Absorbed in the lush mountains of northern Lebanon, on the way to the Convent of St. Joseph in Gemmayze, we cross several species of officinal plants, flowers and wild herbs, which are the basis of the millennial Lebanese cuisine. We talk about it with Zeinab Jeambeay, LMTA project manager, tireless walker, traveler and cook, great connoisseur of recipes and stories of good quality local food and wine.
“The Lebanese cuisine is very diverse. It’s already a very well known cuisine in the world. People know it for some of the dishes but the real experience of it, is when you come to Lebanon and you actually experience it either in restaurants or in Lebanese people’s homes that host you or that invite you over for dinner, lunch, breakfast. It’s a great opportunity to experience it on the trail because what you eat in the city is not what you eat in rural areas and this is the diversity and one of the heritage that we are trying to promote as Lebanon Mountain Trail association. This other layer of heritage, which is more immaterial, is the food culture. As we move from village to village we experience different cuisines with original specialties, regional foods and different techniques of cooking for the same dish or different dishes that don’t exist in other villages.”
We have seen you gather many plants and leaves along the way. What is it?
“Today we hiked one section in the north of Lebanon in the world heritage site of Qadisha Valley and during the hike I picked up few of the wild eatable plants that we found on the trail and all over Lebabon specifically in this season which is the spring season. I will talk a little bit about these plants. This one is green when we pick it up we would dry it and use it as a herbal the, it’s a very good plant to use in the winter, it calms any turbulence in the digestive system, it relaxes and it’s very good to drink before going to bed.
Also there’s a tree which smells really good and we collect flowers and leaves from it and it also goes as herbal the. I also picked up a very important herb we have in Lebabon, we use it all over Lebanon and it’s a symbol of Lebanese cousine and it’s called za’tar. It’s a herbal mix that we dry and we use on dough that you put in oven and it comes out like pizza. Za’atar is a common name in Arabic which we use to define oregano and thyme. So both oregano and thyme are referred to the same name in Arabic. This is a very important and economic herb in Lebanon. People make a lot of money collecting Za’atar in the wild and making the mix that is basically present in our every day breakfast. I also collected thyme, thyme is also a wild eatable plant, we can dry it and add it to the za’atar mix, we can also eat it fresh in a salad or in the meat, cheese, it’s a very versatile herb that you can easily find. You can find these eatable plants in the wild, people who know how to pick them up would collect them with no money. Another very important plant is the Malva Sylvestris you can also find it in all the other areas in the Mediterranean, in other regions people probably don’t eat it, but you can also use it for medical purposes. If dried it is a natural antibiotic that you can boil and drink, for inflammation in the mouth. It is very good to calm the teeth pain if you chew it, but it’s also very important for vegetarian and vegan dishes. Basically, we take the leaves out, we clean them, chop them and add it to the onions in the pan to fry, a bit of salt and lemon and that would make the dish. Some people would add boiled chickpeas also to give more consistency and protein to the dish but otherwise it’s a very healthy plant and it’s also known for its laxative property so it’s good for the digestive system.”
Are you able to combine tourism promotion and enhancement of the territory and its gastronomic excellences?
“Through our work at the Lebanon mountain trail association we try to promote all the food heritage which is a very important component in our rural areas and it’s a very important element through which we can empower women so through our current project that we are working on, funded by the EU managed by the Office of The Minister Of State For Administrative Reform (OMSAR) and with our Italian partner COSPE, covering the sections from 3 to 10 , we are subgranting (?) several sustainable tourism initiatives with local ngo’s to promote tourism activities in rural areas. One main component that we highlighted for the subgrants to work on it’s the valorization of our food heritage. There is a trend in Lebanon to promote domestic tourism because of all the regional difficulties that have been happening in the past years we thought that is very important to promote domestic tourism so people in the cities are going to the rural areas to discover Lebanon and we understand that people are very interested in our food culture, want to know more about the food culture and so they go in the rural areas to discover regional dishes, this is why it’s very important to promote this food heritage component also for the tourism initiatives that we have on the trail.”
This article is made possible in the framework of the project “Conservation and Development of Economic Opportunities on the Lebanon Mountain Trail” under the EU funded Reinforcing Human Rights and Democracy in Lebanon – Active Citizenship, AFKAR III program managed by The Minister Of State For Administrative Reform (OMSAR).
This publication has been produced with the support of the European Union. The content of this article is the sole responsibility of COSPE and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of European Union and the Office of Minister of State for Administrative Reforms (OMSAR).