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A Fruitful Trade

In Lebanon, pomegranates bind a nation — and are big business

On a recent autumn Sunday, a heavy rainfall does not dampen the cheerful mood at the busy farmers’ market in Beirut. Throngs of patrons weave among the plastic-canopied stalls of fruits, vegetables and artisanal goods. Vendors welcome customers with wide smiles and casual conversation.

One woman vigorously barters with a vendor for several jars of preserves and a head of organic lettuce. Meanwhile, farmers, unoccupied with clients, sip coffee and make guesses about when the shower will pass and the sun, return.

Beirut’s farmer’s market, called Souk al Tayyeb (Arabic for “Tasty Market”), began eight years ago. North American in style, it brings together small-scale organic farmers and producers from Lebanon’s diverse religious communities and geographic regions to sell their goods in the heart of the nation’s bustling capital.

Druze farmer and vendor Hussein Abu Mansour owns a total of 17 acres. On his property in the Bekaa Valley, about 60 miles northeast of Beirut, he cultivates almonds, apples, cherries, figs, olives, oranges and walnuts. On his land in south Lebanon, which has a better water supply, he maintains an orchard of about 500 pomegranate trees. Today, in this unseasonably cold weather, it is his pomegranates that attract customers to his stall.

“It is medicine,” says Mr. Mansour, as he squeezes a pile of pomegranates, one by one, into juice. “It cleanses the blood, regulates the stomach and boosts the immune system.” He then blends fresh lemon juice with the pomegranate — a crowd-pleasing cocktail.

The fruit’s nutritional value is well known: Pomegranates are high in antioxidants, fiber and vitamins B5 and C. Scientific studies show the fruit helps reduce high cholesterol and blood pressure, combat viral infections and even prevent dental plaque buildup. Ongoing clinical tests in the United States have also linked pomegranates in one’s diet to the prevention of coronary artery disease, diabetes, lymphoma and prostate cancer.

Large manufacturers of pomegranate juice and other products in Western countries have advertised these health benefits for years, which has no doubt contributed to the boom in the fruit’s popularity.

In Lebanon and the Middle East, where people have used pomegranates as a source of juices, syrups and condiments for millennia, the fruit’s popularity has less to do with health-food trends and marketing strategies than it does with traditional cuisine and local, small-scale manufacturing.

“It’s known from olden times that pomegranates, berries and vines should be grown close to the house. They are a good omen,” says Mr. Mansour. He stands under a plastic canopy weighed down by pools of rainwater. At regular intervals, boys working in the market use sticks to push the canopies’ water-laden pockets from underneath and force the water onto the ground.

Caroline Khoury, a customer at the vendor’s stall, has just ordered some pomegranate juice.

“It gives me a boost in this weather,” she says. “Plus, it’s just delicious.”

Whereas Mr. Mansour sells fresh pomegranates and juice, across the market, vendor Therese Sarkis sells Lebanese dishes that include pomegranate as an ingredient. Available for purchase are numerous traditional favorites, including: fattouche, a salad garnished with pomegranate molasses and seeds; muhammara, a roasted red pepper, walnut and garlic spread; and kibbeh, torpedo-shaped fried croquettes stuffed with minced beef or lamb.

In a country with 18 officially recognized confessions and a fragile political system rigidly tied to sectarian quotas, the pomegranate represents a rare symbol in Lebanon, with meaning in all major religions.

For Middle East Christians, pomegranates frequently appear as a motif in iconography and sacred art. Patterns woven in liturgical vestments as well as Christian metalwork often prominently feature the fruit.

According to tradition, the pomegranate — broken or bursting open — symbolizes the fullness of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. During Christmas, families in the Middle East decorate their homes with likenesses of bursting pomegranates.

Orthodox Christians often add pomegranate seeds to koliva, a dish of sweetened boiled wheat. Used primarily in memorial liturgies, koliva symbolizes the sweetness of the heavenly kingdom. And for some Eastern Christians, the pomegranate — not the apple — is the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

Muslims, too, believe pomegranates grow in the gardens of paradise, though they are not associated with evil. Pomegranates appear in the Quran on three occasions, as examples of the good things God creates.

For Jews, pomegranates, with their numerous seeds, symbolize fertility. According to tradition, each pomegranate contains 613 seeds — the same number of mitzvoth, or commandments of the Torah. It is also believed Moses received a pomegranate as proof of the Promised Land’s fertility. On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, many families celebrate with pomegranates.

Inhabitants of the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Persia have prized pomegranates for millennia. Ancient Egyptians regarded the pomegranate as a sign of ambition and prosperity. In ancient Persia, the fruit symbolized fertility.

