Sipping a cool drink as waves lapped the beach nearby, I breathed a sigh of pure contentment. It was that feeling you experience on day three of a holiday, the moment you finally click into relaxation mode and the stresses of real life gently fade, replaced by new conundrums – like what restaurant to choose for dinner, or whether to go to the beach or pool today.
Luckily, all I had to do was sit back and soak up the beautiful glowing, orangey haze of the sunset while freshly caught fish sizzled on a grill nearby. I was on the idyllic coastline of Batroun, north Lebanon (about 50km from Beirut) at Chez Maggie’s seafood restaurant – the area’s best-kept secret (until now, at least).
You feel instantly at home at Maggie’s, mainly because it is her home. Not wanting to keep the beautiful scenery and sunsets to herself, Maggie moved in and shoved two extra tables into her living room, found some chairs and opened the doors out on to her balcony. Then, as now, there was no menu and the food varied, depending on what the smiley host had pulled out of the sea that day.
Over time more tables have spread to the balcony, with another squeezed inside. I imagine every visit to Maggie’s is like one big family get-together where there are never enough chairs, but everyone is welcome.
This was just one of the gems I was introduced to on the Taste Lebanon tour. Now, to me the word ‘tour’ isn’t conducive to a happy holiday: Coach-loads of grumpy, silver-haired tourists, long stuffy journeys and mumbling guides. Not very appealing. But with Taste Lebanon I took a leap of faith. Why? Well the chance to eat your way around Lebanon doesn’t come around often does it? And I had read a review on the company’s website that reeled me in: “It doesn’t feel like a tour, more like a holiday with a friend who knows the area very well.” I was sold.
And so my new friend for the week (and as it turns out, beyond) was Bethany Kehdy, a 32-year-old Lebanese-American food blogger and author of bestselling cookbook The Jewelled Kitchen. And a former Miss Lebanon, to boot – although she’ll kill me for saying that.
Bethany runs the seven-day tour (along with private bespoke tours, weekend escapes and the day-long Beirut Bites) with her younger sister Joslin, and their warmth and passion for food is infectious.
On arriving at Beirut airport I failed to see our driver Ahmad holding up what I have been told was a huge sign with my name on it, and instead I hopped in a cab to our hotel – The Four Seasons. I walked into the lobby to find Bethany pulling her hair out, “Judy we were worried sick!” she cried. I realised what a mistake I’d made. After all, this was Beirut, not a coach tour around Spain. But I was taken aback by Bethany’s genuine concern, and that personal touch never wavered.
I realised early on Bethany’s aim wasn’t to traipse us from one place to the next, clock-watching as we ticked off one tourist sight, then another. When she spoke about produce, ingredients and local cooking techniques the words bounced from her mouth with sincere enthusiasm and understanding. She wanted us to see, feel and taste the country she loves.
The tour, which launched in 2011, is designed for people who love and appreciate Lebanese food. But it’s also for those who want to learn more about the cuisine and culture through a truly authentic and intimate Middle Eastern experience.
“Our focus is to enrich each of our guests with unique experiences they wouldn’t gain travelling on their own,” Bethany says. “We provide rare opportunities to meet locals across the country, in their homes or on their farms, so our guests can learn the authentic cooking techniques and stories behind their specialities in lesser-known locations.”
Bethany is excited to share her secret gems – the places, dishes, restaurants and tips you really can only expect to discover through an old friend who wants to make your trip really special.
It’s the little things really. Bethany might strongly suggest you have extra garlic sauce (then a bit more) on your grilled chicken shawarma at Farouj el Lala in the Achrafieh district of Beirut – close to her old kindergarten and after-school sweet shop – both still open. And she was right to, that sauce is to die for!
