Beirut's antique district
The goat dair y product, ambarees, has a long histor y in Lebanon, but as its traditional production process fades out it’s at r isk of being lost. The Food Heritage’s Foundation’s Zeinab Jeambey explores the tradition and how to preser ve it
Ambarees, also known as sirdeleh or labnet
al jarra, is a traditional dair y product commonly prepared in the Bekaa Valley and the Shouf mountains in Lebanon, where
baladi and shami goats are respectively the main grazing animals that produce it. The word sirdeleh refers to the ear thenware jar in which the dair y product is prepared. During the goat-milking season in June, the process star ts by filter ing and pour ing raw goat milk and coarse salt into special clay jars that are porous in nature, with a hole in the base for draining purposes. The mixture is lef t to ferment at room temperature until the curd separates from the whey water, at which time the liquid is drained through the jar’s opening. Over the span of the summer, the process of adding milk, coarse salt, fermenting, and draining is repeated until each jar is filled with curd. The curd is then lef t in closed jars for four months to complete its fermentation process, at which stage ambarees develops into a type of labneh, yellowish in color and sour in taste. Throughout the fermentation process the product acidity r ises, thus eliminating microorganisms that would otherwise be harmful. “The process of making ambarees is ver y delicate and one has to have a high level of hygiene so that it doesn’t ruin the final product,” says shepherd and
ambarees producer Boutros Bou Maroun, from Saghbine. “That is why, traditionally, we say that only the producer can check over sirdele jars, otherwise the product will disintegrate.” Once ambarees is extracted from the ear thenware jars, it can be either packed in glass jars, sealed and sold, or formed into balls, fur ther dr ied on cheese cloth towels, then placed in glass jars and preser ved in olive oil.
Ambarees is mainly consumed as labneh, ser ved with olive oil and eaten for breakfast or dinner. In the villages, many spread it on saj bread and heat the bread
on a wood-fire oven before eating their sandwiches. In villages with the custom of ambarees production, it is common as a main ingredient in salads, mixing it with purslane, tomatoes and onions, or reconstituting it with water and boiling kebbe meat, a var iation of kebbe bi laban. In Niha El Shouf, ambarees is an essential par t of their local cuisine. Abla Majed, from the village is a long-time producer of the dair y product. “It is one of the most important foods in our village,” Majed says. “We are used to having sirdeleh for breakfast rather than labneh.” Though highly appreciated by villagers and dair y product connoisseurs, quality ambarees is hard to find nowadays due to the decrease and malpractice in its production, related to a common fear among the population of raw goat milk products, the loss of traditional knowledge about the importance of the processing method and the cultural appreciation for this her itage product. Similarly, malpractices in its production method has led to changes in both sensor y and health proper ties of ambarees. “Unlike what people think, goats are the cleanest animals,” says shepard and ambarees producer Mohammad Temrez, from Maaser El Shouf. “They pick and choose what to eat and mainly graze on oak leaves and the tips and buds of wild plants.”
SIRDELEH JARS FACE EXTINCTION
Pottery use for storage, cooking and transferring dairy products in south eastern Europe, Anatolia and the Levant regions, are as old as seven millennia BC. But nowadays it is hard to find quality sirdeleh jars and the earthenware containers now used are of ten poorly glazed and tend to disintegrate due to the rising acidity resulting from
ambarees fermentation. For this reason, many ambarees producers are abandoning earthenware vessels for plastic barrels, which imply major threats to its food safety and its cultural significance. The loss of the traditional processing method of sirdeleh is threatened because the skill of making sirdeleh jars is not being passed down through generations of pottery makers. In an attempt to safeguard this traditional dairy product, the Food Heritage Foundation and the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture in Zahle and Bekaa are collaborating to raise awareness about this product and its traditional processing techniques. Under the EU funded project Lactimed; funds will be geared towards jar production and distribution to ambarees producers and for training on food safety and hygiene during processing.
Photos: Food Heritage Foundation