In ancient Greek mythology, the pomegranate plays a key role in the explanation of the seasons. According to legend, Hades, the god of the underworld, kidnapped Persephone — the daughter of Zeus, the father of gods and men. He took her to the underworld, where she lived as his wife.

Fate dictated that anyone who consumed food or drink while in the underworld must spend eternity there. Knowing the laws of fate, Persephone declined all food and drink. But, Hades tricked her into eating four pomegranate seeds. As a result, when Zeus commanded Hades to return Persephone, she was forever condemned to spend four months out of every year in the underworld. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, grieved over her daughter’s punishment and refused to allow any crops to grow during those four months, a period which became winter.

The use and importance of pomegranates in traditional cuisine varies widely in the Middle East and nearby regions.

In Azerbaijan, pomegranates are a staple in traditional cooking. Among the most common uses is a pomegranate sauce that often garnishes fish dishes. Every October, residents of Goychay, a city and region in central Azerbaijan, hold a pomegranate festival to celebrate the fruit’s harvest. The festival brings together farmers and vendors who sell fresh pomegranates and a wide assortment of pomegranate products and pomegranate-based foods. It also features a parade and traditional Azerbaijani dance and music performances.

In Iran, before tomatoes arrived from the New World, Persians cooked many dishes with pomegranate-based grenadine. Some time- honored recipes, such as fesenjan, still call for the grenadine. A thick stew made with pomegranate grenadine, ground walnuts and duck or chicken, fesenjan is usually served with rice.

In Turkey, pomegranates are used in salad dressings and in marinades. And pomegranate juice has long been a popular refreshment.

In Greece, many traditional foods and dishes make use of pomegranates. Kollivozoumi, a popular broth, is made from boiled wheat, pomegranates and raisins. Pomegranates are often combined with eggplants or avocados to make relishes and dips. Greeks also ferment pomegranates into a popular liqueur as well as preserve them as a jam and dessert topping — poured over ice cream, mixed with yogurt or spread on toast.

In Lebanon, every kitchen has at least one bottle of pomegranate molasses.

“It’s like the local balsamic vinegar,” says Kamal Mouzawak, founder of Souk al Tayyeb and manager of the Beiruti restaurant Tawlet (Arabic for “table”). Tawlet offers patrons a buffet of numerous traditional, homemade dishes.

The Lebanese use the molasses to add flavor to almost any dish, especially fried liver and chicken.

“The pomegranate is popular with fried foods because the sweet taste blends well with the oils,” explains Mr. Mouzawak. “The anti-cholesterol property of pomegranates also helps counteract the grease.”

According to the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture, the country’s total agricultural sector represents 4.9 percent of its gross domestic product (G.D.P.); 3.6 percent of G.D.P. involves the cultivation and production of foodstuffs. Farmland makes up some 60 percent of Lebanon’s total 4,036 square miles.

Though the ministry does not have detailed statistics on pomegranate production, it estimates pomegranate orchards occupy a total of about three square miles nationwide. Most are modest in size and maintained by small-scale farmers. In recent years, the ministry has also noted a growth in the production and export of pomegranates and pomegranate-based products.

Violette Elias, a typical pomegranate farmer, cultivates an orchard on 3.7 acres near Kafarchakna, a village in the northern mountains of Lebanon. For 50 years, Mrs. Elias has grown pomegranates, planting new trees in her orchard at regular intervals. Five years ago, her four children convinced her to transition to organic methods. All four live and work in Beirut, but often return to their childhood farm to help out with the orchard, especially during the harvest season in September and October.

“You have to plant it upside down in the earth, so that the roots and stalk get all the moisture in the initial critical period of growth,” says Mrs. Elias, against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains.

“At the beginning of the harvesting season, the pomegranates are very lemony and we use these ones for molasses. By the end of the season, they have become sweet and we use these for juice.”

Mrs. Elias produces around 441 pounds of pomegranates a year, which she sells at markets in Tripoli and Beirut. She also produces about 12 bottles of molasses, some of which she sells in markets and the rest she uses in her own kitchen.

Manufacturers of pomegranate-based products, such as pomegranate juice and molasses, also tend to be modest, family-owned affairs in Lebanon. Therese Sarkis, who sells her products at Souk al Tayyeb in Beirut, and Youssef Younis, who presses and sells pomegranate juice at his small shop “Asir Hamra” in the busy west Beirut district of Hamra, typify the Lebanese manufacturer.

