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Going nuts for Lebanese roasting traditions
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BEIRUT: Whether lured by the aroma drifting from a small shop or by a beautiful box neatly packaged at the airport, there’s a good chance you’ll be bearing the gift of Lebanese nuts at your next destination. “I have a lot of family in the UAE and Canada, and the only thing they ever ask me to bring from Lebanon is nuts,” says Sabah Haider, a filmmaker based in Beirut. “You can’t get the quality and freshness outside Lebanon.”

Located on a large harbor at the end of an ancient trade route, Beirut became a destination for nuts from around the world more than 400 years ago. Local merchants took advantage of the city’s strategic position to buy nuts from international traders passing through.

Over the years, nuts became an important part of the local culture. Lebanese would go to the souks in downtown Beirut, where they would meet and chat as they browsed the roasted nut stands.

“Nuts and coffee fostered human interaction. People bonded over it when they went downtown,” says Moussa Rifai, whose grandfather learned the trade working at the Hamasni nut company as a young man, before founding a new company under his own name in 1948.

Hamasni, founded in 1880, is Lebanon’s oldest nut company, and has been a training ground for those learning the nut roasting business. Many an employee of Hamasni went on to establish their own company.

In the following decades, the new competitors modernized their country’s nut business by developing retail concepts and opening stores that offered – in addition to nuts – chocolates, sweet nuggets and coffee.

“The retail philosophy [of the nut shops] did for nuts what Starbucks did for coffee,” Rifai says, pointing to a black and white picture of his family’s business on the wall of his office in Corniche Mazraa, showing nuts, confectionary and decorated eggs displayed for Easter.

Today, the freshly roasted, candied or plain nuts have become a trademark Lebanese snack, with Lebanese confectionaries a common sight at home and throughout the region. Lebanese nut merchants have earned a reputation for the freshness and high quality of their product, as well as for their special roasting and packaging techniques – despite the fact that almost all of the nuts themselves are grown abroad. Many of the walnuts and almonds are produced in nearby Syria, while the cashews come from as far as Brazil.

“I’m proud to say Lebanese nuts are the best in the world. We have big nuts, which matters a lot,” says Peter Daniel, owner and manager of Castania, which started selling coffee in 1979, and then began roasting nuts in the late 1980s. Now Castania is one of the largest companies of its kind in the country. “And in Lebanon, we still roast in the traditional way, like we did over 300 years ago,” Daniel adds.

At Edisson Roastery on Makdissi Street in Beirut’s Hamra district, owner and manager Yousef Shatila has been roasting nuts on location since he was a young boy, helping at the shop that his father founded in the late 1940s. He says it’s important to know how to use the right combination of fire, salt, pepper and chili, and to roast at the correct temperature so the nuts are cooked all the way through.

“Lebanese are very picky about their nuts. If they’re not fresh and roasted just right, they won’t come back,” Shatila says, noting that one of his neighbors opened a nut shop several years ago, but went out of business because of lack of experience. He adds that many of his customers have been loyal patrons of his shop for decades.

While Lebanon’s myriad of nut companies pride themselves on their traditional roasting techniques, the larger establishments continue to study the markets and, due to the saturated domestic market, look for opportunities to expand internationally.

At Rifai, where exports account for 50 percent of sales, expansion into Europe has meant offering a different mixture and even packaging of nuts. As opposed to the Lebanese preference for the higher quality large nuts, often with the shells intact, those produced for the Swedish market are much smaller and come pre-shelled in brightly covered bags.

“We and our competitors have positioned Lebanon as a leader in savory snacks,” Rifai says.

However, Rachid Hamasni, the fifth generation of the Hamasni family nut producers, says that although he is proud of Lebanon’s success in quality nut sales, he laments that it has gone in a commercial direction. For that reason, he says they have refused to register with the industrial association.

Still, for many, the country’s nuts are the best treat – especially when bringing goodies for loved ones living abroad.

“Nuts are the only gift I bring my family,” says Haider, who never leaves Lebanon without packing her bags with at least five kilos of nuts.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 28, 2012, on page 2.
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