Aunt Amaline’s mouneh: Living off the land in Lebanon | Fork the System

“I spent half the 12 months consuming inexperienced zaatar!”

I heard that all through my childhood, each time my dad was complaining about his boarding college days at Mar Yacoub in North Lebanon.

He despised the varsity for a lot of causes, however the horrible meals was a serious one. As a toddler, he would go off into the wilderness to choose inexperienced zaatar (contemporary thyme) which grew within the spring months.

He would then combine it with contemporary onion, every time out there, and a few olive oil, wrap it in skinny, delicate Lebanese bread and fill his stomach with one thing he might digest each bodily and mentally.

Salma's hands as she makes a zaatar sandwich with her homemade zaatar and homemade olive oil at her home in Mazraat el-Toufah
Salma makes a zaatar sandwich along with her selfmade zaatar and selfmade olive oil at house [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Someday, it lastly occurred to me to ask what he did the opposite half of the 12 months.

“I ate out of my mouneh.”

Mouneh is an Arabic phrase that actually means provisions and is used to check with the preserves historically put up by Lebanese households yearly. They will embody pickles, jams, natural teas, kishk (dried yoghurt blended with bulgur wheat), syrups, tomato paste, grape leaves, olives, zaatar, and dried greens like eggplants that we name “adeed”.

There was a time when our ancestors from Mazraat al-Toufah (the Apple Orchard), a northern village nestled in a valley throughout from Mizyara and slightly below Ehden, sustained themselves largely from the land.

Bowls of foraged wildflowers drying for Salma's herbal tea
Salma’s natural tea has 11 components, together with wildflowers [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

They preserved a lot of what they planted and regardless of the bushes of their orchards supplied within the spring and summer time months to hold them by way of autumn and the chilly snowy mountain winters.

This custom has been handed on from era to era. Though fewer and fewer individuals practised it as time went on and extra Lebanese moved to the cities, it remained an necessary ceremony of passage to get some mouneh from the village to eat again on the town. And at present, selfmade mouneh is making a comeback.

My father’s mom, my Grandmother Asma made her personal mouneh yearly, and my Aunt Amaline, his sister, grew up watching her and studying her methods instinctively.

Aunt Amaline is now 85 years outdated and nonetheless forages for zaatar, picks grape leaves, and makes her personal apricot jam.

Pink flowers drying to be mixed with herbal tea, handmade plum jam, and baked dessert
Pink flowers drying for natural tea, handmade plum jam, and dessert baked by Salma [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

She’ll let you know she prefers understanding precisely what her meals is manufactured from and the one method to assure that’s to make her personal stuff by hand.

For her, it’s all about style and high quality, though for others nowadays, price performs an enormous half in deciding to protect extra meals.

“Folks within the village began planting once more as a result of issues are so costly, sure, however mouneh is greater than that.

“Other than cash, once we had been younger, we didn’t have these items out there within the winters. Our village felt remoted at the moment. When you didn’t put together your self, you couldn’t eat. Folks ‘tricked’ nature to reside off the land year-round.”

Portrait of Amaline and Wadih Ramia with their seven children
Portrait of Amaline and Wadih Ramia with their seven youngsters. A photograph Amaline mentioned was made to ship to Wadih’s brother who had emigrated to Brazil [Courtesy of the Ramia family]

Aunt Amaline began making mouneh when she obtained married at 20, greater than half a century in the past, in Mazraat al-Toufah. It was simply what was completed and felt pure to her.

There was no different approach.

Amaline’s Curve

I referred to as Aunt Amaline to talk and to see when could be time to go see her. Her son was visiting from the US and I didn’t wish to get in the way in which of her time with the youngsters and grandkids, however I did wish to see her and get my family time.

The view from the village of Mazraat el-Toufah across from Mizyara and south of Ehden
‘The nervousness solely begins to dissipate after I flip onto the village highway,’ writes Kabalan [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Driving in Lebanon will not be for the faint of coronary heart, and I solely do it when completely essential, renting a automobile and gritting my tooth as I get on the Autostrad with individuals zooming previous.

Then I’ve to maintain heading north to the ˜village on a two-lane freeway with no median. Not significantly better.

