In Beirut, a feast de resistance
MONDAY night, 9 p.m.
The darkened streets were eerily empty.
At Bread, there were five people at a window table and a couple at the bar.
“It looks promising,” said Nemr Abboud, co-owner of the restaurant. “Yesterday, we had zero. Today for lunch, zero.”
Half an hour later, Kamal Mouzawak, a leading proponent of organic farming in Lebanon, and three Italian companions sat down at another window table.
“This is resistance,” Mouzawak said. “Resistance is trying to have a regular life.”
In recent days, there has been little regular life in Beirut. The army has been fighting an Al Qaeda-linked group in the northern part of the country, and bombs have gone off in the capital and elsewhere. Tourism has ground to a halt, and the normally hedonistic Lebanese have been staying at home.
In a sort of mutiny of the bounty, a small cadre of gourmets and bons vivants has defiantly kept restaurants and produce markets open. They have pulled off a bread festival and held several dinners for visiting Italians with the Slow Food movement, which encourages biodiversity and saving traditional foods around the world.
“Food is important, but more so is going out,” Abboud said. “It’s an act of defiance.”
On this night, Bread’s chef and co-owner, Walid Ataya, was serving everything on the menu. For starters: raw artichokes and arugula, peppery merguez sausages, warm octopus salad and tartare de sardine -- raw sardines in a brine of ginger and cilantro. Among the main courses, the grilled swordfish steak covered with capers, anchovies and bread crumbs drew special praise from the Italian guests, as did the seafood with frikeh, or green wheat.
The chef and his diners at the small table overflowing with food weaved a conversation in French, English, Arabic and Italian as they sampled Lebanese wines from the Bekaa Valley.
The dessert was Ataya’s piece de resistance: a classic apple pie, a perfection of buttery dough, sweet and juicy slices of fruit and a touch of cinnamon.
This was not a night to watch the carbs.
“Tutto e molto buono,” said Luca Fabbri, a Slow Food representative, blowing the chef a verbal kiss.
ATAYA, a former architect and self-taught chef, uses only organic and local ingredients, taking his inspiration from such chefs as Nancy Silverton and Paul Prudhomme.
On his menu, which changes daily, he has written: “Local fish only. We are proud of our fishermen.”
The small restaurant, which has a curved whitewashed ceiling and chunky wood furniture, resembles a Roman trattoria. Like Silverton, co-founder of Campanile and La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, Ataya also sells bread from his bakery, the Bread Republic.
He and Abboud are part of a group of Lebanese culinary celebrities that also includes Mouzawak; agriculture activist Rami Zurayk; and Johnny Farah, owner of the famous Casablanca restaurant and the godfather of organic cuisine in Beirut.
A few years ago, Ataya decided to expand Bread Republic. Abboud, also an architect, quit his practice to join the restaurant. Farah, who also owns several fashion stores here and abroad, threw his weight behind the venture, and the trio opened for business at Christmas 2004.
Two months later, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a massive bombing a few miles from the restaurant in Gemayzeh, a trendy neighborhood where decaying Ottoman buildings house hole-in-the wall eateries and bars. Unrest followed, with more assassinations and sectarian tensions. Last summer, Israel shelled Lebanese cities during a 34-day war with the militant Shiite group Hezbollah.
Bread stayed open throughout -- the only restaurant in the area that did.
“It’s like someone hits you in the head and you fall down,” Abboud said. “Then you have two months of good work and everyone regains hope. It’s a cycle.”
Restaurateurs and residents alike say that this latest wave of bombings in the capital, which have killed one and injured dozens in various districts, has had a more chilling effect on Beirut’s nightlife than Israel’s artillery assault, which is believed to have killed more than 1,000 people across the country.
“We’ve never had four months of good work in a row,” Abboud said. “I take it day by day. We hope for the best, but we have no expectations.”
The previous day, Mouzawak had arranged a bread festival in the cobblestoned heart of Byblos, an ancient city north of Beirut. Two U.S. travel writers had flown in to judge a competition among Lebanese bakers.
This small country on the eastern Mediterranean has a mild climate, and producers grow many of the same fruits and vegetables as farmers in California. As in the Napa Valley, a multitude of vineyards dot the Bekaa Valley, which borders Syria.
These Lebanese producers and their stalls of organic breads, cakes, pickled vegetables and jams of every kind wouldn’t have looked out of place at the Santa Monica farmers market, except for the veiled Shiite women who won first prize for their cracker-like bread, baked from an ancient recipe.
The wafers made of wheat, bulgur, sesame seeds, wild pistachios and olive oil keep for months, making them a practical provision for those traveling to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the hajj. One of the bakers told Mouzawak that Lebanese in the south subsisted on the bread during the war last year.
“It’s good for pilgrimage and war,” he said jokingly.
ON this Sunday, some producers stayed home, fearful of the new tensions in the country. Those who turned up vied in three categories: innovation and sweet and salty traditions.
“It’s a political statement more than just a competition,” Mouzawak said.
Mouzawak is a co-founder of Souk el Tayeb, an organic cooperative that spans the country’s regions, religions and sects. Every week at the farmers market in downtown Beirut, Shiite women from the south sell baked goods and laurel soaps next to Sunni farmers hawking tomatoes and cucumbers from the north. Souk el Tayeb’s first brochure resembled a Lebanese passport, its theme, “United Farmers of Lebanon,” printed on the inside.
“It’s food nationalism -- supporting our land, our products and producers,” said Mouzawak, who opened the co-op’s only store in Byblos three days before the war began last summer.
Both Hezbollah, which is on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups, and the U.S. Agency for International Development provide financial aid for organic farming in southern Lebanon.
Little is known about Hezbollah’s farming program, which is managed by its general reconstruction affiliate, Jihad al Bina, said Zurayk, the agricultural activist, who teaches at the American University of Beirut and blogs at landandpeople.blogspot.com.
“Like many other things they do, especially in agriculture, little information actually transpires, and whatever is produced does not find its way into the public market,” he said.
The Souk el Tayeb co-op has stayed politically independent but receives funding from European governments and from nongovernmental groups. The Italian government, for example, earmarked $600,000 for food-related projects in Lebanon after the 2006 war.
“A few years ago, this was just an interest of elite gourmets, but now it is a necessity and a new model for development work,” said Serena Milano, another Slow Food representative. “In a country like Lebanon, which is very small and open to international exchange, it is very important to preserve local traditions. And the farmers market is an important tool.”
The Souk el Tayeb market “gets people together, and it’s not just for the well-to-do people,” said Farah, who began introducing organic produce at his Casablanca restaurant six years ago. He ascribes the high quality of Lebanese food to the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. Trapped in their homes and in need of comfort, people turned to traditional recipes and locally grown produce, he said.
After the bread festival, Mouzawak invited a large group of American and Beiruti foodies to his villa in the village of Batroun near Byblos. Guests had to travel through several army checkpoints set up along the scenic coastal road in response to the latest fighting.
Children and adults ate stuffed mice -- a local fish -- and mekanek sausages as well as hummus and grilled vegetables. Ataya had brought his famous apple pie and a tangy cranberry one.
“This is a Fatah al Islam calamari,” said Mouzawak, grinning, as he compared a large, stuffed octopus to the militants fighting in the north.
The comparison put no one off.
All ate with gusto.