My time spent in Lebanon was split between Beirut and Tripoli where the food initiative I helped create with the Sadalsuud Foundation is located. Tripoli is an ancient settlement dating back to 1400 BCE. Its cultural and economic landscapes have been shaped by Phoenecian, Hellenic, Roman, Mamluk, and Ottoman rule (just to name a few). It was once considered the port of Aleppo and benefitted from both sea and caravan trade. It is located a mere 40 km from the Syrian border and has a longstanding kinship with its neighboring country.
Tripoli represents a predominantly Sunni population and has most recently suffered political and social instability due to the civil war in Syria. In the shadow of peaceful trade, Tripoli shares a violent past with its neighbor fraught with sectarian tension. Tripoli's current reality is precluded by the Lebanese civil war in the 70's and the Syrian government's subsequent Sunni punishment within Lebanon's border. It is a complicated story of religious suppression mixed with rebel jihadist recruitment against Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime. Although Tripoli has not experienced fighting in nearly two years, its streets are thick with heavily armed checkpoints replete with machine guns and tanks standing guard at all hours. It is no wonder Tripoli's industry and trade have waned significantly since its once prosperous existence. It is now located within what is considered the poorest region in the country. Despite these challenges, it is a loyal producer of excellent olive oil soaps, hand hammered copper, and cheap, high quality citrus. It is also home to some of the most gracious and welcoming people with whom I had the chance to share a meal (or three).
The vegetable and fruit market is situated in the middle of a disordered thruway of horn happy traffic. Perched above a trash choked stream are abundant displays of jeweled blood oranges, plump kumquats, glistening pomegranates, sweet and sour lemons, massive pomelos, and mandarin oranges I snacked on habitually throughout my stay. Piled high onto carts and spilling from the trunks of dusty old cars, you can purchase 5 kilo of blood oranges for a mere $1.33 in a haggle-free transaction. A few extra are always included in the enigmatic gesture of Middle Eastern generosity. This amounts to about twelve (12!!!) pounds of blood oranges.
Some days we would miss the best selection of produce due to power outages and cold temperatures that thwarted our bread proofing schedule. We would wander instead into the souk in search of provisions and supplies where we always stumbled upon a new surprise, including these ornate pigeons cooped in company with crates of oranges.
It took little more than an inquisitive smile for this broker to entertain us with their beautiful flight. Pigeon breeding is a common past-time of the working class Middle East, particularly of the Sham (countries included in the Levant). It is not uncommon to glance skyward in dusky twilight to see flocks arched in graceful silhouette. Faint whistle calls trail their circular turns. This romantic contrast to the chaos of such violent regional history is perhaps what reinforces the devotion to these birds.
It was irresistible to widen our product offering with the abundance of fresh fruits available. In the Lebanese tradition of making mouneh (seasonal preserves) we experimented with marmalade, quince, and a fennel jam recipe from my upcoming title Toast & Jam. The four women we trained expertly organized themselves to slice and dice pot after pot. The aroma kept us all in good spirits, even on the most challenging days.