In love with Lebanese again

The Times, March 8 2012

A few days in Beirut and I’ve successfully revived a love for Lebanese cuisine. It starts at breakfast: dipping a “croissant au thym” into labneh yoghurt laced with the salty, herby spice mix called za’atar. Then a gorgeous omelette made of some Alpine cheese and parsley. Sitting in a café in Hamra Street enjoying this, I bowed my head to the French colonialists. They left a big mess in a lot of countries: but from Vietnam to North Africa their former servants can put great bread and a decent cup of coffee on the table.

The breakfast finished with a tangerine from the South Lebanon hills, just in season, sweet and piquant. I smoked a cigarette — that’s pretty much required here — and watched the people on this street notorious for intrigue and trouble.

Paunchy businessmen with grand moustaches, shoe-shine boys and hawkers, beautiful, confident women, dodgy blokes in wraparound shades. Good fun, a breakfast with a view. Some times you need to get up and go to a country to de-jade your love of its food.

Lebanese cooking in Britain has become generic and tedious. Factory hoummos, slimy baba ghanoush, nasty vine leaves and indifferent meats flame-grilled and dumped into pitta bread. But just a few hours in the war-battered, hungry city and I’d got Lebanese cuisine again. And I came home clutching ideas, ingredients — including an amazing new risotto grain, frekeh, that I’d never heard of.

Za’atar is a seasoning used this end of the Mediterranean. It is much subtler than harissa, the fiery spice-mix from the other end of the middle of the earth. Made from pounding together thyme, oregano, sesame and salt, I’ve eaten it dry with bread in Gaza, but in Lebanon it comes packed in a jar filled with olive oil. You can just eat the oil.

At breakfast, the Lebanese like to serve their thick, yoghurty cheese, labneh, with a crater in the top filled with oil-za’atar, and dip in fresh bread.

You can eat very badly in Beirut, of course. With some Lebanese friends I ended by mistake in a pompous tourist place in one of the great empty edifices built, amid scandal, in the centre of the city where the worst destruction happened. Gruesome bread in a plastic packet, chicken kebabs painted with some bottled sauce and acidic hoummos — we could have been in London. One well-travelled Lebanese told me that when she’s in Beirut she pines for the nutty hoummos they sell at Sainsbury’s.

I searched the city without success for convincint evidence of the the “Lebanese fusion” the in-flight magazine promised. But there is an exciting genre of modern Lebanese, twisting traditional recipes, using the herbs and fruits such as pomegranate and cherry, and championing good, local produce. The guru of this is Walid Ataya, who has enlarged his famous Hamra bakery into a bar and restaurant with a wine cellar. Walid also has a pizzeria doing Lebanese flatbreads adorned with, variously, pine nuts, feta, watercress pesto and almond paste: “The Italians stole this from us Phoenicians and called it pizza,” he growls.

I enjoyed his beef and walnut sausages in cherry sauce, but the finest thing at Bread Republic was a frekeh risotto — smoked green wheatgrains, usually served with chicken or vegetables. But at Bread Republic this came with exquisite grilled baby octopus — it was delicious, nutty and full of caramelised flavour. Along with a sack of za’atar, I brought a bag of frekeh home (it split in-flight): when I’ve recovered the grains from the bottom of my suitcase I’ll cook a risotto with it according to Walid’s recipe and report back.

Bread Republic is at Nehme Yafet Street, Hamra, Beirut, open 7.30am–11pm or later. There’s a great breakfast to be found under the orange trees at nearby Café Younes, round the corner from the Commodore Hotel

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