Many think of Lebanon as a war-torn country that makes the news for all the wrong reasons. For me it is a country with a long and rich history dating back to the Phoenicians, a vibrant and welcoming culture and a fascinating cuisine with many regional specialties. It is also home to za'atar, a distinctive wild herb, and on a recent culinary tour of the country, a small group of us headed south to find out more about an extraordinary za'atar farmer called Abu Kassem.
Leaving the built-up coast, we headed inland into a green and rural landscape interspersed with small towns and villages. Here we found the home of Abu Kassem and his wife, Fatima. Their (fairly newly built) home sat in fields of za'atar and tobacco, with polytunnels flapping lightly in the breeze. Pale silvery leaves of olive trees gave shade to the za'atar and bright red poppies. Chickens pecked and clucked happily, a cock stood to attention, guarding his ladies and geese honked noisily between the plants.
We were warmly welcomed with tea and soon learnt more about our host and his business, Za'atar Zawtor. Za'atar is Lebanese wild thyme. It is also the name for a spice mix containing dried za'atar, dried sumac (another plant used widely in the region, which produces red berries with a tart, citrusy flavour), roasted sesame seeds and salt.
Traditionally, the za'atar herb is harvested from the wild, where it grows plentifully over many a hillside. But Abu Kassem is ahead of his time.When he first decided to cultivate za'atar, his neighbours laughed. Why spend all that energy harvesting seeds, sowing and caring for seedlings and tending fields when it's freely available all around?
But Abu Kassem knew that his way would allow him to use natural selection to gradually breed desirable traits into the plants, such as higher yields and disease resistance. He also wanted to conserve the natural landscape – with commercial enterprises for za'atar increasing demand, he did not wish to see the hillsides stripped bare by excessive foraging.
Seedlings are nurtured in an immense polytunnel before being transplanted outside into the olive garden area and then into open fields nearby. Abu Kassem showed us the roots and gave us lessons in cultivation. In the fields, the za'atar grows fast and is harvested multiple times in a year. We examined the plants and tasted the leaves.
From the fields, we were lead inside and shown through the process for making the za'atar blend. First, dried za'atar and sumac are weighed, to ensure the correct ratio in the final mix. The za'atar is fed through two machines which break it down and thresh it. The sesame seeds are carefully toasted in batches to bring out the best flavour. The za'atar, sumac and toasted sesame seeds are mixed together, along with salt, into Abu Kassem's own special blend.
Abu Kassem does not just sell his dried za'atar blend. He also preserves the herb in jars, alongside other mouneh (preserves) such as vegetables, jams and labneh (strained yoghurt). And he also distills oils and flavoured waters from za'atar, lavender and sage.
After our tour of the "factory" area, it was time for another tea break – this time we enjoyed an aromatic tea, made from za'atar water. Throughout the morning, Abu Kassem had been telling us all about the health benefits of za'atar.
It's a long list that includes encouraging hair regrowth, boosting one's immunity, lowering blood pressure, easing menstrual cramps, eliminating phlegm, aiding circulation, curing coughs, fevers and stomach problems and many more besides. Later, Sherbil (our driver) allowed Abu Kassem to rub some of his distilled za'atar oil onto the small bald patch at the back of his head. (I can't say we noticed any improvement in following days, though!)
Refreshed by our tea, we took a short excursion out to the countryside nearby. Here Abu Kassem showed us wild, uncultivated za'atar. It quickly became clear that there are a number of different but related herbs that seem to be grouped under the name za'atar.
My guess is that they may all be members of the genus Thymus which contains about 350 species of aromatic, perennial herbaceous plants native to temperate regions across Europe, North Africa and Asia. Or possibly even broader, taking in other members of the Lamiaceae family including Origanum.
Certainly, the smell and taste of the herbs we picked varied greatly and reminded us of common thyme, oregano and marjoram, amongst others. From these Abu Kassem made his selection and then bred selectively for many years to produce the cultivar he grows on his farm.
After our first, short excursion it was time for another; we set off to the nearby Litani River, passing through breathtakingly beautiful peaks and gorges along narrow winding lanes.
There on the banks of a peaceful spot, we came to a beautiful shaded veranda planted with attractively trained trees and with a small building providing storage, cooking and toilet facilities. It belongs to friends of Abu Kassem and Fatima, and is used by many of the local community.
Fatima, and the friends who own this lovely space, prepared an amazing feast for us. I was so busy chatting and eating and laughing that I didn't take a single photograph of our meal, but can tell you that in that place, at that time, with those companions, it was a truly wonderful meal indeed. Simple chargrilled mutton, a traditional red lentil dish, a meat and potato stew (that reminds me, unexpectedly, of my mother's simple Indian aloo), fresh flat bread and lots of fresh salad and vegetables. After, tea and coffee and more talk.
It has not been an easy few years for those living locally. First, there was terror and destruction during the 2006 conflict with Israel, when bombs fell on this land. Then there has been on-going disruption to normal life and livelihoods caused by the hundreds of unexploded cluster bombs that remained strewn across the land. Whilst roads and town centres were cleared more quickly, it was not until 2009 that the Mines Advisory Group lead a battle area clearance project to clear the lower priority rural areas.
As Fatima said, when we talked, with the help of Bethany as our translator, "it's been a good but hard life".
Abu Kassem, with his wife and children, have built and continue to build a strong business. Neighbouring farmers have followed Abu Kassem's lead and are also cultivating za'atar, a potentially better long term product than the tobacco that is also grown in the region.
Abu Kassem is considered an authority, and his expertise is much in demand. He has travelled around Lebanon selling his produce, as part of the farmers market established by Kamal Mouzawak (which is, in large part, responsible for the growing renaissance of Lebanese interest in traditional and regional produce and recipes).
Before we left we were gifted some packets of Abu Kassem's za'atar blend and we also purchased a variety of za'atar, sage and lavender oils and waters.
As is often the case in Lebanon, we arrived eager to learn about Lebanese za'atar but left with our heads full of knowledge, our bags full of treats and our hearts full of friendship.
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