Chef Clodagh McKenna's recommendations for how to eat, drink, and dance your way through Lebanon.
Clodagh McKenna is the author of five best-selling cookbooks. She has two restaurants in Dublin and creates the menu with Aer Lingus onboard European and Transatlantic flights. Clodagh’s TV series 'Clodagh's Irish Food Trails' airs on PBS.
The London food scene is currently enjoying a love affair with Levantine Cuisine. I moved to London recently, and more often than not when I’m asked out it will be to a Lebanese restaurant; or if I stop off for street food at the market, the longest queues will be at the Lebanese sausage or Afranji hotdog stall, served in flatbread with parsley salad and yogurt with Za’atar. So, when my friend asked me to accompany him on a trip to Lebanon to visit the Massaya Winery, I was excited; food is always at its best eaten as close as possible to where it is produced—and the Lebanese have been making wine since biblical times. But I was also a little nervous; Lebanon is bordered in the North and East by Syria and in the South by Israel. It is one of those countries where you are advised to check the government website before travelling. But curiosity got the better of me and we boarded a plane for Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon and the Pearl of the Middle East.
Where to Eat
On arrival we headed to Bread Republic, run and owned by Walid Ataya. It’s a cave-style bar/restaurant with a bakery attached. Keen to get into the Lebanese food culture, we selected a variety of small plates from the menu. My favorite was goat tartare; really fresh raw, minced goat’s meat, mixed with onion and lime, mint, chilli and egg yolk. It was a mighty tasty mouthful. Next we ordered goat kidneys roasted in stock and Za’atar, with yogurt. The kidneys had a nutty, earthy taste, offset beautifully by the thyme in the Za’atar. Za’atar, yogurt, goat and mutton feature heavily in Lebanese cooking.
Za’atar is a spice mix made from sesame, sumac, thyme, marjoram, oregano, and sometimes basil or cumin; yogurt, invariably goat yogurt, is used as a sauce, in salads, in puddings, and as a base for soups. The mutton is produced from the Awassi sheep, which store fat in two sacks at their rear, like a large bustle, to use in arid times, much the same as a camel’s hump. One use for the fat is to pour it over the cooked meat in jars with salt. This preserved mutton is called qawrama. I tasted the qawrama in a sourdough calzone at Bread Republic; it was so good! Sweet, tender, and deliciously moist in contrast to the crisp sourdough. Our dishes were perfectly complemented by a Massaya white wine, as crisp and as fresh as an apple. Main Street, Near Cinema Strand, Hamra, Beirut
A wonderful traditional Lebanese fish restaurant located in Jnah on the coastline of Beirut. You’ll feast on daily caught fresh fish such as squid, hamour (a local fish) and sardines, while watching the fishermen cast their nets in the waters in front. They also serve traditional mezze plates. Jounieh Bay, below Casino Du Liban
What to Do
The Music Hall
Beirut has something of a demi-monde nightlife, similar to Berlin, which we were eager to explore. On the advice of fellow diners in Bread Republic, we set off for the famed Music Hall, a theatre with a club vibe. On entrance you are seated in plush red velvet coaches arranged round a low table and all facing the stage; it reminded me of supper clubs in New York, but on a grander scale. Each table has its own waiter, which sounds incredibly formal but really wasn’t. It was friendly and fun and in no time people were up out of the seats and the place was hopping. The acts which changed every fifteen minutes. The locals really know how to party, helped along by very good wines that we drank from bottomless glasses. Starco Center, Omar Daouk Street, Downtown Beirut
Where to Drink
Massaya Winery, Faqra
The main purpose of the visit was to visit the Massaya winery. Massaya is one of the best known wine labels in Lebanon, founded and run by brothers Sami and Ramzi Ghosn. At the age of eight and six the brothers had to flee Lebanon when civil war broke out in 1975. Sami trained as an architect and worked in Paris, New York and L.A. Then, at twenty seven, he learned that his parents were being put under pressure to sell the land in Lebanon. He left the USA, leaving his green card at passport control so that he wouldn’t be tempted to turn back, threw squatters off his parents land, and set about restoring the business. By 1992 he was producing Arak, an aniseed flavoured aperitif produced from the indigenous obeidi grape. It is colourless but turns milky when you add water, like Pernod. When the Arak became commercially successful, Sami started clearing the old vines and planting new ones more suitable for winemaking. He sought advice and investment from French wine producers Dominique Hebrard and the Brunier Family; and with the help of his brother Ramzi, who returned to take over the marketing responsibilities and to oversee the wine production, he started producing the now famous, Massaya wines.
