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The Marzipan Trail

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

by Jehad Al-Omari

Mt Hermon seen from the village of Muhaidtha, Lebanon

A few days ago, I was invited to a Ramadan Sohoor gathering by one of my vendors along with almost one hundred other guests. As is probably known to most readers, Ramadan is the month of fasting for all Muslims around the world where those who are healthy and capable enough will fast from dawn to dusk. The breaking of the fast is called Futoor and the meal before starting the fast again is called Sohoor, which usually happens around 3-4 o’clock in the morning. But in the modern, commercial world, the Sohoor is conventionally held in hotels or restaurants and in our case it started at 9.30 in the evening and lasted for 3 hours approximately, with people munching on a multiplicity of Ramadan snacks, sweet-meats and drinks, including liquorices, tamarind juice and apricot juice. As a gift from our hosts, we were given a box of hand-made marzipan from Beirut, which is where our hosts come from.

The sight of the marzipan took me back almost fifty years when I was a child growing up between Jordan and Abu Dhabi. We would take our holidays in Lebanon before the Civil War which started in 1975 and raged on till 1990. In the golden days of Lebanon before 1975, the country was known as the Switzerland of the Arab World and not arbitrarily. For a starter, nature has endowed Lebanon with beauty and stunning natural scenes whether you are visiting its mountains, its coast and beaches, or its valleys. It is probably the only Arab country that has no desert and one of the few that are self-sufficient in water. Moreover, and not unlike Switzerland, Lebanon abounds with “minorities”. It is what one writer called “a mosaic of interrelated cultures”; so it is not a homogeneous country made up of a predominant people following one religion. All of these factors were fuel for the civil war from which Lebanon has not yet fully recovered.

Prior to 1975 and as a family we used to travel from the north of Jordan to Lebanon to spend part of our summer holidays in Beirut and the scenic mountain villages on the route and around the city. On our way we would sometimes stop in Damascus and its beautiful restaurants in the Rabwah district, surrounded by springs, waterfalls and tiny rivulets. Despite the hot weather the water would be so cold that we would buy watermelons, grapes and pears which we would put in a straw basket inside the water to cool while we ordered our lunch and consumed it in the shaded areas of the restaurants. From there we would either overnight in Damascus or drive straight to Lebanon.

Not long after crossing the Syrian Lebanese border, we would come to the town of Chtoura which is high in the Lebanese mountains. Depending on the time of day we might stop at a restaurant/coffee shop which belonged to a famous Syrian Lebanese film star and belly dancer from the 30s and 40s. After this we would drive to Beirut, marvelling at the number of palaces and sumptuous villas along the way, mostly built and owned by Gulf princes from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. On arriving in Beirut, we would normally stay at furnished apartments at the fashionable Al-Hamrah area of downtown Beirut, not far from the promenade and its profusion of restaurants and cafes. From there we would enjoy frequent trips to adjacent resorts and rustic villages, but our favourite was the town of Bikfaya which is famous for two things: firstly for its ice-cold water springs, and secondly for being the home town of Pierre Al-Gemayel, the founder of the Phalangist Party which played such a decisive role in the Lebanese Civil War.

Once our holiday in Lebanon was over, we would drive back to Jordan with our compulsory stop in Chtoura. There we would supplement our shopping with Lebanon’s famous juicy apples and pears (the best I have ever tasted), the town’s renowned dairy products, and its cherished marzipans, most of which would end up as presents to beloved friends and relatives in Jordan.

Today, on the drive from the Syrian border into Lebanon you still see the villas and palaces; but they are mostly deserted and have lost all their glory and splendour. It is a sad scene when you eventually arrive in Beirut. She has lost much of her beauty amongst the overcrowded buildings and traffic. However, like the Phoenix, the Lebanese are trying to rise again, despite all the odds against them. They are famed throughout the Arab World for their resilience, ingenuity and entrepreneurship, with a history of trade that dates back four thousand years to the Phoenicians. who conquered the Mediterranean as traders and civilization builders. Hence I was so grateful to receive that gift of marzipan from my Lebanese host - a reminder of Lebanon and its famous cuisine.

It may be that marzipan is now well-known across Europe, especially in Portugal, Germany, Italy and Spain but to me it is quintessentially a Middle Eastern invention, and that includes Iran. For a starter, the almond tree is not only a Mediterranean tree, but it is native to the eastern Mediterranean - the Levant - and also native to Iran. So, it is inconceivable that this magical mix of almond, sugar and lemon rose water was not invented by the Phoenicians or the ancient Persians. The etymology of the Latinized word marzipan suggests many possible roots, all of which go through the Mediterranean one way or another, with more than one explanation as to Arab or Persian roots. In the Arab world today we tend to use the Latinized word marzipan although there is an Arab word for it: lawzina which comes from the Arabic word lawz, meaning almonds.

Here in Jordan with its slightly warmer weather, especially in the Jordan valley, we are now at the start of the almonds season. These are green almonds. They are slightly sour and very crunchy; whereas some people will eat them on their own, others will dip them in salt which brings out the flavour much more sharply. In my village and adjacent ones, it is customary that owners of almond groves will be very forgiving towards strangers who pick small amounts of almonds for personal consumption and not to sell. The owners consider it as a type of Sadaqah or charity. One of my cousins who owns such an almond grove will barely harvest a few kilos of almonds every year with all the strangers picking them. Usually there are no hard feelings.

Within the region, Iran is the biggest producer of almonds, followed by Morocco, Algeria, Syria and Tunisia. But in terms of per capita production Lebanon comes after the USA and Tunisia, which explains why marzipan is such a Lebanese delicacy and speciality. Whilst marzipan in Europe is predominantly made from bitter almonds, the original Lebanese marzipan is made from sweet almonds which to my mind give it a more acceptable taste. Like the Levant, north African Arabs use almonds extensively but not to make marzipans but rather as an essential ingredient of many sweets. Apart from eating it roasted, many Arabs will fry it in oil and use it as a garnish for many dishes along with fried pine kernels.

Besides the nutritional ingredients of almonds (fat, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals), folk culture has it that almonds are aphrodisiacs and regard eating too much as dangerous, especially for unmarried young men. It is also believed that almonds are good for combating heartburn and finally that almond oil is good for hair growth and texture. On that point I once asked a scientist in a multinational company whose speciality was shampoos and detergents if there was any truth in the notion that almond oil is good for the hair, especially since his company manufactures shampoos for the Arab region using almond oil. His answer was that they do so as a marketing ploy. His company adapts its shampoos to whatever ingredients in the local folk culture are regarded as good for hair: e.g. almond oil for Arabs and coconut oil for those living in India and East Asia.

To return to marzipan and my Lebanese hosts. When I told them how their gift triggered an awakening of my childhood memories, they not only doubled the gifts but promised a regular supply of marzipan from now on. They also invited me to visit their villages in Lebanon. The village I am most looking forward to seeing is Muhaidtha, not far from the scenically-famous, 1200-metre high Mount Hermon. For those interested in Middle Eastern mythology, Mount Hermon is where the Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh travelled to seek the ‘Elixir of Life’ amongst the cedars of Lebanon. Chtoura, which I mentioned earlier, is a derivative of the name of the mythological Goddess Ishtar or Inanna, the Goddess of beauty, love and fertility in Mesopotamian mythology. She is the same as Aphrodite in Greek mythology from whose name the word ‘aphrodisiac’ is derived. One day, I hope to travel again by road to Lebanon via Syria and revisit these scenic villages, reignite my photographic skills, and write all about it in a future article.



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