BEKAA, Lebanon: Away from the posh restaurants of Beirut, Lebanese food and wine lovers are toasting one another at the source of the agricultural chain.
“Instead of bringing the garden to Beirut, we’re living in it,” says Kamal Mouzawak, co-owner of Tawlet Ammiq, a restaurant specializing in local cuisine and drinks that opened Sunday in a bucolic corner of the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon’s wine country and breadbasket.
The restaurant, accessible only by a dirt road near the wetlands of Ammiq, is located in a simple and spacious building with outdoor and rooftop seating, boasting views of the mountains – some verdant with vegetation, others a snowy alabaster – of west Bekaa.
The food, an assortment of delectable local dishes, is prepared on-site by local women, and includes manousheh and flat bread fried on the outdoor tannour.
Located in the most fertile area of the country, the project was funded by the Swiss Development Agency and undertaken in conjunction with the Jordanian Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature on land donated by the Skaff family.
Once construction of the eco-friendly building was completed, the Chouf Cedar Reserve partnered with Tawlet to create an establishment that promotes both the environment and the cultural heritage of local communities.
Prior to being approached with a proposal for the project, Mouzawak had wanted to raise the wine profile of his restaurant, Tawlet, in Mar Mikhail, Beirut. So opening a restaurant in the Bekaa seemed both wise and propitious.
“It’s happening at the right time. Every month, interest in Lebanese wine grows,” observes Lebanese wine writer Michael Karam, who has helped Mouzawak promote the wines at his Beirut restaurant and will continue to do so in the Bekaa. He notes, “The Bekaa Valley is the historic and present hub of wine-making in Lebanon.”
Indeed, although the restaurant is in a relatively remote area, some are hoping that the concept of a venue that aims to offer all labels of Lebanese wine will help in the quest for a national brand. Were one or more Lebanese wines to earn greater international recognition, this could lead to a spike in exports – which until now have been modest.
“We have beautiful wineries, but no one has been promoting them,” Mouzawak laments.
“The Bekaa Valley could be what [California’s] Napa Valley is to the [United] States,” speculates Joe Abboud, chef and owner of Rumi, a Lebanese restaurant in Melbourne, Australia. Abboud is visiting Lebanon in part to research wines that he can offer at his restaurant.
“Awareness won’t happen overnight ... but it’s getting better with competition,” he notes, referring to the proliferation of Lebanese wineries over the past several years. “Varietals [as opposed to blends] are a good entry point for the Australian market.”
Lebanon’s wine industry first succeeded in staking out a place on the international map in 1979, when Serge Hochar from Chateau Musar traveled to the Bristol International Wine Fair in the U.K.
Over the past several years, it has been growing at an impressive rate, with the number of vineyards having doubled from 15 to 30 between 2005 and 2009, and with 10 more having opened in the past three years.
A center for Lebanese wine (and food) would appear to be the next step in enlarging Lebanon’s position on the global wine map.
“We did it in Beirut and now we are doing it in the Bekaa,” asserts Karam. “The hope is that by carrying wines from all Lebanon’s wineries we will contribute to the burgeoning interest in Lebanese wine within Lebanon. Wine tourism is on the move and we want to set the standard.”
Meanwhile, the project’s founders are already looking ahead to their next venture: the renovation of the old brick houses near the restaurant to accommodate eco- and eno-tourists; launching a Sunday market for Bekaa farmers; and forging a network of trails for hikers to explore the Ammiq wetlands and the surrounding mountains.
“The project is a big step for the eastern side of the Chouf Biosphere reserve,” says reserve manager Nizar Hani. He boasts that the restaurant will lay the groundwork for a host of socio-economic activities, and will be “an important link between the mountains and the wetlands.”