As in many Mediterranean societies, the large family lunch in Lebanon is sacrosanct. Every Sunday, Lebanese families trek back to their ancestral villages or head with extended family and friends to restaurants along the coast or hidden among the mountains and valleys. Hours are spent eating assorted mezes, sipping arak (the Levantine version of ouzo), smoking arguileh (hookah) and bonding with loved ones. For many it’s an escape from the hectic pace of life in Lebanon and a way to preserve family ties.
Some Sunday lunch spots are quite upmarket, serving gourmet food, while others are a bit more rural, perched up high in the mountains or next to rivers. These often might only be an old house with a large terrace opened only in the summer and feature a band blaring traditional Lebanese music. Food at these restaurants is usually incredibly fresh, as they are closer to the source. People often pay a set price, typically US$30 to $35 (more at upscale restaurants), and are given several courses during the afternoon hours, often ending with fresh fruits.
With the current protests and social upheaval, a number of activists, artists and everyday citizens have been rethinking the traditional Sunday lunch. Singer/actor/director Bruno Tabbal, graphic designer and food blogger Hisham Assaad, environmental consultant Tamara Hanna and interior architect Roy Jibrin have begun holding their own Sunday lunch series. The first, called “Autumn Secrets,” took place in the northern Lebanese village of Wata Houb in the district of Batroun.
The Sunday lunches are held in a different location each season, typically in a rural area. Guests are greeted with a traditional pitcher of water, a pitcher of arak and fresh fruit juice, depending on what’s in season. Unlike the stuffier atmosphere of the traditional Sunday lunch spots, the lunch area was set around an old house decorated with low tables and colorful cushions overlooking the mountains. People also have the option to BYOB, a concept nearly unheard of in Lebanon.
“We have often been camping in what we call ‘our’ mountain throughout the summer, pushing our creativity with limited ingredients to cook our meals,” said Assaad, the main chef of the project. “So we frequently received messages asking, ‘Where is that place that looks like heaven?’ We got a call from Bruno, who suddenly had this inspiration to have a small ‘rural picnic’ open to others. So we mounted this venture in less than a week! We started with a serving capacity of 35 people max, but couldn’t refuse 55! We were really happy with the success.”
The attendees are an eclectic mix of young professionals, couples and families sharing the space and playing card and board games to pass the time. Salads and mezes like stuffed grape leaves, labneh (strained yogurt) with cherry tomatoes and kibbeh are put out for guests to enjoy. Then a main dish is served. We were lucky enough to come when they made delicious chicken with freekeh (cracked green wheat), which was cooked in a large pot over a fire.
“Everything is brought locally from the village,” Assaad said. “People who work with us live permanently up there and harvest their own land.” Dessert was not the typical Levantine sweets but the sort one would find at Grandma’s house, such as biscuits with Turkish delight, pomegranate syrup with tahini, brownies and sfouf (an almond and semolina cake). Guests could also skip dessert and opt instead to pick apples from the nearby orchards.
In keeping with Lebanon’s recent environmental activism due to a prolonged garbage crisis, guests must sort their trash, and recycling bins are placed at the entrance. To support the rural community, local products are for sale. “We aim to develop what we love and to communicate our love for the Lebanese countryside and simple food,” said Assaad. “We started by focusing on encouraging local produce and contributing therefore to rural development. We hope it can modestly contribute into stirring some animation into this area, long emptied by its inhabitants due to the exodus to the cities.” The series will be back for a winter edition – possibly an olive-themed picnic.
(top photo by Hisham Assaad, above photos by Paul Gadalla)