Bethany also introduced us to some lifestyle concepts such as ‘Lebanese time’ – a colloquial take on real time, which, coming from the UK, I wasn’t aware of. It’s simple to grasp. On hearing, ‘I’ll be with you in 10 minutes,’ just swap ‘10 minutes’ with ‘an hour’ and you’ll be right on track with the locals. Also, in a city of people used to daily threats of aerial bombardment, simple things like driving safely seem to have gone out of the window. I witnessed a grown man drive a moped against the flow of traffic – like a particularly determined salmon on a cramped dual carriageway. Crossing the road was an experience in itself “Keep eye contact with the driver,” Bethany yelled over the honks.
Talking of transport, keep an eye out for ‘servees’ – these are taxis that work like buses. They are usually battle-scarred (but oh-so-charming) old Mercedes that will honk you down wherever you go. The first passenger dictates the route and they’ll pick up others on the journey heading in the same direction. It means they can charge less (about Dh10) per person within the city limits of Beirut.
One night Bethany took us to her favourite eatery called Seza’s – with its enchantingly shabby-chic retro decor it is set in a flurry of twisting fairy lights in the Mar Mikhael district of the city. An Armenian Bistro at heart, it serves up traditional meze with surprise twists – be it the sauce, spices, the side dishes.
I hit it off straight away with the burly bejewelled chaos of Beirut (we bonded on that first taxi ride I think). The city has the most exquisite restaurants and hotels, and beautiful beaches. But if you’re lucky enough to be invited into anyone’s home in Lebanon, (thanks to Bethany and Joslin, we were) and a bowl of mixed nuts hits the table in front of you – cancel all your dinner plans, you’re part of the family. No, actually cancel your flight home. If you fall for the country, like I did, you won’t want to leave anyway.
“Last time the whole group were trying to transfer their flights to stay longer,” laughed Bethany on day one. At the time I thought that sounded ludicrous. Sure everyone wants to stay on holiday perpetually, but no one ever actually sees it through. Fast-forward five days and I was online frantically shouting at the slow connection while thinking up excuses for how I could stay longer. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. But the trip was so full it would satisfy the hardiest of travellers.
The trip to Zawtar, south Lebanon, to meet Abu Qassam and his adorable wife was another highlight. After taking us for a stroll around their farm, they put on a magnificent al fresco breakfast – delicious foul (a traditional dish made from fava beans, lemon juice, crushed garlic, parsley, olive oil), fresh mint, cucumber, olives and tomatoes, all freshly picked.
A morning stop-off at Furn Al Sabaya, a bakery in Amsheet run by three sisters – Lorenza, Martha and Lucie Zgheib – was brief but unforgettable. We sampled the sisters’ speciality, muwaraka, hot out of the oven – a very thin dough stuffed with chopped walnuts and almonds and sugar, perfumed with orange blossom water. Just delicious!
We darted between traders in the souqs of Baalbeck where the shops and street open out into one bustling kitchen, all herb heaped red meats, crispy baking pastries, barrels of fresh olives and squirts of lemon.
We showed off our natural talents at making saj bread at one of the ‘blink and you miss it’ roadside bakeries we pulled up to en route to the mountains. We enjoyed a wonderful BBQ with Bethany’s family – Joslin, their younger siblings Adla and Eli, their father, great aunts, family friends, friends of friends – the more the merrier!
Here we winced (and felt strangely privileged at the same time) as a young butcher slaughtered a sheep to be made into delicious kebabs and ground into fresh kibbeh (spiced emulsified raw lamb and Lebanon’s national dish). Astonishingly the butcher was just 12-years-old. “I’ve been doing this since I was 10,” he declared, swiping his knife clean. “It upset me the first couple of times, now I am fine with it.” And, of course, we were too, nodding as we shoved fresh chunks of seasoned lamb and glistening white fat on to skewers, ready to be grilled. It’s rarely that you get such authentic feel for a new place in such a short space of time. I came away feeling I’d discovered beautiful pockets of a dramatically misinterpreted country through a guide who has lived it and wanted us to love it so.
The food was always delicious, but what I really valued was the opportunity to tear, dip, mop and spoon that food with a big table of happy people – bellies getting fuller, dishes passing under our noses and laughter the main sound track. It doesn’t sound like your usual stuffy tour does it? And that’s because it wasn’t.