“I’d never eaten loquat,” Houser says. “But I knew it had to be on my menu.”
We drive north along the coast and settle into Mouzawak’s house in the old quarters of Batroun, a fishing village that is among the oldest cities in the world. From our post near Batroun, we will spend the next four days visiting wineries and farms. But first, we prepare lunch for 20 people in the garden.
In the morning, I am up at 6:30 making fish kibbeh with Mouzawak. A beautiful bowl is filled with translucent white fish, cayenne peppers, cilantro, onions, saffron, cinnamon, zest of lemon and tangerine, and fine wet bulgur. Kamal grinds the mixture using his KitchenAid mixer, and the result is pressed and laid across a bed of onions, pine nuts, and salt. It is baked slowly. Houser grills a whole octopus next to zucchini, stuffed with grated halloumi cheese, topped with a homemade molcajete.
If you have seen the movie Big Night, you have a sense of what we go through to get the food on the table. We are all overwhelmed with the food, the conversation, and the surroundings. For three hours, the food and wine flow. We’d created a little international community.
The next day, we visit Coteaux de Botrys, a winery perched 1,000 feet up, on a cliff overlooking the sea. Owner Nayla Bitar and her French oenologist Yvan Jobard escort us across the operation. The winery has been in Bitar’s family since 1998. But the family has been making noncommercial wine in the region since the 1700s. Wine has been produced in Lebanon for at least 5,000 years. It was very fashionable for Egyptian pharaohs, who imported huge quantities of Phoenician wine, to put a couple dozen bottles in their tombs for their next lives. Bitar’s winery is small, producing about 40,000 bottles a year. The inventory includes a white, a rosé, a Syrah, a Cabernet, and a Cuvée, a blend of Syrah with a dash of Grenache and Mourvèdre.
To get to the largest wine-growing region in Lebanon, we take the fabled road to Damascus, driving literally through the clouds over the Lebanon Mountains and then coming down into the Bekaa Valley, the breadbasket of Lebanon. Drive another hour and you are in Syria. We happily stop short at Domaine des Tourelles in the little town of Zahlé, situated on the last hills of the Lebanon Mountains, overlooking the Bekaa Valley.
Faouzi Issa, who worked at Chateaux Margaux in France, is the proprietor. Domaine des Tourelles, the oldest commercial winery in Lebanon, dates back almost 150 years, when it was started by François-Eugéne Brun, a Frenchman. Brun’s armoire is still there, along with all the original buildings he built to make the wine. Issa rubbed the sides of the walls to show us why they don’t need to add yeast to their wine—it is literally in the air after nearly 150 years of winemaking in the same building.
Next we visit Massaya, a winery owned by Sami Ghosn and his brother since the 1970s. Ghosn’s winery, like Issa’s, produces about 300,000 bottles a year; 200,000 of those bottles are wine and the remaining 100,000 are filled with Arak, the high-alcohol-content, anise-flavored liqueur favored by Lebanon’s drinkers. We are lucky enough to taste Massaya’s Silver Selection Red with Michael Karam, who is considered the authority on Lebanese wine. It’s an amazingly smooth, international blend of Grenache, Cinsault, Cabernet, and Mourvèdre, with a nice bouquet of hay and raisins.
Ghosn hosts us for lunch outside his house in a lush, landscaped garden and tells us tales of how, during the civil war, his house was full of squatters. There is still a dog from those days that lives on the property and won’t allow anyone to pet him.
Houser squeals with delight when he spies a pile of fresh zucchini blossoms at Al Rabih Organic Farm, the largest organic farm in Lebanon. He picks one from the ground and eats it raw. Farm manager Abu Rabih wrinkles his brow, points to the trash, and yells, “No good! No good! No good!” Instead, he tries to sell us radishes as he pops one in his mouth, smiles, and says, “Good!” We learn later that zucchini blossoms, the flower of zucchini plant, are picked off so that the vegetable will grow. In Lebanon, nourishment is still more important than gourmet. We call the manager at Tawlet and ask him to translate our order for a bushel of the squash blossoms. Rabih just made money on an ingredient he planned to toss out.
After spending 11 days walking across farms, drinking wine in Hezbollah territories, and foraging his way through the Qadisha Valley, Houser is ready to assemble his meal at Tawlet. The menu he has created includes 12 dishes, all inspired by the Texas-style comfort food served at his family’s Sunday suppers. But he procured all the ingredients, with the exception of the cornmeal and grits he brought from Dallas, during his travels through Lebanon.
The buffet luncheon takes place on Easter Monday. During the day, many of the friends we’d met along the way show up eager to taste a little of Texas. There are also a few VIPs such as Maura Connelly, the American ambassador to Lebanon; Tim Murphy of the New York Times; Calé Sali (a former assistant to Christopher Hitchens); and Ziad, the local “Trash King,” a colorful character with whom we’d spent many late nights discussing politics.
The luncheon buffet menu includes Southern specialties such as old-fashioned pickled beets, potato salad, coleslaw, and deviled eggs. Houser uses lamb to make meatloaf and bills it as American kibbeh. He turns makanek, the popular Lebanese sausage, into corn dogs. He makes green-chile cornbread by combining the cornmeal he brought from Dallas with peppers he found at Souk el Tayeb. He makes a version of his grandma’s chicken and dumplings. He rubs beef tenderloin with Lebanese coffee and sumac, and serves it with a salsa made with loquats, which turns out to be a radical preparation nobody had ever tasted. “They looked at me like I was crazy, turning a loquat fruit into a salsa,” Houser says.
The family we created during our time in Lebanon mills around for most of the afternoon, chatting about food, politics, and life in general. They didn’t understand many of the dishes they ate, but they ate it all.
As our trip wraps up, we think back to one of the highlights, the day we spent with Georgina Bayeh, the most famous pastry maker in Lebanon. Her ma’amoul—shortbread pastries filled with dates, pistachios, or walnuts—are loved by people of all faiths in Lebanon. Thanks to her work with Mouzawak and her popularity at Souk el Tayeb market, Bayeh has been transformed from a housewife into a pastry chef who gets so many calls for her ma’amoul that she needs more room for cooking. She is one of many success stories in Kamal Mouzawak’s food projects around Lebanon.
“Kamal helped her negotiate a fee to be a paid spokesperson of Lurpak Butter Company,” Houser says. “She took the money and is building a bakery that will employ five women who, like her, would have never had jobs. That is just one example of how food is empowering the people in Lebanon.”
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