NABATIEH, Lebanon: Abu Qassem’s farm began with a proverb and a story. The story, now a fable of sorts in south Lebanon, is about Ahmad al-Asaad, a feudal leader who lived in the village of Taybeh around the time of independence. One day, farmers from his lands came to him, asking if he would build a school where they could send their children. “Don’t worry, there’s no need. I’m already having my son educated,” he replied, or so the story goes.
The proverb – “You won’t find a shepherd’s staff in a field of thyme” carries a similar message: The meek are forever lowly, the small can never be the big.
Abu Qassem found in the story and proverb a challenge. “I wanted to break that mentality. I wanted thyme to produce not a staff, but a man,” he says. So in 2000, he began growing thyme and sumac – a fruit that is used to make the sour red spice that flavors much of Lebanese cuisine.
It really wasn’t easy going at first. There are two ways that sumac propagates: through seeds and by sending up new samplings.
“The trees send out their roots below the surface. When they see sun, they pop up through the ground,” explains Abu Qassem.
“It’s the kind of tree that kills its own parents,” he laughs, explaining how most trees last only 10 years before they’re overtaken by their offspring. Using seeds, however, was trickier.
“The seeds wouldn’t produce trees, and there wasn’t any information from the Agriculture Ministry on how to do it,” he says. “We had to figure it out the hard way.”
To prevent the seeds from drying out, Abu Qassem would put them inside a prickly pear, then plant the cactus in the earth.
“It worked, but it’s not the right way to do it,” he says. Irrigation systems have made it easier to keep seeds moist these days, so cactus is no longer used. Abu Qassem now has 15 dunums with 35 to 40 sumac trees in each.
He and other farmers in the south of the country are wrapping up the harvest season for sumac, while those in the north who cultivate the crop at a higher altitude are just getting started.
It’s important that they collect the clusters of tiny red fruit before autumn brings rains, which would “wash away the tartness that you want.”
The harvest is done by hand. Once all the fruit is collected, farmers remove any twigs and leaves that made it into the bag.
The fruit is ground in a machine with a blade that rotates 6,000 times per minute. The result is a mixture of ground fruit and seeds.
This is put through a power sieve and the good stuff – very fine and rusty red – falls through to the bottom where it’s bagged and sold for LL20,000 a kilo.
The material left up top is mostly waste, but Abu Qassem salvages some viable seeds from it by putting them in a bowl with water and making a motion not unlike panning for gold. The recovered seeds can be planted but Abu Qassem warns that unscrupulous man’ousheh bakeries also purchase them to cut costs.
“To make it tart, they add citric acid,” Abu Qassem adds. “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it; it’s just what they add to it that makes it bad.”
Unlike olive trees, where a good season is followed by a poor one, sumac trees give a greater harvest each year. For Abu Qassem, one dunum is now producing 200 to 300 kilos of sumac each season.
Nevertheless, he can’t keep up with the demand. He says he supplies about half of West Beirut as well as restaurants Falamanki, Tawlet and Al-Marj and many loyal household customers. He often sells at Souk el-Tayyeb and Souk el-Ard, but hasn’t recently because he just doesn’t have enough sumac or thyme.
Most sumac in Lebanon is still imported from Turkey or Iraq.
“It’s not really different: The Iraqi sumac comes green but turns pink when it’s ground, while the Turkish and Lebanese varieties start out red,” Abu Qassem says. “The colors are different but not the composition or flavor.”
Indeed, the quality of the fruit can’t be divined by looking at its appearance.
“You have to touch it,” he says. “Roll it between your fingers to see how soft it is. If it is soft it means it’s young and tart.”
Much of this year’s harvest of sumac and thyme is in bags now, labeled “Zaatar Zawtar,” the name of Abu Qassem’s farm and a play on the name of his village, Zawtar al-Sharqiah.
“When I started in 2000, all my friends were making fun of me. They would tell me, ‘it grows in the wild,’” he says. “Now there are 500 families in south Lebanon who make a living from thyme.”
“I’ve sent my four children to school. I’ve built this home and each of them will have their own apartment. This is why I chose to grow thyme and sumac.” – Additional reporting by Reem Harb