Arriving at Beirut airport at near-enough midnight last Monday, we were whisked through immigration and security by the head of airport security – something which could only happen in this mad, crazy and fantastic country! As with so many things in the Middle East, it’s not what you know but who you know. Massaya’s co-owner, Sami Ghosn was waiting for us outside in his huge American 4-wheel drive gas guzzler and drove us to our hotel in down-town Beirut. It might have been a Monday night, but this is a city that ‘pumps up the action’ on an almost twenty-four hour basis. We dumped our bags at our hotel and then made a dash for the roof-top bar at the next-door Vendôme. Luckily, tiredness was beginning to set in all round and a beer later, we headed back to our hotel and bed.
The next morning, we were up bright and early and Sami drove us off up into the beautiful heartland of Mount Lebanon south-east of Beirut, high up in the Chouf, passing through the beautiful village of Deir El Kamar and then on to see some of the few remaining Lebanese cedars (the national emblem) at the Chouf Cedar Reserve in the southern sector of Mount Lebanon.
Shouf Cedar Reserve - Al Shouf
The Chouf is Druze country and it is definitely easy to spot this by the style of the dress of this highly independent sect. Indeed, the ancestral stronghold of the much-loved and powerful Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, is the village of Mukhatra in the Chouf. From there, we wound along old trading routes, clinging to the precipitous mountain sides with drops that seemed almost endless. Not a brilliant place to be if you suffer from the odd spot of vertigo!
Lebanon is a long, thin country that is made up (loosely speaking) of four geographical features running from north to south: the Mediterranean sea in the west, then the Mount Lebanon mountain range and between that and the Anti Lebanon mountains, that run down the Syrian border on the eastern side of the country, there is the verdant Bekaa Valley. Bekaa means “patchwork” in ancient Lebanese and this is clearly seen as you drop down the road from the Chouf towards Kefraiya in the Arz El Barouk region of the Bekaa. The differing colours of the fields reflect their position in relation to the Litani river which irrigates this lush valley.
Looking south down at the Bekaa Valley and the Golan Heights
The Bekaa Valley is about 120 kilometres in length and forms the northern part of the Great Rift Valley which begins in Syria, runs down to the Red Sea and then finishes up in Africa. The Bekaa makes up about 45% of the Lebanon’s total arable land and the northern part of the valley, which is really quite barren and dry, is the home of pastoral nomads with their ever-moving flocks of goats and sheep.
Bedouin nomads in the foothills of Mount Lebanon
It is in the southern part of the valley where one finds the vineyards, centred around the town of Zahlé. These are planted on the hillsides on gravelly, stoney soils with a base of limestone. Nearer the river Litani are the richer, alluvial soils where there is a patchwork of crops which include corn, cotton and vegetables. The Litani river, fed by the snow melt and rains from the ranges of mountains that run either side of the valley, flows down to Lake Qaraoun at the southern end of the Bekaa. Water is the “oil of Lebanon” and is a hugely valuable natural resource in a geo-political region where drought is the norm.
Our trip through Mount Lebanon came to an end as we drove northwards up the highway running along the valley floor towards Zahlé. Massaya vineyard is situated about 6km. to the south-west of Zahlé in the Qabr Elias sector. The estate has been created on land purchased by Sami and Ramzi Ghosn’s father in the early 1970′s and is a corner of paradise. Although occupied by squatters during the Civil War, it was wrestled back in to Ghosn control by Sami and his family in 1992. A long, hard struggle then started to establish the vineyards and winery. Today, an extremely well thought-out winery is surrounded by the ‘homestead’ vineyards, along with a restaurant (which can do over 200 lunches at weekends!) and an unassuming, single-story farmhouse situated amongst secluded gardens.
We toured the winery and restaurant but also had a good look at the artisanal distillery where Massaya’s famous blue-bottle Arak is made. The production of this was where things started at Massaya, before the planting of the vineyards. In arabic, Araq means ‘condensation’ and at Massaya, this clear spirit is made from the wine of quality Obedi grapes and is then triple-distilled. During the third distillation, green, organic aniseed (from the village of Hineh on the Syrian slopes of Mount Hermon) is then added and infused. It is then aged in traditional clay amphorae before bottling. Arak is drunk in the Lebanon with the traditional mezze (a massive selection of small dishes of local produce) as we can testify. It is carefully mixed on the basis of a third Arak to two-thirds water, which results in a rounded, aniseed-flavoured milky-white drink that can be ever so easy to consume!
