JEZZINE, Lebanon: One of the country’s overlooked treasures, the district of Jezzine is rightfully regarded as south Lebanon’s vineyard and the protector of the south’s scrumptious culinary traditions.
Located in a fertile plain, the district lies in the midst of pine forests and vineyards and is guarded by lofty mountains and hills which in the 1980s and 1990s witnessed intense fighting between Lebanese resistance fighters on the one hand and Israeli occupiers and their agents on the other.
But with the years of Israeli occupation long gone, Jezzine and surrounding villages have, despite the lack of adequate infrastructure, succeeded in carving a niche of their own and soon became among the country’s most popular touristic venues.
At the intersection between the Chouf and the south, Jezzine is known for its strategic location, exactly 20 minutes from the southern coastal city of Sidon.
Abundant vineyards allow Jezzine wineries to produce some of the great wines that south Lebanon has to offer. The scent of close-by pine trees mix with those of the grapes, generating a very fresh, lively and floral wine.
Once in Jezzine ask around for the Karam Winery, where Habib Karam has mastered winemaking and fermentation techniques to give his product the tranquil body characteristic of good wines.
But Jezzine is not only about savory libations. Traditional Lebanese architecture is well-preserved in the town and public buildings such as the municipal palace, the Serail, and the public library bear witness. Private residences, such as the Farid Serhal Palace, boast a large collection of valuable antiques and are open to the public.
The recently revamped old souks are one of Jezzine’s main attractions. Located behind the splendid Serail, Souk al-Sad has become a favorite nightlife hub, with a wide selection of pubs and cafes.
Souk al-Sad is also where you will find traditional shops selling the unique Jezzine cutlery sets with handles carved from ebony or bone into a phoenix bird pattern.
Paul Rehayem the owner of one of those shops explains that only 10 families in Jezzine master the craft, but laments the fact that it will soon die out since Jezzine’s younger generation are not interested in acquiring the necessary skills to make to cutlery.
He adds that prices range between $10 for a piece to $1,800 for a whole set.
A few meters away from Souk al-Sad, visitors can enjoy a panoramic view of the town’s famous waterfalls.
Several restaurants overlook the impressive falls, which due to global warming run dry during the summer and fall seasons. Al-Shallal restaurant is one of the best eateries in the area offering traditional Lebanese mezze and other specialties.
Spending the night at one of Jezzine’s many hotels is definitely worthwhile, especially if the goal is to explore the south Lebanon district and surrounding areas in depth. The Iris Flower and Arz al-Sanawbar are the town’s cleanest and most comfortable hotels, with rates starting at $120 per night.
Planning a longer stay in Jezzine? Rent a chalet at the L’Etoile du Loup compound, which is situated near a pine forest overlooking the town. Prices start at $200 per night including breakfast.
A visit to Jezzine is never complete without a trip to the nearby village of Aramta where the charismatic Mona Sabra and her team struggle to preserve and recreate Lebanon’s traditional food products, referred to as “mouneh.”
In her tiny store dubbed “Khayrat Aramta,” Sabra and her women spend long hours grinding burghul and spices, drying thyme and sumac, distilling rose water and concocting tomato sauce, jams, apple cider and pomegranate molasses.
But the team leader of Khayrat Aramta, a project which receives support from the United Nations Development Program, the Research Group for Vocational Training and Oxfam, has introduced a creative twist on the old-fashioned food.
Sabra has revisited the traditional mouneh introducing new items such as ginger jam or banana jam every season.
South Lebanon’s culinary wealth is effectively safeguarded by the numerous top quality restaurants scattered in the district of Jezzine.
For an exceptional southern culinary experience stop at Les Caves Restaurant in Roum on the way back to Beirut through Jezzine. Although a little bit pricey, the restaurant, which used to be a horses’ stable back in the old days, is a hidden gem.
The varied menu includes a typical south Lebanon dish the “frakeh,” which is raw lamb meat reduced to a creamy paste mixed with burghul, orange zests, basil, marjoram, ground walnuts and chilly, with a pinch of salt.
Trying Les Caves’ fattoush, chicken liver in pomegranate sauce and succulent mixed grills is also a must. However those with a sweet tooth will not be entirely satisfied by the selection of fruits offered by Les Caves for desert.
End your trip to south Lebanon with some sweets from the renowned Al-Samra shops on the main highway linking Sidon to Beirut. The bondkieh, lawzieh and semsmiyeh, a variety of nuts or sesame in heavy syrup, at Al-Samra are likely to delight taste buds.