Up in the mountains of Achout lives a delightful family. Mom Joujou (Jorgette), Dad Charbel and their three sons and daughter live in a concrete house where the fireplace is lit on cold nights, the arguile bubbles from the smoking room and friends gather in the kitchen for a chat with this happy family. That's when the saj isn't working.
When the gas is pumping and the saj flames are flaring, then it's a different story. Benches are carried outside, tables are shifted, and everyone congregates around this Lebanese masterpiece - the saj. Formed into an iron dome that sits atop a gas flame, the saj is Lebanon's answer to Italy's wood-fired pizza oven.
Joujou spent last night rolling balls of her homemade dough (flour, yeast, salt and water) into flat circles (the secret to perfectly rolled circles is to constantly thrown more flour over them), and then tossing them onto the saj, where she spread them with various toppings: zaatar and tomato (the zaatar is made with dried thyme and sumac from her own garden - mixed with roasted sesame seeds); mozarella; chilli-tomato paste; and kishk (a ground mixture of dried yoghurt and crushed wheat which Joujou makes herself every year - in Aug/ Sept when the sun and wind are out for the kishk to dry correctly on the rooftop). The result is a variety of flavoursome manoushe breads.
As Joujou dumped another manoushe onto our plates, the 20 friends (who all felt like family) broke off pieces to share different toppings with each other, adding a dollop of labneh, a slice of tomato or cucumber or olives to our tasty manoushes when we felt like mixing some flavours.
The night of manoushe-eating and arak-drinking (that's the colourless, aniseed-flavoured alcoholic drink that turns white with the addition of ice or water) ended with some sweet dough creations. One was a calzone-type manoushe filled with wedges of butter (!) and sugar (!) - YUM (!!!); the other was a fascinating creation with tahini. Joujou rolled the dough into a massive circle, spread it with tahini and sugar, and then made a hole in the middle to roll it all up from the inside out - into a circular worm. From this, she cut sections off and formed them into a twirly-whirly circle which she then flattened into a normal-looking flat circle on the saj. Seemed like a rather roundabout way (excuse the pun!) to get from point A to point B! But the result was awefully tasty - especially when served with honey.
The evening ended with herbal tea - made from a lemon-scented herb straight from the garden - and a very, very full stomach. Sahtein!
Making twirly-whirly circles.