The nervousness solely begins to dissipate after I flip onto the tree-lined village highway, exuding the odor of pine to welcome me. My aunt’s home is on a curve that some village individuals name “Kou’ Amaline” or “Amaline’s Curve”

Amaline sitting on her verandah in the shade
Amaline Ramia, 85, at her house in Mazraat al-Toufah [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

She lives on the bottom ground and her eldest son lives upstairs together with his household, she will typically be discovered on her giant terrace, particularly if there’s some afternoon daylight. I often name out her identify as I stroll in, so I don’t startle her, and he or she all the time responds along with her heat “Ahla!” (welcome) from wherever she is in the home.

On this go to, I had instructed Aunt Amaline on the cellphone, I wished to get some grape leaves and see if I might protect them myself. After all, the mere point out of this concept to her meant that Aunt Amaline would make a dish of stuffed grape leaves, able to eat as quickly as I arrived.

The tangy vegetarian stuffed leaves had been so so tender, the yoghurt was so cool and creamy. One way or the other, dipping them in that yoghurt introduced out the tanginess much more,

A platter of stuffed grape leaves prepared by Amaline
There was a platter of stuffed grape leaves prepared and ready at Aunt Amaline’s [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

There are two methods to protect grape leaves, Aunt Amaline tells me as we eat – one entails brining them and the opposite is to pack them right into a jar so tightly that there isn’t a room left for air.

“That is the very best time to choose them. When you don’t use water and salt to pack them, you must examine on them after every week or two to ensure they don’t mould. If there’s no mould by then, they’re good. You’ll be able to freeze them too however that’s not an choice in Lebanon.”

See, the place Aunt Amaline lives, in Mazraat al-Toufah, there are solely 4 hours of government-provided energy a day, and he or she and the opposite villagers need to complement that with a number of hours on a generator. So freezers are difficult.

It’s been like this throughout for the previous two years or so, as Lebanon’s financial disaster tears on the nation.

Ripe apricots, plums, and cherries from Salma Moussa's garden in Mazraat el-Toufah, North Lebanon. June 9, 2022
Ripe apricots, plums, and cherries from Salma’s backyard [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Proper now, as a Beirut-dweller, I’ve no electrical energy for about eight hours a day. After I do have energy, it’s partly as a result of I take part in a shared generator service in my neighbourhood.

It’s exhausting to determine which hours are supplied by town and which come from the generator, so I’ve gotten used to unplugging the fridge after I want to make use of the washer (for instance) as a result of the generator can’t help each and I by no means know when it’s operating.

However, I hold reminding myself, whereas my labneh doesn’t final so long as it used to, at the least issues usually are not as unhealthy as they had been in October final 12 months – when there was no authorities electrical energy in any respect for a number of days.

And in addition, at the least Lebanon will all the time have its flagship, unspoilable, meals: zaatar.

Easy methods to zaatar

Zaatar is one thing Aunt Amaline is aware of nicely.

She explains how it’s used in another way relying on if you decide it. When you decide it younger, you may eat it contemporary or in salads as a result of “It’s most tender earlier than it flowers.

A photo of Amaline's hands holding some wild zaatar
Aunt Amaline holds some wild zaatar in her palms [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

“As soon as it flowers, you make dried zaatar. You have to decide it with its stalks, dry it, then take away the stalks and grind it. You add the sumac and the toasted sesame seeds with a minimal quantity of salt. Your grandmother used to grind it in a big mortar and pestle however now we have now meals processors and locations that grind it for us.

“It’s additionally greatest to not combine all the things without delay. Sesame has oils that change the style of the thyme. Maintain them separate and blend simply sufficient for what you want.”

She is aware of this seems like an insane quantity of labor for the typical metropolis dweller.

“Sure, it’s simpler to purchase zaatar however how will you already know what’s in it? They may put grass or wooden in it to mass-produce.”

Salma Moussa, 72, removes the dried zaatar leaves from the stalks
Salma removes the dried zaatar from the stalks earlier than grinding it in a meals processor [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Dried zaatar can be utilized as a herb in salads or scorching meals. Mostly, it’s blended with olive oil and wrapped in a pita or used because the topping for aromatic manaeesh – what my Aunt Amaline likes to make at house for her grandchildren on weekend mornings.

That odor, whether or not inexperienced zaatar simply plucked or dried zaatar permeating our days because it wafts from the bakeries, is so inherently acquainted to the Lebanese that it’s the very first thing individuals suppose to ship abroad to their family within the diaspora as a reminder of house.