The brothers have two vineyards, one in Bekaa, Northeast Lebanon, and the second in Faqra, high in the Mount Lebanon range. When we arrived at Faqra, just one hour from Beirut, it was under a blanket of snow. It is said the crisp, freshness of the Massaya white wine owes its flavor to the chilled climate in which the grapes are grown. The Massaya Blanc is a blend of obeidi (an indigenous grape to the Bekaa Valley) and clairette, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. The taste is lithe, yet supple, un-oaked with notes of spiced pear and white flowers on the nose and palate. It works incredibly well with the rich dishes served in the winery’s two restaurants. Both restaurants have open, wood-burning ovens and offer a full tasting of all their delicious wines. There are extensive cellars carved into the mountain rock at the Faqra Winery where thousands of bottles of vintage Massaya red wines are stored and left to mature. President Lahoud Roundabout, Kfardebian
Massaya Winery, Bekaa
The following day we took a day trip to the other Massaya vineyard at Bekaa, which is the brother’s original family home, and where Sami first produced the Arak. Arak is an artisan Pernod, with aniseed flavor and freshness that cleans the palate, a delicious aperitif. It was really interesting and impressive to see how they made their Arak; distilled three times then poured into traditional Moorish lid copper stills, where it is heated by gentle fires of vine wood. As the vapors rise they are carried through copper pipes into the cooling device where the alcohol condenses. This is followed by a third distillation of 24 hours that gives the Arak its purity and distinction. The Ghosn brothers combine the third distillation with the maceration of the best green organic aniseed from the village of Hineh on the Syrian slopes of Mount Hermon; then the Arak aged in traditional clay vats. The brothers also produce their famous red wines here, Terrasses De Baalbeck (mulberry and subtle oak, the palate is spicy with layers of richly textured red berry fruits), Cap Est (a lighter red, pale ruby in colour, with subtle blends violets and very ripe red berry fruits) and Le Colombier (a very fresh red, thirst-quenching with hints of spice and pepper). Tanail Property, Tanail, Beqaa Valley
Where to Stay
We stayed in the Terre Brune Hotel, which is just 5 minutes’ walk from the Massaya winery in Faqra. The rooms are very spacious and all of them have a terrace with a view. My only gripe was that the beds were a bit hard, but after all the wine tastings, I slept pretty well! They have a large spa and a terrace pool that is perched overlooking the valley; it is with regret that I didn’t get to try out either. For breakfast they served traditional Lebanese breads, labneh, cheeses and crudité vegetables. Oh, and the Lebanese coffee! If you like it strong and the taste of cardamom, you’ll love this. I have started serving it at home after dinner parties. Terrebrune Hotel, Faqra-Kfardebian
El Mer, Okaibe
On the last day of our trip we left Mount Lebanon to avoid being snowed in, and headed along the coast to Byblos, an ancient city with a beautiful fishing port, and which is famous for its restaurants and open air bars. Probably the best known restaurant is Byblos Fishing Club, which overlooks the water and which I’ve heard serves delicious fresh fish. It was a favorite destination of famous guests like Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando.
But we wanted a more ‘local’ experience, so we headed south along the coast toward Beirut. From the car, my friend spotted a fish shop in the fishing town of Okaibe, which had a pile of ‘safad’ (wild scallops) piled up outside.
We ate them sliced and raw and with our appetites well and truly whetted we accepted an invitation to eat in the tiny restaurant adjoining the shop. We selected an assortment of locally caught fresh fish, and while they were cooking we feasted on hummus, baba ghanoush, steamed whole artichoke, tabouleh (without any Bulgar wheat), and Lebanese flatbreads. We toasted our good fortune in finding this restaurant with Arak from Massaya Winery. Next, along came our fish, boiled sweet little crabs, fried Firan (small red fish), steamed Hafash (similar to a seabass), and grilled squid in its own ink.
This was one of the best food experiences I had in Lebanon; the fish was spankingly fresh and everything was so simply but perfectly cooked. The small restaurant was packed with locals, which is always a good sign and made the experience feel all the more authentic. This is the place I would come back to if I visited Lebanon again. El Mer, Okaibe, next to the fishmonger.
I felt a real affinity with Lebanon. Like Ireland, it has been occupied by other nations, first by the Turks then the French, but it has kept its own identity and its own cuisine. The food is locally produced and there is an emphasis on using fresh ingredients and cooking simple dishes from scratch. When I think of Lebanese food, the flavors of Za’atar and the lemony taste of sumac will always come to mind; but the main ingredient in every meal we ate was hospitality. I will leave the last word to Sami Ghosn from Massaya wines, "A glass of wine from Lebanon is more than an alcoholic beverage. It is a message of civilization, tolerance, and identity."