Recently, I made a spontaneous decision to travel to Lebanon, which turned out to be a revelation in cheesemaking. This was prompted by my partner, who was attending a last-minute wine trip in the country during a week we were planning to spend together.
After he asked me what I thought about joining him on an excursion to this Middle Eastern country, it took just a split second of consideration before I booked my flights. Prior to leaving, however, I began my research and discovered that Lebanon was richer in its food and wine culture than I could ever imagine. Of course, being a cheese professional, my vested interest was in this region’s cheese scene.
I quickly discovered that, although cheese in Lebanon is not as varied as it is in Europe, its production levels are more sophisticated than I anticipated for a country that is not so well known for its dairy industry. Having said this, the more I researched the cuisine, the more I realized how big a part it plays in Lebanese culture.
Still, there are only a few distinct styles, mainly fresh and white. And there are differences in consumption. Unlike the European varieties, Lebanese cheeses are mainly eaten at breakfast, as a snack or as an accompaniment, with the after-dinner appearance being the least common. The styles, the time of day cheese is eaten, not to mention the country’s extreme heat, provide a decent explanation of the cheese recipes’ simplicity.
A Variety of Styles
There are quite a few cheese varieties of Middle Eastern origin that are notable, although it can get confusing given the various spellings of the names. Ackawi, also spelled Akkawi, Akawi or Akawieh, is a soft, white cow’s milk cheese found primarily in Lebanon and Syria. Its name is derived from the Aker region of Palestine, where it first originated. Another type, Akka, also spelled Acre, originates from a historical Middle Eastern region of the same name. Traditionally this cheese is sold in brine, giving it a super salty taste. However, modern storage methods have allowed the variety to be sold fresher with more moderate salting.
Nabulsi, also spelled Naboulsi, is similar to Halloumi and made by boiling fresh Ackawi cheese in a mixture of spices and seeds. Stored in a brine to prolong shelf life, Nabulsi can be eaten as is, grilled, fried or used as an integral ingredient to the most delicious Levantine dessert, Knafeh, a cheese pastry soaked in a sugar-based syrup.
Though there are several other large Lebanese-based dairies producing these cheese styles, my goal was to visit the lesser-known, small-scale cheesemakers. I began my journey at the Food Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization with a mission toward ‘the conservation of Lebanon’s collective memory and indigenous knowledge through the preservation, documentation and revival of Lebanon’s traditional food heritage.’ I was put in touch with Petra Chedid, the trail coordinator for food visits in the West Bekaa who organizes a food trail called ‘Darb el Karam,’ a beautiful title that translates to ‘The Trail of Generosity.’ She described the network that “aims to highlight the seasonality and locality of foods, the traditional processing methods and the generosity of the hosts.” After my trip, I couldn’t agree more.
I was soon off on my eye-opening journey. We were picked up in Beirut and driven to a village called Saghbine in the West Bekaa. Here, we were greeted by Chedid and her family. She had arranged a jam-packed itinerary for the day, including visits to three cheese producers as well as some other fun treats.
Simplicity At Its Best
Our first stop was visiting Grace and Amal Ghrayeb, a mother daughter duo, at their dairy Amal Ghrayeb.
It was simplicity at its finest, as the production facility was their kitchen, which contained just a vat and some heating equipment. This does not present much of a problem, since the recipes are simple, as is the cheese and its purpose. The Ghrayeb’s make both goat’s and cow’s milk cheeses, alternating days in which each type is made. Production is daily. Though they do not have their own animals, the pair works closely with area farmers, who also provide milk to a couple other cheesemakers in the village. Just 50 liters of milk per day, which is received in the morning, is used for production. And the cheeses are produced almost year-round, with the exception of November. Yet, the best flavors can be had from March through June, in line with the calving and kidding season.
We were leisurely drinking our coffee when we were urgently called by the Ghrayebs and told to get a move on; they were about to begin the cheese-making process. We arrived just as they were starting production of Baladi, a name that translates as ‘village’ or ‘country’ cheese. This is most often eaten at breakfast with warm Saj bread, in sandwiches for a snack and as a table cheese after a main meal. The dairy makes both raw milk and pasteurized cheeses, and a pasteurized cow’s milk recipe was being produced on the day we visited. In fact, rennet had already been added to the milk and left for one hour. The curd was then checked post renneting by means of a large kitchen knife. There was not a clean split, so we were shunted off into another room to have a mid-morning snack whilst waiting for the rennet to complete its work.
A quick aside — do not visit Lebanon if you are on a diet, as you will be forced to put this by the wayside. The people of Lebanon are generous and the food is so delicious and plentiful that you’ll end up eating approximately 87 times a day, at least that’s what it feels like.
While waiting, our mid-morning snack came out of a draining muslin cloth, the most delicious goat curd spread onto Saj bread, drizzled with olive oil and wrapped like a humongous crepe. We had already eaten a substantial breakfast at the hotel, enjoyed treats from Chedid and her family during our visit earlier and were feeling very well fed and fueled for the long day ahead.
We finally returned to the kitchen when it was time to whey off. This was accomplished using plastic washing-up bowls, much the same as many English cheese producers use. Once the cheese had been partially wheyed off, the vat was moved closer to the work surfaces, where molds were filled by hand and stacked up on nearby trays to allow for further drainage.
