ANJAR, Lebanon: On the road from Chtaura, a dusty hub for traffic passing through the Bekaa Valley, we passed fields of infant grapes destined for wineries and Bedouin shepherds grazing their sheep on yards between banks and car repair shops.
Our exact location beyond Chtaura was lost in the repetition: farmland, village shops, flocks, landscape. A left turn off the highway led to more of the same until a village generator broke the scenic rhythm with a routine message warning passersby of high voltage in curly Armenian script, the first sign that we had crossed over into Anjar.
Anjar is the only majority-Armenian village in the Bekaa Valley. Around 5,000 Armenians settled here in 1939 and over time built for themselves a hometown with distinctly Armenian character in the middle of a rural Arab valley.
Shop signs and building plaques were written in the Armenian language’s elegant cursive; a nun from the local Armenian Catholic Sisters School pushed a cart full of groceries; and restaurant signs advertised Armenian staple foods such as soujouk and cured basterma.
It was one of these culinary specialties that brought us to Anjar: candied unripe walnuts submerged in sugar syrup.
I first learned about mraba joz al-akhdar, which translates to “green walnut jam” in English, from cookbook writer Barbara Abdeni Massaad, who authored “Mouneh,” an extensive guide to traditional Lebanese preserves.
During a chat with Massaad, I discovered that these candied walnuts were superlative for several reasons.
First, expert foodie Massaad had never heard of them before embarking on her cookbook. Making them requires following one of the most time-consuming and finicky recipes of all local mouneh. And candied walnut jam is so rare that the only sure place to find it is here, in this idyllic rural village 15 minutes away from the Syrian border.
But as we circled the streets asking random villagers where we might be able to find the jam, it seemed we’d showed up a bit too early. One elderly man standing near his own walnut tree explained that the season for jamming hadn’t started yet, and surely there was no jam left over from last year.
In contrast to the villagers, Mayor Garabed Pamboukian was unruffled by our quest. “This is our specialty!” he said, as though an intrusion of foreigners hunting for jam was expected. Pamboukian sent us off with a police escort to Madeline Nercisian Shkherdemian, one of the three women in town who sell the stuff.
When we reached Shkherdemian’s pantry-sized shop, the middle-aged woman was busy welcoming her sisters to their weekly money-pool, where the ladies donate a bit of savings each week and then rotate the beneficiary each Christmas. Taking a break from the ritual, Shkherdemian grabbed a large jar of last year’s jam.
This local tradition is not your standard jam. Whole candied walnuts float in a sea of sugar syrup flavored with cinnamon and colored black from the fruit’s natural dye. Their nutty, spicy flavor is reminiscent of Christmastime, which is exactly when most Armenian families break out the rich sweets.
Shkherdemian confirmed that we came just before the season. “We pick the walnuts between May 25 and 28, using a needle to tell how ripe it is,” she explained.
The green peel is removed by hand to expose the soft, inky black flesh, which proceeds to dye everything it comes in contact with for the duration of the process. Shkherdemian soaks thousands of peeled walnuts in a porcelain bathtub on the side of her house for 12 days, dumping and replacing the water each 24 hours to remove any bitterness.
The walnuts are later boiled with an almost obscene amount of sugar (a kilo for every 38 walnuts) in several batches over a few days to infuse them with lip-smacking sweetness.
Each year, Armenians and Lebanese alike travel to the village in search of walnut jam, she said. A father from Zahle once came to Shkherdemian to buy more than 100 jars, a hefty portion considering she only makes several hundred jars each year, as gifts for his daughter’s wedding.
This year, the already-rare jam will be in even shorter supply as a frigid winter has limited the crop of perfectly unripe walnuts, she explained. Last year, Shkherdemian made 300 jars of walnut jam from 18,000 walnuts.
“This year I’ll buy 3,000 walnuts only,” she said. “Even in Armenia, the cold there has affected the season.”
When it’s time for popping open a jar and sharing the delicacy with family and friends, Shkherdemian said, the labor – or in my case the trip – will be well worth it.
“A person who doesn’t love this work shouldn’t do it because it’s very hard,” she said. “I do it because I love it.”