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Lebanon: The Greatest Food And Wine Country You’ve Never Visited (Part 2)

I’ve decided to reprint my most widely read articles on Forbes this year. This two-part story on Lebanese historyfood and wine captured the attention of thousands of readers.

For an overview of the country’s history, please read Part 1.

As light from a rain-rinsed morning beamed through the kitchen’s floor-to-ceiling windows, I watched Jamal Shalhoub unfurl damp green packets. I’d heard this traditional dish, warak enab, or stuffed grape vine leaves, was one of the most tedious to make, requiring deft hand skills. She flattened the triangular points on to the table’s surface and placed a pinch of mixture – tomatoes, raw rice, and chopped herbs – in the center. Jamal folded the edges over the filling as if gift wrapping, then neatly rolled the bundle into a tiny cigar. “Now you try” her daughter said, translating a Lebanese dialect of Arabic into English.

I’d come to Lebanon to explore the wines of the country, but effusive praise for the cuisine led me to organize a cooking class prior to arrival. However, the importance of breaking bread was evident enough that anyone with an appetite would have figured it out. I’d discover that the wine and culinary scene of Lebanon boasted an outsize personality wholly out of proportion to its diminutive size, slightly smaller than Connecticut. (And what contribution has CT made to the food world besides New Haven pizza?)

The first night, our international group of Master of Wine students dined with local winemakers at Beirut’s upscale Lebanese hot spot Em Sherif. I’ve always maintained that to gain the strongest impression of a country’s heritage, look to its table; in Lebanon, that table runneth over.

Dinner encompassed dozens of cold and hot mezzes (small dishes), grilled, baked, and roasted fish and meats including lamb and chicken kebabs and kafta (minced, seasoned meat), served with hot Arabic bread for scooping in lieu of a spoon. The sweet finale: bountiful plates of rosewater- and pistachio-flecked desserts served with café blanc (hot water spiked with orange blossom). The sommelier paired dishes with wines made from international varieties and local grapes grown and fermented within 100 miles of Beirut.

The following days would lead us into Batroun and the Bekaa Valley, the source of many of Lebanon’s best vineyard sites. Longstanding producers with large market share included Château Ksara and Château Kefraya. Their successes showed – each property had expansive grounds and wonderful restaurants serving classic and regional dishes. Ksara could even claim receipt of more annual visitors than The National Museum of Beirut.

French influence extended beyond winery names to the grapes planted. Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot were common, as were southern French Mediterranean grapes like Syrah, Grenache, and Cinsault. Reds dominated, but whites have become more fashionable – and more sophisticated, many made from Viognier and Chardonnay. Lebanon’s most famous producer and the one best known in the States is Château Musar. While the Musar Red has long commanded the highest price in their portfolio, a tasting of Musar’s white from vintages back to the 70’s demonstrated the underappreciated potential of Lebanese indigenous grapes Obaideh and Merwah.

One pioneer in the revival of the Obaideh (also spelled Obeidy) grape has been agronomist and winemaker Joe-Assad Touma of Château St Thomas. He’s worked on the Wine Mosaic Project to preserve and promote local varieties, an important point of differentiation for a country with thousands of years’ worth of winemaking history behind it. Research has focused on finding heritage grapes with the greatest potential for commercial cultivation into quality wine; the hunt for a red varietal counterpart to Obaideh and Merwah continues.

One pioneer in the revival of the Obaideh (also spelled Obeidy) grape has been agronomist and winemaker Joe-Assad Touma of Château St Thomas. He’s worked on the Wine Mosaic Project to preserve and promote local varieties, an important point of differentiation for a country with thousands of years’ worth of winemaking history behind it. Research has focused on finding heritage grapes with the greatest potential for commercial cultivation into quality wine; the hunt for a red varietal counterpart to Obaideh and Merwah continues.

Also in the Bekaa, a young, forward-thinking team runs the country’s oldest winery, Domaine Des Tourelles. Founded in 1868 by French adventurer François-Eugène Brun, the estate was the first commercial cellar in Lebanon producing wines, arak and other spirits. Today, winemaker Faouzi Issa views old-vine plantings of Cinsault and other Mediterranean grapes as significant to the future of their wines, especially considering climate change – the growing season is getting hotter and drier. He has also organized the farming of premium anise for their house-distilled arak – a response to the loss of Syria as a provider of the world’s finest licorice-like herb.

Further into the Valley sat Domaine de Baal, a newish winery painstakingly carved from scratch out of the mountains. Terraced vineyards, farmed organically through backbreaking labor, encircled the property. The effort seemed to be paying off – de Baal produced one of the crispest, tangiest whites tasted on the trip, a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

From de Baal’s patio I could see shells of unfinished apartment buildings perched on the hills nearby. Why, I asked owner Sebastien Khoury, were so many of these structures scattered throughout the Bekaa?