The Ghrayeb’s cheeses are mostly sold locally throughout neighboring villages and kept in a brine solution for a week before sale. However, some go to market in Beirut and are interestingly left unsalted, as these city customers prefer a fresher, less salty style.
Grace then showed us around the refrigerators, where we could see the different cheese styles. These included types made specifically for winter, the recipe differing only in higher salt levels for those being kept longer and throughout the cooler months. Ackawi is also made here as well as a cottage cheese created from excess whey. The latter is not sold, but instead simply enjoyed by the cheesemakers for breakfast with honey.
Our visit was as short and sweet as the cheesemaking process. The benefit to making fresh-style cheeses is the production time; it only takes a couple of hours and then the entire day is theirs to enjoy.
On our way out, I noticed a basket with a grain-like substance drying in the sun. I was told this was Keshk being processed in one of its many guises. Chedid told me to keep that thought, as she had something to show me a little later.
En route to our second cheesemaker, we drove down a road at Markouk-making time. Markouk, also known as Saj bread after the dome on which it is baked, is a Lebanese flatbread. It is prepared similar to pizza dough, getting tossed, turned and stretched before it’s placed onto a large round pillow. This then lifts and plunges the dough onto an incredibly hot surface, where it is cooked within seconds. In this country, Saj bread is present at every meal, and is a wonderfully neutral vehicle that brings out the flavors of Lebanon’s soft, fresh cheeses.
A Handmade Tale
We arrived at our second cheesemaker’s house, the residence of Sonia Abou Maroun, in time to collect her husband Boutros to walk with his herd in the hills. He is a descendant of an old family of shepherds and has herded goats his entire life. Intimately familiar with the hillsides, Boutros can determine the boundaries of a shepherd’s land simply by looking at small, insignificant-looking rocks on the path. He could tell you every rock formation, herb and plant between Kherbet Qanafar and Aitanit. I truly wish I could have spent more time with him.
Sonia makes simple, fresh goat cheese using her goats’ milk, along with labneh, strained yogurt, which is present at almost every Lebanese meal. Her kitchen was her make room, absent of modifications and a vat. Here, the production tools were simple, just saucepans, hobs and Sonia’s hands. Unlike the Ghrayeb’s cheeses, molds were not part of the process.
When the curd was ready, it was simply scooped out by hand, then formed and pressed gently to expel the whey. It was incredible to watch; so simple, yet so beautiful. Sonia did everything by touch and sight, feeling exactly when enough whey had been expelled from her individual creations. The cheese was then placed straight onto a metal tray to continue draining. For her last few cheeses, Sonia mixed in a substance from her cupboard, which she allowed us to taste. We discovered this was the black caraway seeds to which she’ll occasionally add wild thyme. Once molded into rounds, the cheeses were placed on their sides and rotated at 90-degree increments to make squares. Similar to the last dairy, Sonia processes cheeses for winter in a slightly different way using a brine solution, whereas the others are all salted in a method I have never seen before.
Once molded, she took a small bowl of salt and, using a teaspoon, placed a mound onto the cheese surface and proceeded to poke a hole into the middle to push the salt in. I asked her why she did this, and she didn’t have a technical answer, just simply that this is the way it’s done.
The third cheese producers, Antoinette Zeidan and Marie Chedid of Elias Zeidan, live just around the corner from Petra Chedid and receive the evening milk from the same farmer as the Ghrayeb’s. The milk was being delivered in churns just as we were about to leave the Bekaa. Fortunately, we managed to get a quick glimpse of their facilities, which were much more high tech, larger than the previous dairies and had a make room reserved specifically for cheese. Elias Zeidan processes between 300 and 400 liters of milk, compared to the 50 liters at the first dairy and even less at the second; most of its cheeses get sold in Beirut.
As we were leaving, Petra Chedid gave me some of her Keshk cheese, preserved in olive oil and made by souring yogurt or milk and letting it dry. This was the aforementioned basket left drying outside the first dairy. The dried cheese can be hydrated and eaten like a soup, which is a staple dish in the Lebanese mountains during winter. The preserved form, which she had made, undergoes a different process that combines goat labneh, yogurt and bulgur. The bulgur and yogurt are mixed and left for one day; the labneh is added on the second day; and this mixture is kept for eight days to mature. During this period, the blend is mixed twice daily and on the ninth day, it is rolled into balls to be preserved in oil. This is used as an aperitif or served with Saj bread.
It was great to see the tradition of making cheese at home so prevalent in Lebanon, something that has died down in other cultures where the cheese industry is more prominent.
Lebanese food is simple and fresh with uncomplicated recipes. The cuisine manages to promote each ingredient within a dish in a natural, unforced way. Its foods do not incorporate too many elements, which means you can taste the products for what they truly are. This also comes through in the cheesemaking, which is simple, yet extremely effective. In fact, you can even taste the milk, and the flavors of the cheeses do not overpower anything else you may be eating.
Check out www.food-heritage.org to read more about food in Lebanon as well as plan a visit if you are thinking of traveling to this country of bountiful treasures.