Every morning, “Uncle Fayez” used to drive his white Volkswagen school van and pick up students living in Mar Elias area, including my brother and myself. Considering my width and height back then, I used to sit in the booth of the van and wait with anticipation for Uncle Fayez to finish his rotation; as among the kids he used to pick up last; was his son “Elie” who used to fragrance the bus (and my life) with his snack of apricot jam wrapped in Lebanese bread. I would probably marry him just to get a bite!
My love for quality food blossomed mostly when I started to accompany my mom to the “Souk el Blatt” (the tiled market) to buy fresh local produce; where I had a habit of squeezing tomatoes, figs and apricot to test their maturity, smashing some unintentionally.
Souk el Blatt dates back to the Ottoman empire, which accommodated a street market and a number of khans, visited by traders from Syria, Iraq and Palestine.
The souk kept its initial character except that it is no longer tiled, and the only remaining shops are grocery stores. The most famous ones are “Zakhia” and “Abou Toni” for fruits and vegetables; “Al Halabi” and “Nancy” bakeries for zaatar, cheese and meat pastries; Butcheries of “Abou Brahim” and “Issa” for red meat; “William” the saint and the shoe repairer; “Gregor” the Tailor whom we never got his name right and always called him “kourkour”;
“Mini Market Abdel Sater” for general groceries and “Mini Market Talal” – also known as “the Arabic doctor” whom offered additional services for treating pains associated with headaches, toothaches, cold and flu, muscular and arthritic pain; all healed with his prescription of Panadol and a container of yoghurt made by his mother.
Summer is the busiest time in the souk, specially towards the end of it when all women buy bulks of tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, and other fruits and vegetables that can be either preserved or pickled in preparation for winter season. Wherever you are in Zahle, it is the same consistent view of balconies turning into trails of sunbathing lentils and cracked wheat, carpets of drying mint leaves, and trays of tomato purees, figs and apricot jam – regularly stirred with a wooden spoon.
“Aunty Fawziyeh” was a multi skilled woman, who could handle a wooden spoon in one hand and a bucket of water in another. Fawziyeh was a single mother who shared a little room with her daughter. She was a tailor with limited clients and won the compassion of her neighbours – the adult ones only. Her leafy house was situated right by our “Dar” (little Piazza) where my childhood friends and I met regularly to play. Like all kids, we were loud; which annoyed only Fawziyeh.
She often yelled at us to keep quiet, then upgraded her anger to a bucket of water if we resumed playing, missing her target each time until she successfully hit one of us with a full bucket. Her victim hit back with another bucket, washing off the tray of golden apricot jam she was basking under the sun…and “It was now about noon, and darkness covered the whole earth until about three o’clock, while the sun stopped shining. Then the curtain in the sanctuary tore down the middle” (Luke 23/44-45) Something like that…
“Aunty Leila” on the other hand was a sweet person who loved us whether we were angels or demons. I remember once I wanted to make my first disastrous Zaatar pastry. I asked another neighbour “Aunty Sonia” (May she rests in peace) if she can give me some zaatar. Predicting the waste I was about to make; she mixed me a bit of zaatar with water instead of olive oil. I sat a little fire with toilet papers in a hole across aunty Leila’s house to bake my little dough of zaatar. Realising the fact that I might end up burning myself, aunty Leila tried to persuade me that a beast will come out and swallow me, I didn’t believe her and actually felt quiet safe with her being around because I was convinced that if anything bad is meant to happen, she is there and as long as she is there, everything will be alright!
To make Apricot Jam, you need:
900g (4 cups) white sugar
1kg firm ripe apricots, flesh cut into 1.5cm pieces
250ml (1 cup) water
Use a vegetable peeler to peel the rind from the lemon. Halve and juice the lemon, reserving the seeds. Wrap lemon rind and seeds in a piece of muslin and tie with unwaxed white kitchen string to enclose.Preheat oven to 150°C. Place the sugar in a deep-sided baking tray or baking dish.
Bake, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes or until sugar is warm.Meanwhile, place the muslin pouch, apricot, water and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice in a large saucepan over medium heat. Bring to the boil. Simmer, stirring, for 10 minutes or until the mixture is thick and soft.Reduce heat to low.
Add the warm sugar and cook, stirring, occasionally brushing down the side of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water, for 5 minutes or until sugar dissolves.Increase heat to medium.
Bring to the boil. Simmer rapidly, stirring and using a slotted spoon to remove any scum from the surface, for 20-25 minutes or until the jam reaches setting point (take care the jam doesn’t catch on the base of the pan). Discard the muslin pouch.
Ladle hot jam through a funnel into clean, dry jars and seal. Invert for 2 minutes. Turn the jars upright.
Set aside to cool.
Label, date and store in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight until ready to use.
Enjoy with Lebanese bread, trust me for once!