BEIRUT: If you’ve ever wondered where your food comes from, you might want to stop by the farmers’ market at Zico House in Sanayeh, where producers from throughout Lebanon are happy to share the story of their food – from seed to spread.
“People don’t know how this is made,” says Mohammad Ali Nehme, a farmer from Nabatieh, sitting at a picnic table in the shade, where he has arranged a colorful assortment of dried herbs: sumac, sesame seeds and his pride and joy, zaatar (thyme).
“I pick off the thyme seeds one by one, and then I let them dry in the sun,” Nehme says. “I then crush them with a large wooden mortar and pestle.”
At the nearby table of his fellow producers Hanna and Grace Rizk are rows of bright green peppers, cherry tomatoes and squash that come from their farm in Kesrouan. They love the idea of bringing a piece of their land to the heart of the city.
Just to the right of them are examples of what some of this same fresh produce can be when it is cured and preserved in jars. Molasses, syrups and jams from various fruits, honey, oils and pastes as well as olive oil soap are lined up at the table of Antoinette Yammine and her daughter Rita from the northern town of Zghorta, who make the preserves and do the marketing respectively for their small company Min al day3a (from the countryside).
“We make small quantities – about 50 jars per product a year – so we don’t have to use preservatives,” Rita explains. “We make everything by the season. We made this plum jam two days ago.”
“This is an empower for producers to let them tell their stories,” says Dominique Anid, a dietician and a founding member of the Food Heritage Foundation, part of the environmental and sustainable development unit at the American University of Beirut, which aims to keep an inventory of traditional Lebanese food and encouraging farmers to pass on their knowledge from one generation to the next while generating income from their work.
Earlier this month Lebanon’s newest farmers’ market, Souk Aal Souk, opened its doors in the garden behind Zico House, a French Mandate-era building with high ceilings that is regularly used for evening social events like concerts and film screenings. Now, the AUB’s Food Heritage Foundation has discovered a use for the space during the day – every Wednesday between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. in what they plan on being a weekly year-round gathering of farmers and food lovers.
“We picked this space because we felt it fit with our vision of a traditional place,” Anid says. “It’s a market in the heart of Beirut in the middle of a city full of fast-food restaurants.”
So far, they’re starting out small – with just eight producers, and foot traffic has been minimal. But they hope that through word of mouth they can generate a loyal clientele. Anid says they picked Wednesday because Souk el-Tayeb already has their market on Saturday and Souk al-Arab at the nearby Bread Republic on Hamra Street is on Tuesdays, and they didn’t want to compete with other small producers.
For Noha al-Hayek, the market’s initial slow business is a somewhat welcome change of pace to her 18 years working as a restaurant chef, where she loved cooking but needed a break from the fast turnaround. This week she has prepared rolls of cheese, meat and crab with a tomato dipping sauce. Delicious.
“It’s beautiful for people to learn about our traditional food, because young people don’t know,” she says.
Some things, however, are arguably an acquired taste. Nehme, the herb farmer from Nabatieh, insisted that I try his zaatar oil. One small drop makes the lips and tongue feel like they are on fire. He says it’s a sign it’s killing bacteria. It must be working.