BEIRUT: The quintessential summer treat, ice cream has been a staple of the Lebanese diet during the hottest months of the year since time immemorial. Some of the earliest accounts of frozen treats are of ancient Persians pouring sugary syrup over snow, a practice later adopted by the Romans and made famous by the story of Roman Emperor Nero sending slaves to bring him mountain snow for the dish.
Closer to home, it’s likely that the method of freezing sweetened milk to create a dessert traveled to Italy and the rest of Europe from China by way of traders in the Middle East.
But over the past decades, different methods of making the creamy confection have found their place in the market, giving traditional Lebanese booza a run for its money.
From ice cream made with gum Arabic or mastic and creamy French-style custards to light Italian gelato (which means ice cream) and fresh-fruit sorbets, Beirut’s creameries feature a wide variety of techniques and flavors. But though recipes may differ, the approach that shops in Lebanon take reveals a rich tradition influenced by local flavors and international tastes.
“My father had a ‘taste.’ He chose flavors based on his own liking. If he didn’t like something or wouldn’t eat it himself, he wouldn’t make it,” Hanna Moussa said as he sifted through pistachios at his second-generation ice cream shop tucked away in the backstreets of Ashrafieh.
The shop, formally named Helawiyat al-Salam after a now-defunct local football team, is better known by its nickname Hanna Mitri. Unassuming, with three large refrigerated containers and an antique oven in the corner, it doesn’t look like much but it has been indulging both local and visiting sweet tooths as the essential Lebanese ice cream shop in the area since 1949.
To this day, Moussa follows his late father’s methods for making booza with ground mastic tree resin, which he imports from Greece, and water-based fruit sorbets.
“The secret is in the ingredients,” he said. “We use only fresh, quality components. We import what we need so that everything is the best.”
Offering four flavors made with cream and mastic and four sorbets, Moussa first creates a base for his frozen treats before adding the fresh ingredients to flavor it.
“Everyone asks for the recipe, but I just tell them I don’t have one. I started young, helping my father, and it is all based on taste,” he said.
And the last step before an ice cream is complete?
“I have to taste it,” Moussa said.
Like Hanna Mitri, Gelato Show in Jounieh, just north of Beirut, is also a family affair.
“It began as a family business serving Lebanese ice cream. Later the family wanted to update it and offer more flavors, so they began making gelato,” said Joseph Saadeh, the general manager.
Saadeh said the original owners had felt limited by the “10 or 12 flavors” of the traditional ice cream. Now Gelato Show has some 60 flavors available at its shiny two-story shop on the main road.
Though they use local fruits, they import most of their materials for the milk-based product from Italy, using a special recipe for each flavor from the ground up, as opposed to creating a base and adding flavor after.
“We try to buy from a diverse range of companies so that we make sure we get the best.”
Unlike Lebanese ice cream, gelato is made with egg yolks, which gives it a lighter density, and more milk than cream, which makes it less heavy and healthier.
At Frosty Palace in Mar Mikhael, owner Zalfa Naufal takes inspiration from both the lighter gelato and creamier French ice cream, which includes more cream and less milk compared to the Italian style. She said this meant her creations were “lower fat and lower sugar.”
“It is the real artisanal way of making ice cream: Every flavor has its own recipe from start to finish. It is unlike these extremely commercial ways of making ice cream where you have a white base [for some flavors] and a chocolate base [for others].”
Frosty Palace, known for its unique burger creations and diner vibes, features only three flavors – vanilla, chocolate and peanut butter – as well as its infamous weekly special. Past offerings have included Lucky Charms cereal, Carrot Cake and Kinder Bueno.
“When you love to eat, you come up with these ideas,” Naufal said.
She added that she also took a course in Italy explaining the ins and outs of gelato creation, which provided her with a better understanding of the science of ice cream.
Naufal has used this knowledge as well as her culinary prowess and creativity to come up with all sorts of variations on ice cream influenced by local practices as well as imported ones. For a twist on a Lebanese classic, she created her own pistachio paste for a shockingly green colored ice cream.
“Most ice cream shops use a pistachio paste that contains artificial green coloring and almond essence. And you can often taste the almond essence flavor dominating.
“I used a regular food processor, which gave a slightly gritty paste ... but the taste was real and the color was naturally vibrant.”