“The government is a ghost” he said. “There is no government. We’re going to end up a country full of houses, without farms. There are no restrictions on land use, no zoning laws, and everyone wants to build.” Land prices had shot up significantly as demand rose in a space-challenged country. Speculation over the spike in unfinished projects ran from corruption, to tax-avoidance, to developers running out of money.

Back towards the coast in Batroun, an area just north of Beirut, we visited another two young but promising projects. Both surprised with their sophisticated and polished style still reflective of terroir. Ixsir, set inside a renovated traditional stone house, poured savory, mineral-flecked Syrah-based blends from some of the highest vineyards in the country. Outside on the patio, under the shade of trees, we enjoyed a superb lunch: a mezze-filled heaven available to all visitors from their on-site kitchen. Not far away, producer Atibaia has focused on making one wine well: a Bordeaux-blend red.

Throughout the course of our visits, I considered the dichotomy of Lebanon: the fragility of its existence balanced against the strength and persistence of its people, many who adhered to their values through times of strife. Serge Hochar, for example, helped build international recognition for Musar by sharing the story of his family’s commitment to winemaking and employment of staff through fifteen years of civil war. But they weren’t the only winery to have unbroken production.

As Laura Nakad of Château Nakad, explained, “we don’t invite war, but we’re used to it.” I understood what she meant, although it left me thinking long after she said it. Calluses helped us to survive but they could also inure us sufficiently from symptomatic pain to never seek remedy for the root cause.

Finally, after several long days of driving between wineries, I took a break to linger over food in Beirut. I spent an afternoon grazing through the buffet at Tawlet. This ground-breaking restaurant from the team behind Souk el Tayeb (Beirut’s first farmers market), rotates female cooks from Lebanon’s hinterland into the kitchen each day for lunch. The guest chef prepares dishes from her region to share face-to-face with eager customers in the city. It’s a way of preserving provincial culinary nuance; laborious foods the younger generation claims to have no time to cook. It’s also proven integral to helping people heal, said Christine Codsi, partner to founder Kamal Mouzawak. “Women from different communities, different faiths, are putting the mindset of war and who they saw as enemies behind them to focus on cooking and friendship.”

Coincidentally, it was through Tawlet’s founder Mouzawak that I discovered the cooking class in the mountains. Mouzawak had renovated a beautiful centuries-old house into a B&B called Beit Douma in the well-preserved village of Douma. Jamal, who had shown how to gift wrap warak enab, was the mother of the inn’s property manager.

What I learned from Jamal’s class and my week in Beirut was that Lebanese food reflected the refinement of Western-European cooking while conveying the spices and flavors of the Middle East. The definition of a culinary crossroads. And the country was a paradise for vegetarians. Salads of fattoush and tabbouleh, fruits, whole grains, fresh cheeses, yogurt, vegetable dips – the hummus! – greens and legume stews, all woven with the flavors of olive oil, herbs, tahini, garlic, and lemon further testified to the brilliance of the Lebanese kitchen: its reliance on fresh ingredients. It would’ve been healthy if I could’ve stopped eating, but Lebanese hospitality considered the empty plate of a guest a veritable crime of etiquette.

While recent news – as in the resignation of the Prime Minister in the last 48-hours – may leave one questioning whether now is the time to visit, consider this: tourism, long an economic driver, has been depressed for years but the infrastructure is ready (as is Uber). As examined in Part 1 of this article, Beirut operates with kinks and quirks, but it runs. Today, especially during the off-season between fall and spring, the finest 4- and 5-star hotels, from high-end boutique Le Gray to luxury resort Kempinski Summerland, offer incredible rates. Especially as compared to other cities with a similar standard of fine dining, shopping, and nightlife. Visitors can easily make day trips to visit wineries in Batroun and Bekaa Valley, making Lebanon the greatest food and wine country – that’s waiting for people to visit.

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Lebanon: The Greatest Food And Wine Country You’ve Never Visited (Part 1)

I’ve decided to reprint my most widely read articles on Forbes this year. This two-part story on Lebanese historyfood and wine captured the attention of thousands of readers.

As the plane lifted into the sky above Beirut, the last vestiges of the city’s inky hills, flickering with the headlights of crepuscular movement, disappeared. The Lufthansa Airbus banked west over the Mediterranean towards Frankfurt. For a few minutes, the pale pink of dawn veiled the landscape in the foamy beige of a vintage or romance filter popular with Instagrammers. I squinted through my portal at the rising sun. It glinted eerily with the silver of a newly minted nickel. Clouds unspooled around it in sharp, shiny threads. Below, the sea spread into the corners beyond my vision like a pool of glittering mercury. What a strange sunrise, I thought, as I finally shut the shade and started to type.

