Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Byblos—history, haute cuisine and a harbour to remember

This is exciting. No Crowds first post from Lebanon from intrepid travelers, Gary and Lorraine. I can't wait to follow.

So here is a quiz: where can you sit with a world-class view of the Mediterranean, drink local wines made in the French style, in a setting that reminds you of a French farmhouse, while looking at the ruins of a wonderfully preserved Roman-era castle...all for about $70 for a lunch for two? The answer, of course, is Byblos.

All the way down at the end of the Mediterranean, past Cyprus, the Greek Isles and the Turkish coast, sits a beautiful, but star-crossed country. Over its 4000 years of history, Lebanon has been invaded and/or occupied by Crusaders, Ottomans, Mamluks, Syrians, Israelis and of course the French (for 25 years, no less). In some cases, they were worse off for it, but amazingly, their culture has been enriched, deepened and made more tolerant in most instances. Today, the country gets stronger every day, building on 20 years of relative peace following the end of their civil war. Minarets stand next to baptisteries, crosses and crescents on neighboring religious buildings. Frankly, it’s inspiring.

Going south from Beirut is not recommended, but if you head north up the coast, after 40 km of a drive that will remind you of the best and the worst of the Cote d’Azur, you arrive at Byblos (also called Jbail). The birthplace of the modern alphabet and arguably the longest-standing continuously occupied city in the world, Byblos is thriving. Perhaps it’s hankering to return to the days when Perry Como and any number of European starlets plied its country lanes. Despite a recent piece in the New York Times, however, the town remains a quiet haven of incredible antiquities, accompanied by what appear to be some of the finest restaurants we have found in the Middle East.

Our meal at Locanda (09 944 333), nestled on a bluff overlooking the sea between the old souk and the castle ruins, was simple but incredibly elegant. First up was the necessary bottle of a dry, crisp rosé, this one from Chateau Musar (one of the three main Lebanese wineries). Our first courses were fattoush (chopped salad with wonderful little deep-fried raviolis mixed in) and Shrimp Osmalieh (fine sized prawns wrapped in vermicelli and sizzled in hot oil just enough to cook them through). For mains, we had a thin-crusted pizza rocca (fresh rocket and mozzarella and just a touch of tomato sauce), and something called “fish and aubergine”, which was an amazing experience. Basically, this is what fish and chips have always wanted to be, but will never become. The white flaky fish (I suspect snapper, locally called Sultan Ibrahim) was expertly battered and deep fried, so well that you would swear it never touched the oil. The chef used two sauces, first a lemon cream concoction that added a hint of sweetness, then a dark, piquant balsamic reduction (far more cultured than malt vinegar, frankly!). A pickled baby eggplant accompanied, marinated with flavours of Eastern spices I couldn’t begin to identify. To finish, the espresso was of course excellent, and we topped off the meal with a dram of Armagnac which said “hors age” on the bottle--I took that to mean that nobody could tell how old it was, but it was pretty old. Awesome, although that single choice was the most expensive item on our menu.

I can’t begin to do justice to the Byblos ruins. For a few dollars we were allowed into the compound, and had the chance to closely examine sarcophagi, Doric and ionic column capitals, the well preserved ruins of the ramparts and buildings, and a complete amphitheatre—no ropes, no rules, just us, a half dozen others, and a massive castle originally built by the Phoenicians. All this with a million dollar view of the sea just behind (and a couple of million dollar yachts cruising by, of course).

I would not want to conclude without mentioning the Jeita grotto. Not in Byblos proper, but rather about 20 minutes off the main road between Beirut and Byblos, the grotto is a natural limestone cavern with the dimensions of a small football stadium—you just can’t imagine the size and beauty. Dramatically lit with a walkway carefully constructed through the middle, the grotto is a collection of the most beautiful natural designs you can imagine. Stalactites are not just icicle shaped, but many resemble an undulating curtain extending several meters from the ceiling far above, or heavy curtains covering the walls. Others are finely detailed tubes with many sections inside, with an almost biological feel to them. We were told that the cave is the result of 12,000 years of drip, drip, drip (gives you an idea of what that leaky tap could create if it never got fixed). There is a lower level to the cave, which we didn’t have time to visit, where the tour is conducted on a boat down an underground river that ultimately supplies a significant part of the drinking water for the city of Beirut. The grotto is on the long list for the Seven New Wonders of the World, and voting is under way. It will get my vote.

