|No garden, no problem : small shops are stocked with mouneh (Daily Star)
|From the bekaa to sidon, lebanon's best is on offer
The tradition of healthy cooking is kept alive by over 100 ingredients
As in Aesop's tale of the ant and the cricket, Lebanese all over the country have been busy preparing the summer's harvest.
But today, the cricket can reap the benefits of the ant's labor, as they can be found in shops all around the country.
So for those who live in Lebanon's cities and towns (or do not have gardens or sunny rooftops), it is still possible to stock mouneh for the winter months.
Mouneh, or the age-old tradition of stocking up on dried goods, syrups, jams and pickled summer vegetables, is available in several small specialty shops in Beirut. These delightful shops provide the hundred or so items basic to the many facets of the aromatic and healthy Lebanese art of cooking. Approaching Francis Khoury's mouneh store on a steep descent leading from Sioufi to the Corniche Nahr, there is already a hint of what is to come. Twenty feet before the unassuming entrance, the air is filled with scents of ground pepper, cinnamon, anise and thyme; once inside, the fragrances blend together into the heady perfume of an oriental spice souq.
Dozens of thick, white, knee-high bags nearly cover the shop's floor, their contents a glorious show of colors from white and yellow, to green, red, purple and black. It is a foodie's paradise, and a reminder that cooking can be creative.
Seven varieties (and colors) of beans, yellow chickpeas and dried green peas, split and whole, neighbor three kinds of lentils: brown from the South, orange from Zahle and green lentils imported from Canada. There are almonds from the North, slivered, halved, peeled and whole - and walnuts from Faraya, and snoubar (pine nuts) from the Jezzine area, hazelnuts and sesame seeds from Nabatieh and watermelon seeds from the Bekaa.
Khoury personally chooses his products, and his shop represents every corner of Lebanon.
"Of course, most of our goods are from the Bekaa Valley, but many other areas are well known for certain foods. Our sumaa is from Jorneyeh, near Sidon, and we choose thyme from the South as well," he says.
Bags filled to the brim with seven types of imported rice stand beside bourghoul of every variety, even the fine flour-like bourghoul used only to make fish kebbeh. Another specialty item in Khoury's store is yellow wheat flour, the only flour bakers need in the preparation of sweet Arabic pastries.
The large back room of the shop is filled with gigantic jute bags and beautifully woven baskets, containing imported cinnamon bark, peppers, coconut, vanilla pods and dozens of other spices and herbs, which Khoury mills on the spot in a machine that looks 100 years old.
In the bags and baskets are natural licorice twigs, green tea, saffron, ginger root and dozens of dried flowers and herbs with which to make herbal teas. Herbs have been used for thousands of years as medicine, preservatives and cosmetics. Mint, for example, is traditionally used as a strong antiseptic; camomile and rosemary are good for rinsing hair; and marigold petals soften the skin.
Khoury and his sister-in-law, Aida Hajjar, are friendly and patient, and their knowledge (which they are kindly willing to share) of the uses and recipes of their wall-to-wall mouneh is wonderfully extensive.
While the store in Sioufi offers everything needed for the dry mouneh as well as some honey, syrups and preserves, Rabih Abou-Ghaida's attractive shop in Ras-Beirut specializes in the mouneh products which come in bottles and jars. Situated between Bliss Street and Hamra Street, just 50 meters from the Khalidy Hospital, the Hasbaya Agricultural Products Store entices passersby with its clean and simple interior, and the floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with glass containers revealing their delicious and colorful contents. As the name of the shop indicates, everything comes from Hasbaya and the near vicinity.
The southern Bekaa, and in particular Hasbaya, enjoys the longest sunny days and perfect chalky soil for fruit and vegetables. The name of the town has always been synonymous with excellence. Abou-Ghaidi's pride in his hometown, hand-chosen, pesticide-free products is understandable. The goats which produce the cheese cubes and labneh balls steeped in virgin olive oil are pasture fed at 1,500 meters of altitude, apparently ideal for goat milk, the leanest of dairy products.
The bottles of multi-colored fruit juices and syrups are made from mulberries, pomegranates, roses and bitter oranges. Everything for sale in this small store is additive-free and organically grown. The selection of jams and preserves is imaginative and original, beginning with pumpkin jam and apple preserves. Also on the shelves are grape, fig, strawberry, apricot, date and quince jams and orange marmalade - all from Lebanese soil, and all homemade.
Abou-Ghaida stocks grape molasses as well as the better-known carob variety, and his superb honey is available in several varieties: citrus, thyme, wildflower and oak. Color varies in honey according to the bee's diet. Pale flowers, for example, give a pale yellow honey, while the nectar from some citrus flowers produces a dark brown color.
Honey in any color is antiseptic and very rich in the B-complex vitamins, as well as vitamins C and E. Excellent as a source of energy and healing, it should, nonetheless never be given to an infant under the age of one year. In babies the spores found in honey can seriously block the digestive system. In every case, be sure to buy only natural, unprocessed, unfiltered honey.
The new year's honey will be on the market in October, but honey is the one food which never spoils, so the 1904 vintage (though hardly available) would be just as good as that of 2004. Time has no effect on honey.
The gleaming bottles on the left as one enters the store contain all sorts of surprises. Besides the natural juices and syrups in bottles, the Hasbaya Agricultural Products store offers sage water, thyme water and rosemary water all for medicinal purposes, as well as the more familiar rose water and orange blossom water.
The selection of pickled vegetables is tempting the bright pink turnip chunks, baby eggplant, green beans, a cucumber-like vegetable called mahti, and a pickle mix with carrots included. They make a popular antipasti, or mezze, when friends drop by in the evening, and no picnic is complete without them.
Homemade arak, organic apple and grape vinegars and an especially aromatic and clear first press virgin olive oil have prominent places on the shelves. Next to the olive oil are olives in every shade of green to black, unique in their fine and natural flavor.
Baskets on the floor in front of the plate-glass window hold pre-packaged one and one-half kilo sealed plastic bags of kichik flower, extra-fine thyme and sumac, yensoun, sumaa and other wheat and herb products which Lebanese households need for their mouneh.
The Hasbaya House is a great place to buy unique gifts for family and friends, and the shop's gift wrap is a charming small burlap bag, ruffled at the opening and topped with a sprig of rosemary and thyme.
Both shops offer top quality mouneh components, both open year round, and visits to these shops are a treat for four of our senses: smell, sight, taste and touch. It is one-stop shopping for the basic needs in the months to come. The mouneh, after all, is one of Lebanon's most ancient traditions. Buying from mouneh stores gives you a bit part in history while getting more of the best for less.
Mouneh Shops in Beirut:
Sioufi: (Francis Khoury's shop, 01/398 729)
(Aida Hajjar, assistant, 03/814 254). Ras Beirut: (Hasbaya Agricultural Products Store, 03/505 554)
The Daily Star