The last nine days in Lebanon had been strange, but in an unfamiliar and surprising way. Sure, it’s a messy place. The burden of a violent past has contributed to the current contentious, and by most accounts, gridlocked, religion-based political structure. Unchecked sprawl and unfinished development projects devour the coastline and blight swaths of the interior. Syrian refugee camps seep into cities and countryside, threatening local security while straining resources. Traffic congestion that makes New York look like the wilds of Idaho forces locals and visitors to rethink their day-to-day schedules – or abandon plans wholesale. Regularly scheduled power outages force businesses and the affluent to run generators, leaving those without resources literally in the dark.

These points alone may be enough to convince someone not to go. Indeed, trepidatious tourists should avoid reviewing the U.S. Department of State’s list of warnings. They’d never board the flight otherwise. But beneath all the chaos of a country trying to modernize with little planning or restriction, subject to what some call a thinly veiled multi-theocracy, lies the true heart of Lebanon: it’s generous people, their hospitable culture, their curiosity, openness, and enthusiasm for sharing their rich traditions of food and drink. And for this, I found nine days insufficient to know this tiny mountainous country on the fringes of the Middle East – but I tried.

Before delving into why Lebanon deserves recognition as one of the world’s greatest food and wine destinations , it’s critical to have historical perspective. Thus, this article is broken into two parts.

History

Lebanon’s food and wine history extends back thousands of years. The Levant, as it was known generally before a series of contemporary political borders shaped it, was where humans first learned to farm. Moving from a hunter-gatherer existence to a semi-sedentary agricultural society gave people the freedom from day-to-day survival to pursue advanced interests like weapons, tools, and wine. But the history most Lebanese refer to as having the greatest implications for modern life, is that of the 20th century.

Before war erupted in the 1970s, Beirut went by the moniker Paris of the Middle East. “With its French Mandate architecture, its world-class cuisine, its fashionable and liberated women, its multitude of churches on the Christian side of town, and its thousand-year-old ties to France, it fit the part” wrote Michael J. Totten for City-Journal Magazine in his piece “Can Beirut Be Paris Again?” But in 1975, a nasty civil war broke out that shattered both city and country. As Totten reported, more than 100,000 people were killed – when the population numbered less than 4 million. And “civil” was a misnomer. “The war sucked in powers from the Middle East and beyond—the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel, Iran, France, the Soviet Union, the United States—but no country inflicted more damage than Syria, ruled by the Assad family’s Arab Socialist Baath Party” Totten wrote.

When The War ended in 1990, as differentiated from a subsequent conflict between Israel and Shiite militant group Hezbollah in 2006, the country was in tatters. Bombs and bullets had decimated entire sections of Beirut as fighting split across the Green Line — the division between opposing religious groups. The Taif Agreement, negotiated in 1989, restructured the existing sectarian power-sharing scheme that favored Christians to divide governance equally between them and Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Knowing Lebanon’s history gives valuable context for new visitors. While Tuscany has a long, complex and even salacious past, the movie set magic of its landscape checks many of the sightseer’s boxes. They’d be forgiven for inquiring about the wine list rather than the power struggles between medieval era Guelphs and Ghibellines. But much of old Beirut and surrounding areas were destroyed, often rebuilt haphazardly or with an eye to luring monied Gulf Arabs with luxury consumerism. Heritage buildings continue to be demolished for high-rises; architectural footnotes erased. Thus, Lebanon requires a deeper look than surface level viewing.

Modern Life

Despite the pernicious tenacity of war, daily life in Beirut goes on, albeit on different planes. Consider the newly built Beirut Souks in downtown. The façade of this outdoor mall is meant to recall an old Middle Eastern market. But watching parents chase gleeful children next to women in platform stilettos walking tiny dogs in front of 5th Avenue shops, one can imagine being in any metropolis of the developed world. A few blocks away: Roman ruins abut the towering minarets and blue dome of Sunni Mosque Mohammad Al-Amin. Further afield, slums and refugee camps.

About a mile away, the Gemmayzeh zone attracts the young and outgoing, and is more down to earth than the sterility of wealthier, high-rise dotted districts. Rue Gouraud supplies vibrant street life rife with Parisian-style cafes, coffee bars, revisited Lebanese restaurants, and cocktail dens. Here, bits of former Ottoman and French-fashioned architecture remain, either reconstructed, reimagined, or in a state of florid Venetian-esque decay. Art galleries and book stores line unpaved streets with crumbling sidewalks, while electric cables strung like holiday lights, connect buildings.

It was deep on a Saturday night in Gemmayzeh that I understood Lebanese openness. A key metric of any city is the friendliness of strangers, and I met more on the streets of Beirut in a few hours than I have in New York City in a year. Walking along Gouraud revealed throngs of good-natured revelers spilled out into the night, the fragrance of apple-mint shisha clinging to the air. Striking up a conversation was easy. Most were curious about my presence in Beirut, pleased I knew of the city and wanted to visit. How other Americans perceived Lebanon was a question asked repeatedly in earnest. I replied truthfully: I was surprised by the torrent of positive interest in my trip; more than any destination I’d been to all year. And the most frequent comment was: “You’re going to love the food.”

Part 2: Contemporary Food and Wine Scene

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