“Pomegranate juice is more popular in the winter than in the summer,” says Mr. Younis. “So we import pomegranates from Turkey to meet this demand. As a result our juice is more expensive in the winter ($4.50 a cup) than in the summer ($3.30 a cup) when we use Lebanese pomegranates.”

Only a handful of industrial-scale producers, such as al Wadi al Akhdar, operate in Lebanon. The company manufactures a wide range of food products, which it sells around the world. It sources most of its pomegranates from farmers in Lebanon, when they are in season. In the offseason, however, it imports from other countries, such as Turkey.

“Here in our culture, pomegranates are ancient,” says Youmna Goraieb, co-owner of Mymouné, a family-owned company that specializes in all-natural and organic foods and products, including pomegranate molasses, for the Lebanese and international markets. “But for Westerners, it’s new. They discovered something new and they are buying more and more.”

In the last five years, the export of Mymouné pomegranate molasses has doubled, and the company produces 20,000 bottles of the syrup a year, 60 percent of which it exports to Australia, France, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. In the United States and the United Kingdom, the upscale grocers Dean & DeLuca and Fortnum & Mason, respectively, carry Mymouné molasses.

The pomegranate molasses, however, represents only 10 percent of Mymouné’s total production. A mid-size company, Mymouné employs 18 full-time workers year-round at its factory in the foothills of Mount Sannine, northeast of Beirut. In addition to pomegranate molasses, it makes some 20 other food products, including apple vinegar, apricot preserves, fig preserves, grape vinegar, orange blossom water, mulberry preserves, rose preserves, rose water, mulberry syrup and rose syrup.

Making pomegranate molasses, says Mrs. Goraieb, is a relatively simple process. “You open the pomegranate, remove the seeds and scoop the flesh into the large pots,” she explains. “Then, the lengthy process of boiling the flesh down to thick syrup begins. To make a 26-centiliter [9 ounces] bottle of wholly natural syrup, you need about 15 pounds of pomegranates. So, it is not necessarily cheap, or time effective. And this is why many people cheat.”

Many non-natural or non-organic pomegranate syrups on the market contain added ingredients, such as artificial thickeners and preservatives, to make the process cheaper and faster.

“If you do it the original, simple way,” says Mrs. Goraeib, “it takes more time and fruit, but it is still preserved naturally by its high natural sugar content anyways.”

To visit the Beirut suburb of Bourj Hammoud is to witness the prominence of pomegranates in the lives of Armenians. The densely populated district serves as the cultural and commercial hub for Lebanon’s roughly 150,000 people of Armenian heritage — or about 4 percent of the country’s total population.

Shops catering to a mostly Armenian clientele line the main thoroughfare. Many display signs or other depictions of pomegranates — reminders of the fruit’s symbolic and gastronomic importance. One billboard, which advertises a new bank in the neighborhood, is covered with images of pomegranate seeds, apparently targeting the local Armenian residents with the familiar cultural symbol.

The pomegranate represents one of the main ingredients in traditional Armenian cuisine. But the connection Armenians feel for pomegranates — particularly those in the diaspora — runs much deeper. For many, the fruit symbolizes their people’s persecution and exile in the early 20th century.

From 1915 to 1918, Turkish forces displaced, imprisoned and, in some instances, massacred Turkey’s Armenian population, killing and forcibly deporting hundreds of thousands. In the end, the campaign claimed the lives of as many as 1.8 million people. Those who fled often passed through Lebanon. Many ultimately stayed, settling particularly in Bourj Hammoud.

“During the massacre of 1915, the Turks only allowed the old, the women and the children to leave with pomegranates,” explains Ani Bodroumian, an Armenian who runs the pomegranate-themed gift shop “Yerevan” in Bourj Hammoud.

“Each seed of the pomegranate was a sip of water for the children on the road,” she continues. “And because there are 365 seeds in each pomegranate, they used them to keep track of the passing days while on the road.”

Yerevan sells all sorts of trinkets with pomegranate motifs, such as ceramic tiles, dishes, rugs, woodcarvings with crosses and pomegranates and even wristwatches. It also sells pomegranate wine, pomegranate-flavored vodka and dozens of products imported from Armenia.

For Armenians, says Mrs. Bodroumian, the pomegranate signifies life, rebirth, resilience and sacrifice. It is associated with Christ’s passion; its deep red color, with the blood of Christ.

“It’s basically a symbol of life,” says Sanaan Sogham, an Armenian shopping at Yerevan.

“The red color is at the core of its symbolism. In fact, this is a color that has meaning for all Christians. When you have pomegranates near you, you are protected, somewhat like a crucifix.”

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