BEIRUT: It doesn’t need pickling to bring out its flavor, nor roasting for perfection; it promises ripeness upon its picking and an ever-predictable crunchy sweetness.
Low-maintenance but versatile, the apple has come into season in the orchards that link Lebanon’s cool mountain villages.
Though it has been chopped, boiled and baked into uncountable traditional recipes around the world, here in Lebanon the preference is the fruit – raw and whole.
In fact, experts from cooking enthusiasts to agriculturalists and beverage manufacturers agree that despite the fruit’s abundance in the country, it’s difficult to sell apples to the Lebanese market in anything other than their natural form.
Even exotic varieties are eyed skeptically and left at the market in favor of the main three: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith.
“If the apple is pink, it won’t sell. If people have never seen the type before, they think maybe it’s more expensive,” Rami Salem, an agricultural engineer, said over a plate of sliced apples outside a Hamra pub.
“But Golden Delicious or Red Delicious – khalas, they’ll buy it.”
A little re-education on the deliciousness of alternative apple products – from new types of the raw fruit to juices and baked goods – could re-enliven the country’s apple industry and shake up its food culture, he and other experts suggest.
The country’s apple season lasts from the beginning of October through December, depending on the weather. The vast majority of Lebanese apples, around 130,000 metric tons produced each year, are sold to the consumer raw, Salem said.
The biggest and most attractive apples come from the mountainous regions from Jezzine through Akoura and up to Bsharri and Akkar, Salem said. The colder weather elongates the growing season, which allows these areas to supply the nation’s favored apples well into the winter.
Salem said it would be in the interest of farmers and the country’s economy to push new types of apples outside the common three varieties. If farmers could experiment with new apples, they may be able to find the perfect, more easily grown version for Lebanon’s dry, alkaline soil, Salem said.
But he, like his countrymen, admits to preferring the standard Granny Smith, raw and sliced and “with salt,” he added.
Joumana Accad, who’s writing a Lebanese-inspired cookbook in English, agreed Lebanese food culture has a narrow view of what to do with an apple.
“We’re really poor here on fruit-based desserts other than drying the fruits, that’s about it,” Accad said.
“In the States, they make apple pie, pumpkin bread, banana bread. But here: No, they just eat the banana.”
Accad recalls few traditional apple recipes from her childhood, other than eating them freshly stolen from the village orchards.
Now as an enterprising foodie, she’s found one traditional apple product made in the Chouf villages and available exclusively at the Chouf Cedar Reserve: apple molasses. A versatile ingredient – used for sweetening baked goods, watering down for apple juice or drizzling over ice cream – apple molasses doesn’t require a trip to the cedars, though why not.
Apple enthusiasts can make the thick syrup sweetener at home in two steps. The first requires making spiced apple juice, or apple cider by simmering apples, sugar, cinnamon and allspice in water for several hours.
After the sugary concoction is strained twice, it needs to be boiled until it reduces to thick syrup.
Two gallons of apple cider are needed for about 750 ml of syrup, which should be stored in a sterilized glass container.
Accad touts apple molasses as the perfect sweetener for apple muffins (see recipe), cookies, custards, pancakes or even salad dressing.
Local goods like molasses aside, the range of mass-produced apple-based products remains narrow.
Apple cider vinegar, jams and canned foods rarely come from the local fruit, said Nayef Kassatly, who runs the Lebanese beverage giant Kassatly Chtaura.
Kassatly was the first and only company to mass-produce apple juice from 100-percent Lebanese apples.
Able to process five tons of apples per hour, Kassatly’s plant began to crush, squeeze and hot fill clear juice into bottles around a decade ago. But the venture proved unfruitful, as the country’s consumers held fast to their preference for solid apples.
Kassatly stopped production of apple juice for a number of years and then picked it back up, but this time with the cloudier, more natural-looking apple juice.
But again, only half of October 2011’s product sold in the last year. Kassatly won’t bother to bottle apple juice this year; though last year’s batch is still available in Lebanon’s copious corner stores.
“The habit is eating the fresh apple, we’re not ready to drink it yet,” Kassatly said. He said everyone is used to eating his or her morning mankoushe with sugary pineapple juice. Until there’s a public or government campaign to promote alternative apple products, pineapple juice will continue to reign, he said.
Apple juice and other derivatives, like vinegar and jam, come from lower-grade apples grown in the Bekaa, where the hot summer means a short apple season of smaller, less attractive fruit. Mountain-grown apples will always sell, but valley-apple farmers depend on alternative buyers like juice, jam and vinegar makers, both Kassatly and Salem said.
As farmers worry this season about crops going to waste – with the greatest yield since 1966 – it’s Bekaa farmers that could use a fundamental change in the way Lebanese consume their apples, they said.
Alas for now, Lebanon’s preferred recipe requires only a firm plucking from the tree.
And for those wanting to see what all the fuss regarding raw apples is about, a crew of hikers will skip the pretense and gather them straight from the source this month.
The hike, organized by Adventures in Lebanon, will wander Sunday through the mountains of Akoura, where participants can gather as many apples as will fit in their backpack from the orchards along the trail, according to Vivianne Karam, owner of the eco-tourism company.
The trip concludes with some cooking in Akoura, where a village guesthouse will serve up local fare and farmers will sell inexpensive boxes of fresh apples.
“Since we have our guide from the village, the owners know that a group will come through,” Karam said. “There are lots of apples ... free of charge.”
The most up-to-date details about the apple picking hikes appear on the Adventures in Lebanon’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/AdventuresinLebanon.
Karam plans four or five trips of this kind in the coming months, so there’s still plenty of time for city-dwellers to get their fix – of raw, unadulterated apples, of course.