Lunch in the mountains

Lunch in the mountains

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
10 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667661
Photographer
Matt Harvey

The morning dawned wet and chilly after a night spent listening to the wind howling in the palm trees and the rain lashing against the windows.

Amal’s cousin Véronique had invited us to share a traditional Lebanese meal with her family at their home in Zghorta, a small village in the mountains near Tripoli. Most Arab women pay great attention to their personal appearance and Véronique was no exception – she arrived on our doorstep immaculately dressed and coiffured. Like so many middle-class Lebanese, Véronique spoke fluent French. ‘Allons-y!’ she said, click-clacking her way across the tiles to her waiting car outside.

We were soon hurtling through the downpour at a terrifying speed. Byblos flashed by and soon we were passing the industrial outskirts of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. The streets were awash and as we climbed a hill past the citadel and Sunday market, water sluiced down around us, carrying all manner of debris in its wake.

Our hosts’ house was quite a surprise. Given the rural setting we had been expecting something old and traditional, but John and Marie Hammod lived in a large, spacious modern house that John had built himself. We were ushered into the formal salon to meet the rest of the family and after the usual round of handshaking, hugging and kissing, we were seated and offered warming cups of Arabic coffee and Marie’s home-made biscuits.

Most Lebanese families have an exquisitely decorated formal room where they entertain. The Hammod’s salon was large and airy, furnished with brocade-covered sofas and tiny gilt tables.

Early into our conversation we discovered that John was in the middle of making orange-blossom water in his garden shed, and during a lull in the rain he took us out for a look. He had retired and now devoted most of his time to his beautifully ordered walled garden, growing silverbeet, cos lettuces, broad beans, green beans, radishes, tomatoes, mint and parsley. Against the wall were two large loquats and a pomegranate tree, and the footpath was lined with gardenias. Even in the wet, the fragrant perfume of orange blossoms filled the air. John had two orange trees himself, but they were insufficient to provide the thirty kilos of flowers he required every year for making orange-blossom water for his entire family.

While we were admiring his home-made still, and the pale lime-coloured orangeblossom water it produced, Véronique popped her head around the door of the shed and told us that Marie and her sister-in-law Dalal were about to start making kibbeh shaham.

This was what we had come for. Kibbeh may be the Lebanese national dish, but it comes in a variety of forms. At its simplest, kibbeh is a mixture of finely minced lamb and onion, burghul and spices. It can be layered in an oven tray and baked, or moulded into different shapes and fried. Kibbeh shaham are the speciality of Zghorta and are found nowhere else in Lebanon. They are larger than the more familiar torpedo-shaped kibbeh – more like an oversized lemon – and they are grilled on a barbecue, which gives them a unique flavour. The other key ingredient is the stuffing of finely chopped aliya – the tail fat from a particular breed of sheep that is found all over the Middle East.

John Hammod had purchased the lamb that morning, only moments after its demise. ‘Zghortans like their meat fresh,’ he told us, smiling broadly. Two days of ageing is apparently the most any housewife will tolerate.

Marie had already prepared the meat paste, pounding it with spices, onion and burghul in her large, traditional wooden mortar. We all crammed into the kitchen to watch the two old ladies carefully shape the hollow patties and fill them with pieces of hard white fat. The shell seemed impossibly thin and Dalal passed us one to look at.

‘Mine are better than Marie’s,’ she said with a cheeky smile. We held the kibbeh in our hands. It was light and with a gentle shake we could feel the pieces of fat move inside it.

As we watched the slow, measured ritual, the muezzin at the neighbouring mosque started up, and so did the rain. Far from daunted, John’s son Naim disappeared outside to tend to the charcoal burner, and a little while later we were seated around a table spread with an impossible amount of food. There were mounds of cucumbers, radishes and cos lettuce leaves, cut that morning from John’s garden; hummus and its variation with pine nuts and cumin, balila; there was tabbouleh, eggplant dip and pickled turnips; stacks of warm Arabic bread and a tangy salad made from wild za’atar. There was also a disconcertingly large bottle of Scotch whisky on the table and a jug of John’s home-made arak (60 per cent proof, he told us proudly).

We’d been peering through the window watching Naim carefully turning the kibbeh shaham on the barbecue, and now they appeared in front of us, together with huge platters of chicken and lamb brochettes. ‘Yallah! You must eat! You must drink!’ John urged us from his seat at the head of the table. Somewhat gingerly, I broke open a hot kibbeh patty and the melted fat dripped onto my plate. I could feel my arteries narrowing at the sight, but popped a piece in my mouth. It was chewier than I’d anticipated, but the fat did make it tasty and moist.

By now the whisky had worked its magic and we no longer cared about the pouring rain or the thought of the long drive back to our apartment. The toasts were coming fast and furious: ‘To friendship! To family! To Australia! To Lebanon!’

Recipes in this Chapter

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