The Ark of Taste, which is a foundation created by Slow Food International, Slow Food Italy, and the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, is an operational body for the protection of food biodiversity. They travel the world collecting small-scale quality productions that belong to the cultures, history and traditions of the entire planet: an extraordinary heritage of fruits, vegetables, animal breeds, cheeses, breads, sweets and cured meats. The Ark was created to point out the existence of these products, draw attention to the risk of their extinction within a few generations, and invite everyone to take action to help protect them. In some cases this might be by buying and consuming them, in some by telling their story and supporting their producers.
Being a culture rich in heritage with a long history of food making, Lebanon was one of the countries visited by the foundation and they helped put some of our products in the lamplight. I will be writing a post about each as I do find them extremely interesting, each carrying a story with a rich history. Today I will narrate the story of this wondrous green beauty called Freekeh. This wheat plays a key role in our local diet because it is much higher in protein, vitamins and minerals than normal wheat. It also has a fiber content four times higher than rice and it is rich in calcium, potassium, iron and zinc.
Leaving behind the ancient city of Tyre and continuing toward the border, the plain gives way to rolling hills that run to the sea. This is the region of Jabal ‘Amel, rich with tradition and history and plagued with endless regional conflicts to this day.
It’s here that from time immemorial comes Freekeh, a distinctive green wheat that is harvested before it is completely ripe, when the leaves of the plant start to dry under the strong rays of the April sun. According to legend more than 2000 years ago, before leaving in retreat, soldiers who had attacked a village in the area set the fields on fire in order to destroy the wheat, condemning the local people to ruin. Trying to save whatever they could the locals collected the burnt grain from the fields and after cleaning it, discovered a toasted grain that was green and very nutritious. Freekeh started being cultivated in small quantities in many areas of Lebanon, but it was the region of Jabal ‘Amel that was always known for the high quality of its production.
Today, however, large quantities of industrially produced Freekeh from Syria have flooded the market, selling at a low cost. This, coupled with the increasingly widespread cultivation of tobacco subsidized by the Lebanese government, is putting the production of Freekeh in its place of origin at serious risk. Now only very small quantities of green wheat are produced in these limestone hills that only through the hard work of generations became fertile.
It is not only the special composition of the soil in the area that makes the Freekeh of Jabal ‘Amel special, but above all its special processing. After being harvested by hand the wheat is left in the sun to dry for 24 hours. It is then spread on stones together with branches from a particular local shrub called Balan. The Balan is the fuel for an intense and very quick fire that burns the husks while the grain undergoes a rapid and even roasting. This stops the aging, improves the conservation and gives the Freekeh its characteristic toasted aroma.
The people of the region usually boil it in soups and stews, but personally I like it as a salad with virgin olive oil from the South drizzled on it, a generous hand of salt and pepper, then a drizzle of rib roman (pomegranate molasses), and finely top it off with some nuts and seed and fresh pomegranate. It’s a true dish of beauty full with the flavors of the earth and all its glory.
You can watch a video about it: