LET FOOD BE YOUR GUIDE
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