In the November 2012 issue of ONE, journalist Don Duncan discussed the role of pomegranates in Lebanese culture. In the course of his reporting, he joined farmer Violette Elias and her family for a meal in her home. Below, he shares his thoughts and impressions from the scene.
The farm of Violette Elias in the northern mountains of Lebanon is as typical as you are going to find in this small Mediterranean country. The house is a high-gabled, traditional Lebanese farm house, folded into a lush green environ — some 800 feet above sea level — with the soaring snow-capped peaks of Lebanon’s highest mountains behind it.
Around the house and down the hill behind it are scatters of trees, a motley orchard of apple, orange, pear and pomegranate trees that Violette harvests all year round. Toward late spring, the distinctive red flowers of the pomegranate trees begin to burst gently on the twigs, and as spring moves into summer the redness deepens. By August, pomegranate fruits are nearly ready for the picking. Violette picks them as she needs them throughout the harvesting season, which lasts until November.
In her kitchen, Violette has a basket of picked pomegranates and uses them for making her own molasses, which she says is an “indispensable” part of any kitchen. The day I visited her family, her four children — Adele, 31; Allisar, 29; Nassif, 28; and Habib, 25 — were back home for the weekend from Beirut. Each of them buzzes around Violette in the kitchen, preparing the dinner table as she works on a Lebanese snack featuring pomegranate. The scene is at once traditional and very contemporary, and I am struck by how well Lebanon has managed to hang on to its values and traditions — whereas countries like Ireland, where I am from, which once had similar values, often lose some measure of them in the face of evolving modernity and globalization.
Violette works her mortar and pestle, mixing her pomegranate molasses with herbs and raisins, and adding the resulting sauce to cooked rice to form a stuffing for peppers and zucchini, a traditional Lebanese snack. We all sit down at the table in the dining room and make small talk as we await Violette to finish and bring her homemade snacks and delicacies. Local cider is poured, and bread is sliced. We talk about Beirut, the rising rent and stagnant salaries — all obsessions for Lebanese in their 20’s and 30’s — but we also talk about the benefits of coming from the countryside and living in the capital, and what a luxury it is to quit the urban chaos at the weekend for the crisp climbs of the mountain.
I was a little envious of the Elias children — mainly because I don’t have such a haven in Lebanon, but also because it reminded me of Ireland, when I lived in Dublin and I had a similar country retreat: my native village in the midlands.
And then the food came out and it was, in some ways, like being at home. Even though the cuisine is worlds apart, it was mamma’s cooking in a way and it left a warm, satisfied feeling in my heart.