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The complex tastes of Lebanon

My first contact with anything Lebanese was as a child flipping through the pages of Time Magazine and images of masked hostages held at gunpoint were forever burned into my memory.

My first contact with anything Lebanese was as a child flipping through the pages of Time Magazine and images of masked hostages held at gunpoint were forever burned into my memory. The horrific image I held of Lebanon has admittedly kept me from even considering anything from this culture as appealing.

Then along came a bottle of wine with a complexity so deep and a story so compelling that it shattered every pre-conceived notion I retained from the media. The wine I speak of is Chateau Musar from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and it has not only captured a piece of my heart, it has become my sommelier husband's all time favourite wine.

Openly a Christian in a Muslim country, Musar's Serge Hochar is a remarkable man who braves the perils of war just to make wine. The winery initially thrived by supplying the post-WWI French Mandate. Lebanon's independence sent the French packing, but their cultural legacy and Beirut's role as a regional refuge for bankers, émigrés, diplomats, spies, etc., guaranteed sales.

Hochar's reputation for making enigmatic wines is now matched only by his fame for harvesting his grapes in the heat of conflict, and made him Decanter Magazine's first Man of the Year in 1984. Hochar's resolve was no less when the civil war broke out in the '70s. He continued to make wine and had to smuggle bottles under guns and dodge kidnappers to get his wine to the rest of the world.

After 16 years of kidnapping, murder and occupation, Chateau Musar had won most of the wine world's honours and prizes. The business had done more than survive. It had grown, flourished, endured. Not one worker was killed. Having to accept conflict as a part of their life, Hochar responds: "But of course. It is the essence of our being. It is our fate. But we have always learned and prevailed."

Like Lebanese culture, Musar wines are built on a paradox: their essential flaw is an expansive acidity that almost explodes in your mouth bringing with it beautiful baby strawberries, earthiness and a tobacco finish. Every vintage brings something different with out compromising its old world complexity.

By far one of the most interesting wines you will ever drink and remember to decant three to eight hours to tame acidity. In light of this wine's history it needs to unwind before it tells its tale.

Allspice, lemon, tomato, salt and garlic seem to be the common flavor combinations in this cuisine well representing the Mediterranean sway of Lebanon.

Laham mishwi

(Lamb kebabs)

2 lbs. boneless lamb (or beef if preferred)

2 green peppers cubed

2 red peppers cubed

Large white onion cubed

Cherry tomatoes or tomato chunks


1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

1 tsp allspice

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/4 cup snipped parsley


Cut lamb into cubes. Mix all the ingredients for the marinade together. Add lamb and mix to coat. Refrigerate covered overnight, stirring occasionally. Alternate meat and vegetables on skewers and grill. Note: wooden skewers should be soaked in water for 30 minutes. Serve on rice pilaf with pita, hummus and tsadziki dip.

Tabouli Salad

3 cups of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/2 cup of finely chopped fresh mint

4 or 5 finely chopped spring onions (with the green parts)

4 ripe, medium size tomatoes, chopped into small cubes

1 cup of medium burghul (cracked wheat)

1/2 tsp allspice

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/2 jalapeno pepper, de-seeded, chopped fine (optional)

5 tbsp good olive oil

Salt and pepper


Rinse burghul several times and then soak in cold water for about twenty minutes.

Chop the tomatoes, parsley (you want mostly leaves). Chop fine. Put the burghul in a sieve to drain. Trim the spring onions, and chop them into -inch lengths.

Put the drained burghul and tomato in a large mixing or serving bowl. Add salt, pepper, allspice, lemon juice, olive oil, mint, parsley, and optional minced jalapeno.

Taste for seasoning. If too dry, you can add additional lemon juice.

Toss well. Tabouli benefits from resting - you can cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave in the refrigerator for a few hours or over night, tossing occasionally.

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