kibbeh mekliyeh (fried kibbeh), both of which usually contain a filling of cooked meat, onions, and pinenuts. Baked kibbeh is layered in a pan with its stuffing and drizzled with olive oil, while fried kibbeh is shaped into miniature hollowed out footballs and then stuffed before being fried. Both of these cooked kibbeh are often served with refreshing yogurt sauce. Despite advancements in modern technologies, kibbeh-making is still an arduous task.

Literally not a meal is eaten in Lebanon that does not include bread. It is seasoned with zahtar (thyme-sumac seasoning) and olive oil for breakfast, and utilized both as a foodstuff and eating utensil for virtually every meal or snack. In an area of the world that is steeped in biblical history it is easy to remember that in the Christian church bread symbolizes the body of Christ.

The entire Mediterranean rim is known for their anise-flavored liqueurs. In the South of France there is Pastis, in Italy you'll find Sambuca, in Greece Ouzo, and in Lebanon there is the ubiquitous Arak. Arak is the national drink of Lebanon. Interestingly, these anise-flavored liqueurs came into existence around the turn of the century as a substitute-out of desperation actually-when the infamous beverage Absinthe became illegal. Absinthe was a bitter, anise-flavored liqueur that was popular with writers, painters and other freethinking types during the mid-to-late 1800's. It was originally produced about a century prior to treat malaria. However, the essential flavoring came from the bitter root of the wormwood plant and was reputed to have narcotic properties with disastrous side effects-prolonged consumption of the beverage caused lesions on the brain. When absinthe became illegal, manufacturers substituted anise for the wormwood, to supply the demand, and a number of close imitations were produced including Pernod, Sambuca and various brands of Arak and Ouzo.

In Lebanon, very rarely are drinks served without being accompanied by food. One of the more healthy and entertaining aspects of Lebanese cuisine is the manner or custom in which their food is often served, it's referred to as mezze. Similar to the tapas of Spain and antipasto of Italy, mezze is an array of small dishes placed before the guests creating an awe inspiring array of colours, flavors, textures and aromas. This style of serving food is less a part of family life than it is of entertaining. Mezze may be as simple as pickled vegetables, hummus and bread, or it may become an entire meal consisting of grilled marinated seafood, skewered meats, a variety of cooked and raw salads and an arrangement of desserts.

Although simple fresh fruits are often served towards the end of a Lebanese meal, there is also dessert and coffee. Baklawa, is a popular Lebanese dessert. The main difference between the Lebanese variety and its Greek cousin, is Lebanese baklawa often contains pistachio nuts and is drizzled with a rose-water syrup, the Greek variety usually contains walnuts and honey.This exquisite flavoured pastry has been made in Lebanon for thousands of years, its ancestor being a Phoenician dish consisting of dried fruit and nuts sandwiched between two layers of pastry and baked in an oven. Bakalwa was undoubtedly spread west across the mediterranean and found its way to Greece by Phoenician sailors and merchants. In the 9th century BC, the Assyrians invaded Lebanon and spread Baklawa east across their empire which centred in west Asia, developing around the city of Ashur, or Assur, on the upper Tigris River and south of the later capital, Nineveh. As a result Baklawa found its way to most Middle Eastern cities.

Coffee is a big deal in Lebanon. It is served throughout the day, at home and in the public cafes. Lebanese coffee is strong, thick and often flavored with cardamom. It is also usually heavily sweetened. When guests arrive at one's home, they are invariably persuaded to stay for a coffee, no matter how short their visit.

The food of Lebanon is a celebration of life; it is fresh, flavourful, diverse and invigorating. The genius of it is in its complex simplicity, and that the food is a product of both the earth and the sea. There is a natural bond that all of the Mediterranean cuisines share, from the tip of Spain to the Levant as the same waters equally kiss the countries of the Mediterranean, waters that the Phoenicians of old sailed and spread Lebanese culture and cuisine and left their permanent mark through their colonies. The legendary journeys of the Phoenicians not only spread the best of Lebanon across the seas but also brought back home the best of the cultures they encountered. Despite similarities of Mediterranean foods, the cuisine of Lebanon is without doubt in a class of its own.

