LET FOOD BE YOUR GUIDE

Condé Nast Traveller Middle East - - Contents -

Dis­cover a rich menu of cui­sine lay­ered with cen­turies of in­flu­ence in Le­banon, writes John Gre­gory-Smith

Dis­cover a rich menu of cui­sine lay­ered with cen­turies of in­flu­ence on a road trip around Le­banon,

writes JOHN GRE­GORY-SMITH

I’ve trav­elled a lot around the Mid­dle East and North Africa in my ca­reer, in­clud­ing to Jor­dan and Morocco, but few coun­tries have a hold on me like Le­banon. I fell in love with it eight years ago while re­search­ing my first cook­book, Mighty Spice, and re­cently, for my fifth, I spent a month driv­ing up the craggy Mediter­ranean coast from Beirut through its cedar-lined moun­tains, eat­ing along the way.

More great em­pires and cul­tures have left their mark on Le­banon than on any of its neigh­bours, from the Phoeni­cians and Ro­mans to the Chris­tians, Ot­tomans, Ar­me­ni­ans and French. Those in­flu­ences are lay­ered into the land­scape – with an­cient tem­ples crum­bling near Cru­sades-era cas­tles, Greek Ortho­dox churches and mosques – and, not sur­pris­ingly, the food. Nowhere else will you find Arab sta­ples like hum­mus and freekeh pi­laf along­side Euro­pean pas­tas and dumplings – even crois­sants. New in­flu­ences keep ar­riv­ing, too: An in­flux of Syr­ian refugees in Tripoli has made Aleppo sour-cherry ke­bab a city sta­ple.

Given the diminu­tive size of the coun­try, noth­ing is more than a two-hour drive from Beirut. But with so many sites to see and so many types of lab­neh to try, you should re­ally turn day trips out­side the city into overnights. Self-driv­ing is pretty easy here – Avis, Hertz and Alamo all have coun­ters at Beirut’s air­port, and the high­ways and city roads are well main­tained.

Make Beirut your hub

Beirut’s mod­ern sea­side glam­our comes from its thrum­ming beach clubs and rooftop bars, while cen­turies-old souks keep it time­less. I love to stroll this city of nar­row al­leys re­veal­ing bougainvil­lea-filled court­yards, hid­den cafés packed with hip­sters chat­ting in both Ara­bic and French till 1am, and grand neigh­bour­hoods like Mar Mikhael, where 19th-cen­tury man­sions crouch by mod­ern high-rises built af­ter the 15-year civil war.

One of my favourite lunch spots is in Mar Mikhael, where the main road hits the beach: Tawlet ( 00961-144 2664; soukeltayeb.com), a café where each day one of the staff’s many fe­male chefs pre­pares a menu from her vil­lage. I es­pe­cially love Ge­orgina Bayeh’s ground lamb and bul­gur kibbeh from her north- west­ern home­town near Zgharta. Af­ter lunch, wan­der down to Kalei Cof­fee Co. ( 00961-378 0342; kale­icof­fee.com) to chill in their shaded court­yard with a big slice of cho­co­late-and­hal­vah pie, the lo­cal sweet made from tahini.

On many evenings, I’d wind up around the Bourj Ham­moud neigh­bour­hood, in Beirut’s north-east, which has been Ar­me­nian since the 1915 geno­cide drove that com­mu­nity here. At Mayrig ( 00961-157 2121; mayrig-restau­rant. busi­ness.site), an up­scale Ar­me­nian restau­rant in the cen­tral Gem­mayze area, I get the hum­mus with spicy beef sou­jouk, served pip­ing hot from the pan, then the mante (lamb dumplings). And the street mar­kets sell spicy pas­trami, fruit juices and pis­ta­chio ice cream un­til late. Stay at the Phoeni­cia Ho­tel ( dou­bles from AED 977; 00961-136 9100, phoeni­cia­beirut. com), with its colon­naded swim­ming pool; it’s near the Saint-Ge­orge Yacht Club & Ma­rina

( 00961-395 8379, stge­orges-yacht­club.com), where you can sip a spritz and watch the boats.