Massaya Arak ageing in amphorae
Following a fascinating look over the whole estate (which includes a wide range of vegetables, herbs and fruit – along with organic chickens – for use in the Massaya restaurant, we took cover from the bright sun on the shaded terrace outside the Ghosn boys’ farmhouse. Our travelling companions on this Levantine trip were the delightful James Tanner (MD of Tanners of Shrewsbury) and Averil Johnstone (buyer from James Nicholson of Crossgar, Northern Ireland). From day one, these two were to prove extraordinarily good company and helped make our visit to the Lebanon even more entertaining, with their excellent sense of humour and extensive knowledge. The four of us settled down to our first introduction to real Lebanese mezze, although Ramzi, who is a passionate cook, had put his own slant on such traditional dishes as hummus and tabbouleh. The one thing that you must realise when eating in Lebanon is that when you think that things are just about to come to an end, another battery of dishes arrives! However, quantity is not ‘king’ as you graze through numerous dishes, all of which are hyper-fresh, simply eating a little bit of what you want. As a result, you never leave the table feeling stuffed.
Averil, Sami, John & Ramzi (L:R) on the shaded terrace at Massaya
Ramzi is a great cook and prepared most of this extended (three hour) meal himself. Apart from some very good mezze dishes, there was brilliant kibbeh (a paste of very finely minced lamb with burghul, onion, basil and mint, followed by some delicious quail. This array of Lebanese food married extremely well with the Massaya wine ‘collection’. The strawberry-tinged Massaya Rosé 2010 made a perfect aperitif whilst the beautifully balanced Classic White 2009 is showing its true colours with hints of ripe melon and spice. We tasted both the 2005 and 2007 Massaya Classic Red and the latter is definitely showing the quality of the vintage with a big, spicy richness and fine bead of acidity. The Massaya Silver Label 2005 clearly reveals why this is the ‘flagship’ wine of this estate – excellent complexity with overtones of coffee and chocolate and fruitcake spice, enveloped in a tidy black cherry and plum fruit. The Gold Label Reserve 2005, the grand master of the proceedings, is just beginning to show its potential and class. Given a couple more years, this will be a majestic and very important wine but, on the day, was pipped by the Silver Label.
2005 Massaya Gold Reserve and Silver Label
As the sun began to get lower in the powder blue sky, it was time to take our leave and we headed back up in to Mount Lebanon but this time in a more northerly direction. As we climbed, the air temperature dropped by more than 10 degrees C, from 25C to 14C and the landscape and ‘feel’ of the mountains made us realise show how much Lebanon is a country of contrasts and extremes. Then there is the driving! Well, if you think Italy, India or Chile are bad then you need to get behind the wheel of a car in Lebanon (or maybe not)! It’s best left to the locals who have an ingrained sense of limitations, although it might not seem like that to the average European! Of course you drive fast (that should go without saying) but it’s where you overtake that sorts the donkeys out from the racing camels. With thousands of miles of precipitous mountain roads and massive, never ending bends and heavy volumes of trucks and farm vehicles, there is little option but to overtake whenever you can. This normally means on blind corners at 70km/h. with the odd ravine on one side of the car or other. In towns, things can be worse – but more of this anon.
Is this our hotel for the night?
As we drove along, deep down in the valleys, white cotton wool mist was beginning to gather and as we neared our mountain top destination at Faraya, we drove through a small village which had obviously taken the brunt of a Syrian attack in the 2006 conflict. Buildings were still scarred from RPG and mortar fire (see above) and there were obvious signs of the ferocious battle. As we arrived at Fakra (which is part of the Faraya ski station) we were relieved to find that our hotel (Hotel Terrebrune) was, infact, a newly-built ski hotel to accomodate the rich of Beirut. Although lacking some ‘heart and soul’ , it was eminently comfortable and had a glorious view down the mountains towards the Mediterranean and Beirut.
Infinity pool and view from Hotel Terrebrun (too cold to swim)
That evening, Sami had decided to show us what a true Lebanese mezze was all about. Lebanese cooking has clearly evolved as a result of thousands of years of invasion and many cultures have influenced what is eaten today. The strongest of these influences were the Ottoman Turks and, in more recent times, the colonial French. We ate at a family-run restaurant (with about 200 covers!) down in the village of Fakra, which is obviously heaving during the ski season but last week, the five of us were the only customers! Despite this, they were all delighted to see us and were determined to show us mezze as it should be. Sami ordered, without looking at a menu, what seemed like an endless stream of dishes and when they started to be drip-fed on to our table, this certainly proved to be the case.
15% of the Mezze that we ate at Fakra!
Some of the dishes (and there were so many that it is difficult to recall a lot of them!) were kibbeh bilsaniyeh (a kibbeh baked in a round, shallow pan), some charcoal-grilled meats, piles of uncooked fresh vegetables (amongst which were some stunning raw broad beans and peas in their pods), a sort of lamb tartare with masses of herbs and spices and of course, the ubiquitous tahini. Once again, we had been treated royally but none of us went to bed feeling full as we had just easten what we wanted. John even managed to intersperse his meal with some tumentous pulls on a nargile (a hookah water bubbler pipe) with some very strong local tobacco!
Apparently the Nargile water pipe aids digestion!
The Lebanese are amazing when it comes to hospitality which seems to be a part of their national character. They are also extremely friendly and even us strangers were warmly welcomed wherever we were – even just walking down the street in Beirut!