Labneh (strained yogurt) is a daily food in the Lebanese diet and known by everyone and mainly eaten at breakfast. Go deeper in the country, into the Bekaa Valley or the Shouf Mountains, and another delicacy will unfold made in a terra-cotta bowl (labnet al jarra), where baladi and shami goats are respectively the main grazing animals that produce it.
Sirdeleh, as its known in the Shouf, refers to the earthenware jar in which the dairy product is prepared, and Ambarees its near twin from the Bekaa Valley are produced from late march until end of September, when goat milk is abundant. This traditional food is a result of an old and wise traditional knowledge of food ways and a preservation technique that has proven successful over the centuries.
During the goat-milking season in June, the process starts by filtering and pouring raw goat milk and coarse salt into special clay jars that are porous in nature, with a hole in the base for draining purposes. The mixture is left to ferment at room temperature until the curd separates from the whey water, at which time the liquid is drained through the jar’s opening.
Over the span of the summer, the process of adding milk, coarse salt, fermenting, and draining is repeated until each jar is filled with curd. The curd is then left in closed jars for four months to complete its fermentation process, at which stage Ambarees develops into a type of labneh, yellowish in color and sour in taste. Throughout the fermentation process the product acidity rises, thus eliminating microorganisms that would otherwise be harmful. It is then sold either tightly packed in a jar or in the form of small balls conserved in olive oil. In this form, this kind of labneh, highly dense in milk solids, can be preserved for a whole year.
Ambarees is mainly consumed as labneh, served with olive oil and eaten for breakfast or dinner. In the villages, many spread it on saj bread and heat the bread on a wood-fire oven before eating their sandwiches. In villages with the custom of Ambarees, like Niha El Shouf, where it’s an essential part of their local cuisine, it’s a common main ingredient in salads, mixing it with purslane, tomatoes and onions, or reconstituting it with water and boiling kebbe meat, a variation of kebbe bi laban.
The process of making this dairy delicacy is very delicate and one has to have a high level of hygiene so that it doesn’t ruin the final product. That’s why traditionally they say that only the producer can check over his Sirdeleh jars, otherwise the product will disintegrate.
Sirdeleh Jars also face extinction. Pottery use for storage, cooking and transferring dairy products in south Eastern Europe, Anatolia and the Levant regions, are as old as seven millennia BC. But nowadays it is hard to find quality Sirdeleh jars and the earthenware containers now used are often poorly glazed and tend to disintegrate due to the rising acidity resulting from Ambarees fermentation. In an attempt to safeguard this traditional dairy product, the Food Heritage Foundation and the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture in Zahle and Bekaa are collaborating to raise awareness about this product and its traditional processing techniques.
Sirdeleh/Ambarees is a dying art of a beautiful tradition that dates back to before Jesus even walked on our land. It Tastes like superb rich creamy feta with slight effervescence, carrying with it the smell of goats milk grazing off this rich fertile land. A method that’s been handed down for generations of exquisite food making, prepared with pride and meticulousness.