Zaatar: How Lebanon Keeps Thyme
By: Robert Abdallah
Published Sunday, August 5, 2012
In the past, people used to gather zaatar (thyme) from the hills and woodlands. But there was a decline in wild thyme because of environmental changes and high demand for this herb. People started thinking about ways to preserve and produce thyme, and the solution was to cultivate it, just like other crops.
“Twenty years with thyme” is how Nawaf Taleb, originally from Biqaa Safrin and now residing in the town of Izal in the region of Dinniyeh, summarizes his life. Taleb says that life as he knows it began when he took up gathering thyme as a profession.
Taleb’s line of work was something done by many villagers, particularly those who came from the poor villages in Dinniyeh and Akkar. But Taleb is among the few who mastered it. “Gathering thyme is not an easy task,” Taleb says. “It requires physical skills, patience and fortitude, and the ability to jump among the terraces and groves.”
What distinguishes Taleb from other thyme-gatherers is his skill in turning this naturally-growing product into a commodity sold in the vegetables market – “both wholesale and retail.” He says, “I was the first one to introduce it [i.e. thyme] to the market, at a time when it was traded only on a small scale, directly between poor families and well-off ones. At best, some would sell thyme to bakeries or restaurants.”
Nawaf Taleb is proud to have travelled to a huge number of groves and woodlands in Lebanon in his search for thyme. He first went to the outlying areas near his village, then to neighboring villages in Dinniyeh such as Deir Nbouh and others, and reached Byblos and Batroun, before finally arriving in the villages south of Sidon.
His thyme-gathering journeys helped him become well acquainted with the whims and moods of the people across most areas of Lebanon. He thus faced little hostility in his treks across the country. “At worst, they would ask me to leave, whether they were people who wanted to keep the thyme for their own village folk, or beekeepers who believed that picking thyme harmed their beehives.”
But Nawaf eventually tired of his travels especially as “the magnanimity of mother nature began to decline with the change in climate.” Faced with this reality, Taleb and some colleagues began to think about new ideas. In 2005, the answer came to them; “we shall grow thyme ourselves.”
He soon got what he wanted and that same year, Taleb launched his first experiment. He rented a plot of land in the town of Ardeh in the Zgharta District. He had irrigation pipes installed and then he planted thyme seeds which he had collected from the wild, as they were not available in the market.
The best time for cultivation, according to Taleb, as is the case with wheat and barley, is between October and November, when it has rained enough to irrigate the land well. Taleb keeps to this tradition, despite the fact that he relies on drip irrigation, because he believes in the need to respect the natural cycle of agriculture. The thyme seedlings then to germinate in early March, and start to grow in earnest after that.
In his first attempt, Taleb noticed that some leaves turned yellow and wilted. He immediately consulted agricultural engineers and dealers selling fertilizers and agricultural equipment, who advised him to strengthen his seedlings with nutrients such as iron and magnesium.
But nothing worked. The seedlings became affected by many diseases that usually blight olive and other trees. So Taleb started treating the plant with his own methods, using pesticides to control diseases.
Thyme has many uses, though it is mainly used once it is dried, as one of the staple condiments stored in pantries in the villages of Dinniyeh and Akkar. But dried thyme does not contain the same nutritional value as fresh green thyme. Despite this, it is, in addition to olive oil, a very important culinary item given its nutritional value and healthy nature.
Thyme mixed with sesame seeds and sumac and nuts is a common delicacy. Unlike most foodstuffs it has no shelf life, and in order to preserve it, all that one has to do is store it away from humidity.
It goes without saying that thyme is also the main ingredient used in bakeries in making manaqish [savory Arabic pastries], the favorite breakfast food of many. Nevertheless, the level of quality varies between bakeries, depending on the ingredients added to the thyme such as sumac, or the type of oil used.
Meanwhile, fresh thyme, now that it is harder to find in nature, is now more or less only affordable to the middle class and the well-off. Fresh thyme is consumed, along with mint, rocket and other leaves, as an appetizer in restaurants. Green thyme may be served fresh, and can also be served pickled.
As well as gathering it from the wild or cultivating it for commercial purposes, thyme seedlings can be grown in pots at home, in backyards or balconies.
Abu Khalil Naous is a farmer from the town of Ardeh. According to Naous, thyme seedlings last for about six years before they are replaced by seedlings that grow beneath them, because of falling seeds. To Abu Khalil, a little green thyme is indispensable at breakfast, with labneh [strained yogurt] and olives, with potatoes, or with any other dish. He also believes that fattoush [a Middle Eastern salad] would be incomplete without “a few leaves” of thyme.
Other than the fact that the plant produces redolent fragrances, what is even more important, according to Abu Khalil, is “Thyme Water, which is prepared using al-karkeh [the alembic].” As for its uses, the man who has inherited the skills for making this syrup says, “It is a medicine that cures all gastric diseases.”
Nutritionist Zeina al-Ali, from the town of Halba, confirms this, saying that “concentrated thyme water” has many benefits. According to Ali, it is an effective gastric antiseptic that soothes bloating and flatulence, helps treat infections of the respiratory tract, and is an effective analgesic for gingivitis and sore throats.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.