The Taste of Ambrosia

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gingerbread8

Some products have withstood the test of time because they are simply beautiful products. Molasses, dark, golden brown or velvety red colored, heavily textured is one such ingredient. The way it flows and glides along the spoon into a dish is a vision for food lovers and enthusiasts.

Molasses is made from reducing the desired fresh fruit juice, intensifying the fruit’s natural flavors. The fruity sweetness of molasses is countered by a lovely, sharp tart flavor, giving molasses its notable tang. There are different types of molasses, each with specific use and taste.

Dibs el roummane, pomegranate molasses, is a very concentrated sour juice used to flavor stews and other meat dishes as well as Lebanese mezze such as kibbeh, sambousik, and sfiha. It is acidic and may replace lemon and vinegar in salad dessings, as in the typical Lebanese bread salad, fattoush. The pomegranate tree is native to the Middle East, and is strongly associated with ancient religions and cultures. In the ruins of Ba’albak in the Biqa’ plain of Lebanon, specifically the temple of Jupiter, the ceilings and capitals are adorned with carvings of olives, almonds, chestnuts, pecans, grapes, figs and pomegranates, reflecting their presence in this region for a period of over 2,000 years (Feghali, 2002).

Pomegranates were among the main symbols of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Pomegranate juice has an age-old reputation for boosting fertility and sex-drive, and was prescribed locally in villages as a remedy for infertility (Owen, 1949).

Historically, pomegranate molasses was produced in the mountainous regions of the Middle East, where the cool climate was unfavorable to citrus trees, but where pomegranate thrived. The pomegranate was traditionally picked after the Celebrations of the Cross, around 17th of September or after the Eastern Cross, a celebration falling on the 27th of September. The picking of the pomegranates is not part of the religious festivities but traditionally farmers set their harvest by the date of these celebrations.

There are different types of pomegranates, and Lebanon is famous for its malissi and ras el baghl. They vary in acidity with some varieties being much sweeter than others. Pomegranate molasses is prepared from the sour varieties of pomegranate fruit.

Dibs el kharrub, or carob molasses, is a thick syrup made by soaking milled carob pods in water and reducing the extracted liquid. It is produced in large quantities in the area of Iqleem el kharrub (the district of carob), located in the foothills of the Shouf mountain district.

The carob tree (Ceratonia Silica) has a history of use dating back to ancient times. It is also known as St John’s bread for it is said that John the Baptist survived in the desert by eating carob. The seeds of carob are reputed to have all exactly the same weight and they were used by diamond jewelers who agreed that the weight of one seed would be equal to one carat. The name “carat” appears to be derived from carob.

In Lebanon, carob molasses was traditionally used as an alternative to sugar. Mixed and served with tahini or sesame paste, for example, it is still eaten as a dessert called dibs bi tahini. Recipes for dibs el kharrub have been passed down orally over many generations.

In the early 20th century, it was customary for the people who produced dibs el kharrub in the Saida area and those who produced honey in the south to compete over which of their products was sweeter. When a couple was to be married, carob molasses would have pride of place among the gifts the groom’s family offered to the bride’s family, as it was thought to increase energy.

There is very wide interest in the carob tree as it is tolerant to drought and survives in marginal lands. The carob pod is essential to many types of food products due to its high sugar content. It is used in preparing fermented and unfermented juices and as a source of gum for industrial uses.

Dibs el ‘inab, or grape molasses, is a thick syrup, usually derived from white grapes. It is common to the mountainous regions of Lebanon, and is a central component of the food stock that Lebanese households traditionally put up for winter, known as mouneh.

Before refined sugar was introduced some 150-200 years ago, households in Lebanese villages relied on grape molasses as a generic sweetener. The grape harvest was a communal activity that was welcomed with festivals, essentially moveable feasts that would start in the vineyards, and then proceed to the presses for an initial processing. The celebrations would continue at the homes of participating families, who would enjoy desserts prepared from fresh dibs el ‘inab, as together, they completed the processing and bottled the molasses under the direction of the eldest women of the households.

There are various recipes for dibs el ‘inab, but the basic procedure involves juicing the grapes and sthen adding pulverized howara (marl, a calcium carbonate clay-sized mineral). The juice can be let to rest for a few hours and then it is filtered and boiled and stirred so that it can reach a syrup consistency.

The high sugar content and low acidity makes most local Lebanese white grapes suitable to produce dibs el ‘inab. These include obeidi, saraani, shamouti, mikseis, mirweih, magdousheh and salti varieties.

The amount of flavors, texture, and taste that the Mediterranean cuisine has been able to develop from its simple produce is absolutely fascinating. What we consume today is an artifact of centuries of evolving recipes and perfecting them, creating one of the simplest yet most exciting cuisines abundant with its earth’s bounty.

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