Another slow food foundation for the protection of food biodiversity is our very own keshek el foukara (poor man’s cheese). Majdel Zoun is located around ten kilometers from the ancient city of Tyre, a small village of Muslim farmers situated in a dry stony landscape. Their Keshek el fouqara in fact uses no milk, whereas keshek is commonly made with goat’s milk yoghurt.
It’s produced using wheat bulgur fermented in water and sea salt, following an ancient recipe that has undergone modifications and sparked many variants. It is also called Jebnet el burghol (burghul cheese), and was a very common product until 50 years ago. Due to the fact that the poorest people often did not even possess a goat or could not afford to buy milk for the preparation of yoghurt. The freshly harvested wheat is cleansed of impurities, washed, and left to stand in water for at least eight hours or until the wheat berries slightly sprout. It is then boiled in a large pot on a wood fire. After cooking for 5 or 6 hours, it is dried in the sun on large white sheets. At this point it is taken to the mill and made into burghul (fermented, ground corn). Water and salt are then added and it is left to ferment from two to four weeks according to the season. It is then grounded, left to ferment for another week and finally worked by hand until a homogenous, elastic mass is obtained .
The product can have a plain taste or flavors or can differ depending on what’s added, such as thyme, cumin, Nigel seeds, sesame seeds, red, green or black peppers. When the mass is still moist it is shaped into small balls, similar to our Labneh mka’zale (labneh balls made of goat’s milk). They are then stacked compactly in glass jars, local extra virgin olive oil will then be poured to cover entirely the vegan cheese for preservation and taste. Poor man’s cheese can then be kept for a year or longer. This product is one of what is called Moone products in Arabic, from the verb mana, which means to “lay in supplies”. These are food reserves which every family had to obtain in order to cope with the continuous alternations of periods of plenty and scarcity.
I love the ingenious way of creating something that tastes like cheese and yet is made from Bulgur.There is something quiet romantic about making one’s moone, taking the products that are of season and working them into creating something that can last a whole year. Whether one is into doing it or not, there isn’t a Lebanese household, especially in the villages, that doesn’t have a stack of products that are considered moone.
Here is my recipe:
Mix some bulgur with about 1 1/2 times the volume of water, and a little salt, pack into a jar, cover, and let ferment for two or three weeks depending on room temperature. Mix and pack it down again, every day or two.
Once it becomes mushy and develops a tangy taste, mix with herbs and spices of your choice and form into balls. The flavors I chose were crushed garlic, ground red and black peppercorns, salt, cumin, fennel seed, and sage. Stack the balls in a jar, and cover with good olive oil. It is surprisingly flavorsome at this stage, and the flavor should improve over a few months of storage. This is one of the most unusual ferments I’ve seen, in that no special protective measures are taken. A critical step in most ferment is to exclude air to avoid spoilage but in this case the bulgur is exposed to air with no harm. A thin white layer on top formed, but this is fine to mix back in.