Culinary box offers Europe the key to Lebanese produce
With Lebanon’s multiple crises putting strain on the agricultural industry, it’s the small-scale farmers and producers who are feeling the pinch the most. Belgian culinary company Key Sixteen is seeking to support these vulnerable producers by taking the best of their organic food products and putting them on Europe’s tables in a series of food discovery boxes.
Founded in 2014, Key Sixteen began by taking food enthusiasts to cuisine-rich countries like Lebanon for trips. When the pandemic halted travel, they began curating artisanal food boxes for people to explore at home under the title Seven Shelves.
"The foreign currency offered by these boxes means these farmers can afford to cultivate more crops, import crop seedlings and buy the fuel needed to run machinery and deliver their products to shops or markets"
Hoping to offer much-needed foreign income to their partnered Lebanese farmers and producers, the company has so far produced four themed boxes from Lebanon, each one featuring traditional preserves called mouneh, as well as spices, syrups and raw ingredients to try out.
Their latest launch – held at Beit Douma in the mountains above Batroun – has partnered with Souk el Tayeb, a Lebanese collective that supports small-scale farmers in rural areas and offers them the opportunity to sell their products in Beirut at a farmers’ market.
“We present them to the world as another side of Lebanon, especially after everything Lebanon is going through right now,” Key Sixteen founder Eric Humbert told The New Arab. “People felt a little bit of empathy for it and there are a lot of products that are not familiar to the Western palate.
“It’s very important for us to give back, so with every box we work with an NGO or an organization that helps an NGO,” he added. “In the case of Souk al Tayeb, they donate 2000 dishes every day [through their soup kitchen], so we decided to donate 300 today to the Lebanese Food Bank. We also invited local public school children to do some cooking activities today and give them some experiences they couldn’t otherwise have, with the new poverty in Lebanon.”
Since its inception, Souk el Tayeb has held two weekly farmers’ markets, which gather around 70-100 individuals who make their own traditional food products, promoting authentic Lebanese food and agriculture.
“We’re also doing projects to support small scale producers, with our project Dekenet, which means a corner shop/grocery store,” Souk el Tayeb co-founder Christine Codsi said. “We gather a variety of preserves and mouneh from all over Lebanon and sell them at our store for them. Every region has its own foods and traditions.
“We also have Tawlet, the farmers’ restaurant, which is a way to promote Lebanese traditional cuisine cooked by women, not chefs, who have been making these dishes their whole lives,” she added. “Behind everything is how to support small scale farmers, create jobs in rural areas – either we bring women from rural areas to our kitchens or create guest houses in rural areas like Beit Douma. It’s a way to create this traditional Lebanese experience, to bring people to these areas and support the local farmers.”
"With the economic collapse making imported products extremely expensive, there has been resurgence in locally-made products, both in the shops and at home"
The latest “Dekenet” box includes products like a jar of green olives, tomato jam from a farm in Rachaya in the West Bekaa, freekeh, which is smoked green wheat from South Lebanon, pomegranate molasses and kamouneh spice mix used to season meat.
Rising fuel prices and the devaluation of the Lebanese lira, coupled with water and electricity shortages, have driven the price of fresh produce to an all-time high, making it difficult to farmers to process their goods or get them to market. Fueling a small car now costs more than the minimum monthly wage in Lebanon, making it almost impossible for anyone being paid in lira to afford petrol.
The foreign currency offered by these boxes means these farmers can afford to cultivate more crops, import crop seedlings and buy the fuel needed to run machinery and deliver their products to shops or markets.
“It’s becoming more and more difficult. Today, the big challenge is access to energy. Whatever you produce, if you need fridges then you can’t store anything. If you need electricity to produce, it’s very difficult and the generators are very costly,” Codsi explained. “Some are looking into alternative energy but that is also costly.
“We used to have two farmers’ markets a week but now we only have one because of the price of petrol,” she added. “It’s no longer worth it for them to come like three hours from so far away and maybe they won’t sell. Before it was 50,000 LL. It wasn’t a big deal. Now, it's 400,000 LL. They can’t afford it.”
With the economic collapse making imported products extremely expensive, there has been a resurgence in locally-made products, both in the shops and at home.
Mouneh businesses have increased over the last two years, as cash-strapped Lebanese look for ways to make alternative income. Others, looking for ways to save money, have been trying their hand at homemade jams and pickles.
“Incredibly, we’ve noticed the young generation become interesting in mouneh. People are realizing the richness that we have in our country that they were not taking advantage of,” Codsi said. “We have a land that produces very generous and beautiful ingredients. For example, we have beautiful fruits and can produce very tasty jams and dried fruit. The young generation is realizing this and is swapping their Nutella for carob molasses.
“Mouneh is something usually done at home, so each housewife in every home would be doing mouneh, as it’s something simple,” she added. “At some point, we were letting these traditions fade, thinking they’re not as fancy as imported products – the typical consumer society – but with the pandemic and collapse of the country, we have to think of what is essential and doable. In Lebanon, we can still grow and produce.”
Maghie Ghali is a British-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. She worked for The Daily Star Lebanon and writes as a freelancer for a number of publications, including The National, Al Arabiya English, Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye, on arts and culture/design, environment and humanitarian topics.
Follow her on Twitter: @mghali6