If you go...you should check your country’s diplomatic website for warnings and precautions. Lebanon is still not a destination for the faint of heart, and the UK Foreign Office and US State Department still have current traveller warnings, despite the recent calm. On our trip, we found little or no evidence of unrest—no checkpoints, little evidence of soldiers outside of the national capital area (parliament), and a flurry of rebuilding and investment everywhere.

Photo of Gary + 5 Pillars taken by Lorraine.

1 comment:

  1. Red mullet
    Other Names: Red mullet: Barbunya baligi (Turkish); gewöhnliche meerbarbe (German); himeji (Japanese); koutsomoúra (Greek); rouget-barbet de vase (French); salmonete de fango (Spanish); Sultan Ibrahim ramleh (Lebanese); triglia di fango (Italian); trilia hajar (Tunisian). Striped mullet: Barboúni (Greek); bouqit, melou (Tunisian); gestreifte meerbarbe (German); himeji (Japanese); rouget-barbet de roche (French); salmonete de roca (Spanish); salmonete legitímo (Portuguese); Sultan Ibrahim sahkri (Lebanese); surmullet; tekir (Turkish); triglia di scoglio (Italian). Mullidae.
    General Description: Two main species of the beautiful and succulent red mullet are found in the Mediterranean. Red mullet (Mullus barbatus) are rosy with gold iridescence and a straight-fronted head. The ancient Greeks regarded them as sacred to Hecate, and wealthy first-century Romans paid astronomical prices to watch its color change from red to gold, pale pink, vermilion, and blue as the fish died. Highly prized, striped red mullet (M. surmuletus) have a sloping head, stripes on their first dorsal fin, and sometimes horizontal yellow stripes on the sides, though coloring varies with surroundings. The livers are also eaten, often cooked in butter and then stuffed into the fish before baking whole. Spotted goatfish (Pseudupeneus maculatus) are related western Atlantic fish with pink to orange speckled coloring that also make for delicious eating.
    Locale and Season: Red mullet are found throughout the Mediterranean. They are sporadically available in American fish markets, sometimes at good prices in ethnic markets. Striped red mullet are found in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the eastern Atlantic. Both are in peak season in fall. Spotted goatfish are commonly found off the coast of Florida but range from New Jersey to Brazil.
    Characteristics: Though they have tiny bones, mullet’s delicate and unique flavor and firm, buttery texture make them highly desirable, especially for pan-frying and grilling whole. Red mullet weigh up to 4 pounds; striped mullet weigh up to 2 pounds. Scaling a fresh-caught mullet will make it even redder. Yield is 45 percent.
    How to Choose: Look for fish with shiny, brightly colored skin and clear eyes. Choose smaller fish for frying whole; larger fish for grilling, baking, and pan-frying fillets.
    Storage: Store whole fish 2 day refrigerated on ice. Store fillets 1 day refrigerated on ice.
    When very fresh, red mullet is often cooked whole on the grill without gutting or scaling, or it may be gutted through the gills. The scales and skin are then peeled off just before serving.
    Grill, pan-fry, deep-fry, bake, stew, or stuff and bake.
    Suggested Recipe: Triglia Livornese (serves 4): Season 2 pounds whole, cleaned, scaled red mullet with salt and pepper and dust with flour. In a large skillet, brown the fish in olive oil, about 3 minutes a side. Just before they’re brown, add 2 teaspoons chopped garlic, 1 teaspoon chopped thyme, 2 bay leaves, 1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley, and a pinch of hot red pepper flakes, cook briefly, then add 2 cups fresh tomato puree and 2 bay leaves. Cover and simmer about 10 minutes or until the fish flakes.
    Flavor Affinities: Almond, anchovy, bay leaf, capers, chervil, cured olive, fennel, garlic, lemon, mint, olive oil, onion, orange, Pernod, prosciutto, rosemary, shallot, tarragon, thyme, tomato, white wine.
    from Quirk Books: www.quirkbooks.com