Lebanese Wine

While one may not think of Lebanon as a particularly well-known wine region, Lebanon is one of the oldest, if not the oldest wine producing regions of the world.

Famed for its majesric cedars and mountains, Lebanon, the blessed land of Canaan surrounded by eternal snows, has been a centre of wine making since the dawn of time. On its very land, Noah, the first of all wine-growers, endowed mankind with a valuable discovery; wine, which he loved himself up to the point of rapture. From there, this discovery spread to Babylon and Upper Egypt, where Frescoes show that wine was known from remotest Antiquity. Lebanon's fertile soils were thus famous for their wines in ancient times, and were highly regarded in Greece, Anatolia and above all in Israel, which maintained close commercial ties with the Phoenicians. Phoenician merchants shipped rich and sweet Lebanese wines in amphoras to all four corners of the Mediterranean, to be drunk by the rich citizens of Athens, Carthage and Rome. Lebanon therefore gets credit for the propagation of wine growing, through its Phoenician ancestors around the Mediterranean, along with the colour purple and the alphabet.

During the Greek-Roman period, the divine beverage was, an object of worship. Bacchus-Dionysos entered the Pantheon and Baalbeck's loveliest temple was dedicated to him. And so, from the darkest of ages, the mysterious course of history brings us always back to this privileged spot, where the shed blood of the vine was gathered for the first time. After the fall of Rome, Christianity took over the tradition. It was actually in Lebanon that Christ changed water into wine, thus accomplishing his first miracle at the wedding of Cana. Then came the Byzantine Empire which extended wine-growing from the fertile Bekaa throughout the Middle East for the making of sacramental wine. Since then, every monastery is bordered by a grove where the vine is raised as a noble plant. Many of today's reputed vintage are still grown in the neighbourhood of monasteries.

Wine is made across Lebanon in numerous wineries. From the Bekaa Valley, for example, you'll find Ksara, Chateau Kefraya and Massaya from the Tanail estate and from the Mount Lebanon region is Chateau Fakra and Chateau Musar.

The Ksara estate, so named because it was the site of a Frankish kasar, or fortress, at the time of the Crusades. The property was acquired by the Jesuit Fathers in 1857 when it was already famed as a vineyard and they perpetuated the tradition of winemaking. In particular, they pioneered the introduction of high-quality vines in Lebanon. New varieties, enjoying the exceptional climatic conditions in the Bekaa, were cultivated at Ksara's 20 hectares (50 acres) and later at Tanail, an estate of 240 hectares (600 acres) which also belonged to the Jesuit Fathers and which sent all its grapes to Ksara's cellars.

Ksara's natural wine cellar is a grotto discovered by the Romans who consolidated part of the vault and dug several narrow tunnels from the cave into the surrounding chalk. These tunnels were enlarged to their present size during world war I when the Jesuit Fathers sought to alleviate famine in Lebanon by creating employment. One hundred men toiled with picks and shovels for four years to complete an underground network of tunnels stretching for almost two kilometers (about 2,000 yards).The temperature in the tunnels is ideal for wine, varying throughout the year from 11 to 13ºC. Ksara came into the hands of its present owners when the Jesuit Fathers decided to sell the estate in conformity with the directives of the Vatican II synod.

Ksara's estate is planted with a wide variety of grape vines, of which the most important are Cabernet-Sauvignon, Syrah, Semillon, Grenache, Sauvignon-Blanc, Cinsault, and Merlot. Ksara's wine has been described as robust dry and fruity, with a strong personality, the numerous international awards won by this great estate further confirm the quality of this wine.

Situated in the heart of Lebanon, in the Bekaa valley, Château Kefraya expands its 300 hectares domain to the foothills of the Mount Lebanon, 20 km to the south of the city of Chtaura. Both the vineyard, planted in a succession of terraces and hills having very often abrupt slopes, at an altitude of 950 to 1100 meters on clayey, limy and stony soils, together with an exceptional sun lighting six to seven months a year without any precipitation and the winery, located in the middle of the domain, fitted with a highly sophisticated equipment allowing the manually gathered grapes to be conveyed, picked off from the bunch, vinified and pressured very carefully, allowed the elaboration of a special and authentic wine, personal to Château Kefraya. This estate has received great praise from wine critics the world over, wine magazines such as, The wine advocate, Decanter, Civart 1995, and the Revue Le Paysan Francais, have all praised Kefraya as a truly great wine. Carignan, Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Cinsault, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Clairette, Boubounlenc and Chardonnay are used in the production of this internationally renowned wine.