Then head in­land to Baal­bek

The coun­try’s most stun­ning ruin is the Ro­man Tem­ple of Bac­chus in Baal­bek, a city in the Be­qaa Val­ley, 250km north-east of the cap­i­tal. The route there takes you along the Beirut-Da­m­as­cus In­ter­na­tional High­way that once con­nected Beirut to the Syr­ian cap­i­tal. Well be­fore the border, though, you’ll turn north into the val­ley, where vine­yards like Do­maine des Tourelles ( 00961-854 0 114, do­mainedes­tourelles.com) turn out de­cent mer­lots and syrahs (you can visit most by ap­point­ment). The sec­ond-cen­tury tem­ple

“No al own hg ere side el Europ se will ea yon up fainsdt as ta apnldes­d­luik me pl hi nu gm sm-use vaennd fek hr re is sentps”ilaf co a

was once the cen­tre­piece of a Ro­man city, and it’s es­pe­cially beau­ti­ful in the lateafter­noon light from your bal­cony at the 144-year-old Palmyra Ho­tel ( dou­bles from AED 293; 00961-337 1127), a slightly faded grande dame that head­quar­tered Bri­tish troops dur­ing WWII. For din­ner, tuck into lo­cal dishes like egg­plant fat­teh, made with fried egg­plant, tahini and fried bread. Baal­bek is fa­mous for sfiha, open-faced lamb pas­tries; the ho­tel can ar­range trips to Zakariya Bak­ery to see them made fresh.

From there you can ex­plore the north

The moun­tain vil­lage of Douma, two hours north-west of Baal­bek, has a mag­nif­i­cent Greek Ortho­dox church; it’s cooler than on the coast, and slower than in the cities. I come here for Beit Douma ( dou­bles from AED 808; 00961-7008 2225, soukeltayeb.com/beit/beit­douma), an eclec­tic coun­try­side home turned ho­tel with six rooms and a big kitchen run by chef Ja­mal. She’s an ex­pert in lo­cal dishes, like maakaroun bil toum, pil­lowy dumplings served in zesty gar­lic, lemon and olive oil. Wake up to the scent of freshly cooked manouche, break­fast pizza slathered in za’atar, waft­ing through your win­dow.

Or just drive up the coast

Eighty kilo­me­tres north of Beirut, Tripoli is Le­banon’s sec­ond-largest city, with Phoeni­cian roots and spec­tac­u­lar street food. I like to leave Beirut in the morn­ing to hit El Mina, the old port city with a sweep­ing har­bour and stone me­d­ina, be­fore lunch. Pick up a tasty lahm bi ajin, made of freshly baked pita topped with sea­soned lamb, from Al Bacha Café ( 00961-7653 4828). My favourite shop for lo­cal cheeses, in­clud­ing stringy ma­j­douli and salty akkawi, is at the end of that road. Walk the labyrinthine streets to Akra ( 0961-643 8500), a cav­ernous restau­rant in the souk that sells all kinds of hum­mus, in­clud­ing my favourite, with fat­teh, cov­ered in a lus­cious layer of lab­neh.

You could take the coastal road back down to Beirut. But I rec­om­mend swing­ing in­land to the Qadisha Val­ley and Mar An­to­nios Qozhaya

( 00961-699 5505, qozhaya.com), a 12th-cen­tury Ma­ronite Chris­tian monastery hang­ing over a val­ley of fruit trees and a rush­ing river. It’s only 45 min­utes south-east of Tripoli, but feels like noth­ing you’ve seen any­where else in the coun­try. Which, in Le­banon, is ex­actly the point.

Clock­wise from far left: Chefs at the Phoeni­cia Ho­tel; a dish of tab­bouleh at Tawlet; Tawlet chef Rima Khodor; Kalei Cof­fee Co. in Beirut; Do­maine des Tourelles; a view from the Palmyra Ho­tel in Baal­bekPre­vi­ous spread, from left: A spread of Le­banese cui­sine at Mayrig in Beirut; the an­cient Tem­ple of Bac­chus

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