Every time I eat some of Nidal Rayess' apricot jam, which I've eked out with unusual willpower, I chide myself for not having shared the experience of our day visiting Nidal at his factory in Lebanon, last spring.
So, extremely late though it is, I am finally sharing another Lebanon highlight.
Nidal Rayess is the manager of Rayess Trading, a family business established by his grandfather Nemer Rayess in 1920, during the French occupation of Lebanon.
The business makes top quality cheese and dairy products such as labneh (strained yoghurt), halloumi and several local cheeses as well as a wide selection of mouneh, a catch-all term which describes preserves made during the harvest season and stored in the larder to be enjoyed throughout the year. Mouneh includes jams, pickles, fruits in syrup and even dried balls of labneh preserved in oil.
Before meeting Nidal, we stopped for a brief snack in his small traditional store in Chtaura, shelves stacked high with mouneh and deli counter well-stocked with fresh dairy products.
(One thing you learn very quickly is that you never go long without eating, on a Taste Lebanon tour!)
But the highlight of our day was heading to Nidal's home and factory, where he showed us around the manufacturing premises and processes. First, we watched his staff making and branding halloumi and preserving candied orange peels.
During the First World War, Nidal's grandfather Nemer was working in concrete construction for the French Army. Also working for the army was a Greek chef from whom Nemer learned the traditional recipe and methods for making Greek halloumi, as well as fresh and pressed ricotta.
Nidal still makes halloumi in exactly the same way, with milk from the business' own herd of cows, pastured in the North of the country.
The halloumi is cooked in huge copper vats, which were hand made in Turkey in 1870 and formerly used to cook wheat in the Taanayel kitchens of Ottoman governors (who ruled Lebanon until the close of the First World War). Whilst many modern producers use stainless steel vats, Nidal says that copper handles a higher temperature, allowing the heat to better penetrate the halloumi during the cooking time, resulting in a difference in taste in the finished product.
Hot out of the pans, squares of halloumi are folded in half and arranged on a metal table between large wooden planks, which help them to set into the right shape.
After they've all been shaped, they are branded with a logo.
And then turned over to flatten the other side.
Labneh is traditionally made by straining yoghurt. Modern industrial manufacturers have switched to using centrifuges to spin out excess liquid, but the resulting labneh doesn't have the incredibly rich and creamy texture of Nidal's, which is still made the old-fashioned way. Nidal makes both cow and goat milk labneh, the cow milk coming from his own herd, as above.
Don't assume that the factory is without any modern technology. Nidal doesn't stick with the old ways unthinkingly but follows tradition where it creates a superior product. The factory uses modern equipment where and when it's needed, such as this vacuum-packaging machine, above.
Orange peels are first prepped, then added to a hot sugar syrup, stirred regularly as they cook. They smell wonderful!
No jams are being made during our visit, but Nidal does share some of his tips for the astonishingly special apricot jam that both Aiofe and I fall head over heels for.
First, of course, is the selection of the fruit. As most jam makers know, the better the quality of the fruit you start with, the better the finished jam. But Nidal takes this to another level; for his apricot jam, he uses only the ripest half of each fruit, the half that was most bathed in sunlight, as it grew. I daren't ask what happens to the discarded halves, though I'm sure they are used by someone to make a less magical product! There are also improvements to be made elsewhere in the recipe; Nidal uses three different types of sugar, balanced to contribute just the right flavour and consistency to the jam.
In our tasting of cheeses, labneh and jams we are blown away by the warm, fresh halloumi (better than any I've tasted), and the wonderfully creamy labneh (which really brings home why Nidal's products are a favourite of the Jordanian royal family, no less). But it's the jam that steals our hearts, and which we happily bring home with us. In fact, Pete and I bought a brand new suitcase, just to ensure we had space for our precious cargo!
Just as in the UK, the Lebanese enthusiasm for top quality artisan food continues to grow. After our day with Nidal and our visit to Abu Kassem's za'atar farm, it's not hard to see why.
Lebanon is a beautiful country to visit – striking landscapes, ancient history, a warm and welcoming people and some really fantastic food. Go! See you for yourself!