A family photo of the Moussa family during Palm Sunday. Salma Moussa is centre, fourth from left
A household photograph of the Moussa household on Palm Sunday. Salma is centre, fourth from left [Courtesy of the Moussa family]

In Beirut, I nonetheless had zaatar in my kitchen, left over from items made to me by 4 completely different family, every with their very own particular combine and flavour. It’s a protected breakfast for these days when the meals within the fridge spoils as a result of the facility is out – or I wanted to do a load of laundry and needed to unplug the fridge.

Proper now, at Aunt Amaline’s these ideas are simple to push away as we benefit from the stuffed grape leaves and I lean again in my chair once we are completed.

By no means one to sit down idle, Aunt Amaline puttered a bit then prompt we go go to her sister, my Aunt Mary, who’s round 99 years outdated and lives close by along with her daughter, my cousin Salma.

Truly, Aunty Mary might be older, as a result of throughout her era they’d typically register newborns long gone their precise birthday.

Salma’s natural tea

My Aunt Mary and my cousin Salma reside in Dahr el Mghara overlooking the village. Salma’s house is beautiful, the results of her a few years of exhausting work as a instructor.

Now retired, the 72-year-old is caring for her mom and making magic out of her rambling terraced backyard.

Salma standing in her light, airy kitchen with pine trees visible out of the window behind her
Salma in her kitchen. Zaatar and natural tea could be seen drying on the counter [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

After I instructed Salma I wished to speak about mouneh at present, her face lit up. Her backyard is stuffed with bushes – figs, apricots, plums, olives – and he or she makes mouneh usually.

There are all the time roses too, though this 12 months there are fewer rose bushes as a result of there was a water scarcity that saved her from planting too many. She nonetheless goes out to choose wild flowers for her natural tea, which has 11 components.

“I wash all the things earlier than I dry it. I make my mouneh as a result of that approach I’m certain that it’s clear and natural.”

Rising up, Salma discovered so much about preserving and the meals rising round her from the time she spent along with her paternal grandfather, Moussa Elias, who was very educated in preserving meals and an skilled on honey.

She additionally discovered some from my Aunt Mary, however Aunt Mary was busy with seven different youngsters, most of whom had been youthful. So Salma, left to her personal gadgets, would enterprise to different houses within the village, connecting with the village elders and studying how every household made issues their very own approach.

A black-and-white photo of Moussa Elias with his grandson
Portrait of Moussa Elias together with his grandson. Moussa Elias has a distinct final identify than Salma Moussa as a consequence of mayors in villages altering final names to fathers’ first names throughout that point interval [Courtesy of Moussa family]

Strolling into Salma’s kitchen is like strolling onto a shiny, ethereal terrace. The massive home windows throughout look out onto the plush inexperienced pines that encompass the home and the daylight streaming by way of them makes drying herbs simple.

“Persons are making much more mouneh now,” she says. “Issues have gotten actually costly and other people realised the value of the land. They’re respecting what they’d forgotten.

“We might reside higher if all of us had that connection. You’ll be able to’t decide a wild flower, have a look at it, odor it and never really feel good.”

She’s comfortable to point out me the various things she has made and put up in her pantry, a few of the jams she makes use of when she’s baking a dessert, or just unfold on a little bit of bread at breakfast.

Salma showing Amaline a bottle of olive oil
Salma reveals Aunt Amaline the standard of olive oil that got here from her household’s grove [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

“That is my plum jam. I left the pores and skin on after I pureed it as a result of it has a whole lot of nutritional vitamins. That’s simply my very own approach, others might let you know in another way.”

Salma’s pleasure in her preserves is clear, she exudes that sensible information that comes from lengthy years of constructing one thing by intuition. And she or he doesn’t use fancy phrases to explain what’s what.

“When you maintain up the plate sideways and the jam doesn’t slide off, you already know it’s completed.”

Other than plum preserves, Salma’s cabinet cabinets groan beneath the load of berry molasses, olives, olive oil, natural tea, dried mint, even handmade cleaning soap. And sure, in fact, there’s zaatar, rigorously gathered, dried and floor by Salma’s personal palms.

A triptych of Salma's hands washing, cutting and sugaring cherries for jam
Salma’s nephew took pictures of her making ready cherries to make her signature jam [Steven Moussa/Al Jazeera]

Within the time since I used to be there visiting along with her, Salma has despatched me a number of voice notes and pictures of recipes on WhatsApp – cherry jam and apricot compote.

Curious, I requested her who took the pictures, and he or she instructed me it was her grandnephew who had come to spend a while along with her.

Seems to be like she’s passing on the mouneh baton her elders handed on to her.