Massaya is a French-Lebanese collaboration whose estate is at Tanail. The partnership brought together Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, co-proprietor of Chateau Angelus with Dominique Hébrard, former co-proprietor of Chateau Cheval Blanc and Daniel Brunier, co-proprietor at Le Vieux Telegraph. This prestigious Franco-Lebanese collaboration has united great men of wine and brought into being its first vintage in 1999.

Chateau Fakra is located near Kfardebian, land of springs, is a village located in the very heart of Mount Lebanon, varying in altitude from 1000 to 2826 m. Green mountainsides, enormous rocky blocks, woodlands of oak, walnut, and pine, orchards of apple and mulberry trees, vineyards and streams with fresh and limpid water, altogether constitute the most picturesque area and one of the main agricultural villages in Lebanon. Then, following a winding road, we reach the millenary "Temples of Fakra" where for thousands of years, from the Phoenician times, to the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and up till modern times , the gods of love and wine were venerated.

Caves Naked is a small winery that started in 1923, with the famous As-Samir Arak, during the French mandate from 1921 to 1934, while some French garrisons where stationed in the Bekaa, Mr. Youssef Nakad tried his hand at wine, and as they say the rest is history.

Nakad outsources all it's grapes from vine growers in the Bekaa, located in Jdita, a residential area, limiting it's growth potential tremendously, considering the age of this estate it is not faring well, it is in need of new investors and spacious land. Mr. Salim Nakad uses a blend of Cinsault and Carignant for his red wines, as for the white he uses Ugniblanc and Muscat.

Clos St Thomas is located in Kab Elias, where the hills of Mount Lebanon meets the plain, and is a newly established winery. Clos St Thomas was established by Said Touma, with his long family tradition of 100 years in wine making. Though still in it's infancy, they produce 175 thousand bottles, of which 80 percent are exported to Europe, and North America,

Chateau Musar which produces an outstanding, fine, full-bodied red that would put up a very good fight against the best of the French was founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar in an 18th century castle, is located in Ghazir, 15 miles north of Beirut in Mount Lebanon. Following an expansion of the cellar in the late 1950's, Chateau Musar is able to store more than one million bottles of wine. A family concern, Chateau Musar is owned by Gaston Hochar's two sons, Serge and Ronald. The vineyards of Chateau Musar are located at an altitude of over 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) in the Bekaa Valley where the vines are sheltered by the surrounding mountains running parallel to the Mediterranean coast. The Bekaa Valley is almost frost and disease free, with long mild summers, rainy winters, and an average temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. The vineyards of Chateau Musar cover 130 hectares, produce a limited yield of about 25 hl/ha, resulting in approximately 20,000 cases of the "Chateau Musar" wine, and a production of different other wines.

Chateau Musar attained international notoriety during the wine fair of Bristol in England in 1979, where a specialized press named it the "find of the fair". Following this event, Chateau Musar's reputation reconfirmed itself in most other European countries, as well as in the United States, Canada, and in some Asian Countries. Decanter Magazine paid tribute to Serge Hochar's achievements by nominating him "Decanter Man of the Year" in 1984. During the war years in Lebanon, Chateau Musar managed to consistently produce high quality wine, leading the "Wine Spectator" magazine to use headlines such as: "Chateau Musar makes great, ageworthy reds amid the chaos of Lebanon's war". Chateau musar exports more than 90% of its total annual production throughout the world.

Musar is the first Lebanese winery to become a member of the OIV (Office International de la Vigne et du Vin). These wines are the spear head of the Lebanese wine industry, they set it on the international stage of quality vintages. Ksara, Kefraya, and Musar have set the pace for many other wineries in the country.