Home cuisine in a beautiful mountain refuge

BKASSINE, Lebanon: Tucked away down a small, winding road amid the pine forests of Bkassine is a rustic home from home, Lebanon’s revamped getaway spot for those who fancy something a little more adventurous than lounging on a beach.

La Maison de la Forêt, a rustic eco-site located in the Jezzine area of the Chouf mountains, reopened its doors in recent weeks to reveal a host of new additions. Now under new management, the four cozy, ski-chalet style wooden cabins have been renovated and joined by 11 new ones.

Each bungalow sleeps between two and six people, boasting a miniature kitchen and a terrace with views of the forest. Air conditioning in summer and gas fires in winter ensure year-round comfort in rooms that that smell strongly of fragrant pine wood. The lower slopes of the forest site are punctuated by spacious white tents, complete with beds and fans, for those looking to get even closer to nature.

The site offers a host of activities for kids and adults alike, from hiking and mountain biking along the surrounding forest trails, to rock climbing and rappelling on a purpose built climbing wall in the middle of the forest, a tree-top obstacle course including flying foxes and rope bridges, and canyoning in the nearby river and waterfall.

Most exciting for Lebanon’s food fanatics is the restaurant, the latest branch of Tawlet, Kamal Mouzawak’s stable of restaurants created to highlight local traditions, produce and home cuisine.

“What we brought with Tawlet at the beginning was to discover home cuisine, [which] is very regional, depending on the local agriculture,” Mouzawak explains. “And it’s not just regional cuisine reinterpreted by chefs, it’s cooked by the women themselves ... All the women are from the village of Bkassine or the villages around, so it’s like their own kitchen ... It’s their tradition, their knowhow and themselves working in the kitchen.”

Housed in a spacious, glass-walled building, the restaurant features Tawlet’s trademark open kitchen area, allowing patrons to look on as their food is prepared. The building has been constructed around the trees, and the mottled trunk of an enormous pine pushes its way up through the tiled floor near the kitchen. Encased in glass, it looks like a living artwork in a museum vitrine, lit from above by the sunlight that pours through a square hole in the roof.

Mismatched chairs and long wooden tables complete the rustic feel, while cozy lighting is provided by lampshades made of jam jars decorated with colorful tissue paper.

Outside, round wooden tables adorn a wooden terrace, through which further trees grow, while a second al fresco dining area overlooks the lower slopes of the forest and the mountains beyond.

“I insisted on having one with sand,” Mouzawak explains, “to feel that you are really sitting in the forest ... There are the low chairs, the lounge chairs – it’s more like a grandma’s house. You don’t go and sit at a table, have lunch and go out ... There are a lot of activities, but even Tawlet alone is a place where you can spend the whole day.”

Sitting at a low table in the shade of the trees, listening to the hypnotic whirr of cicadas and breathing in the fragrant smells of fresh coffee and roasting meat, it’s hard to disagree. In keeping with Tawlet’s focus on traditional regional cuisine, the menu reflects the produce of the surrounding area: mountain food with a southern twist.

The addition of pine nuts from the local forests add a creamy bite to a dish of tart hummus. The tabbouleh is accented with crunchy chickpeas, the local iteration of the ubiquitous salad. The jezzinieh potatoes come slathered in a delicious sauce, the faint bite of spicy cumin offset by the sweetness of fresh coriander.

The grilled beef is rare and mouthwateringly tender, the chunks of barbecued chicken are covered with crispy skin seasoned with lemon and garlic. The highlight of the menu is the kebbeh jezzinieh, crispy burghul shells stuffed with rare meat, walnuts, tiny pieces of shwarma and deliciously sour goat labneh.

For dessert, there are seasonal fruits, ashta and honey or a rich but irresistible concoction called “Layali Bkassine,” a bed of rice pudding topped with ashta or crème fraiche, slices of fresh banana, pistachio nuts and rose-flavored syrup.

For those who fancy something simpler, there’s a tiny bakery, a new undertaking for Tawlet.

“It’s our first bakery ever,” Mouzakwak says proudly, “so we’ve developed a wonderful organic, whole wheat sourdough bread.”

Topped with combinations including cheese, fresh rocket and sesame, as well as more traditional options, the light, crispy manakeesh are delicious washed down with a cold glass of homemade lemonade.

Mouzawak explains that La Maison de la Forêt contacted him after deciding they wanted to work with women to serve tradition cuisine, joking that the expansion doesn’t signal a plan for world domination.

“We don’t want to take over the world ourselves,” he laughs. “we want to take over people all around the world who would develop their own different kitchens where they can host people. Each time it’s not our ownership, it’s not our property – we develop the project with the people of the region.

“People should we proud of the tradition, the cuisine, the region, the setup they have ... not only in Lebanon but all around the world, because you can very well have a Tawlet in Dubai celebrating local traditions and another in Jaipur in India celebrating local traditions. It’s about tradition, it’s about pride, it’s about home cuisine.”

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 04, 2014, on page 2.




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