Food Heritage expert Zeinab Jeambey researches the tradition of making molasses and meets Lebanese producers continuing this seasonal ritual.
Since the dawn of times, the Mediterranean has been abundant with the sweetest fruits and its people are skilled at preserving them. Internationally, the word molasses often refers to sugarcane molasses, a by-product of sugar extraction by heating sugarcane juice, which became famous in the early 20th century in the sugarcane plantations of southern USA and the Caribbean. Around the Mediterranean, molasses, an ancient roman tradition, were made from grape juice and were used as the main sweetener, along with honey, and were prepared as part of the year’s food provisions. Though the memory of molasses has almost faded in Europe, it lives on in the Middle East. Traditional variations include date, grape, carob, fig and mulberry molasses. Known as “Debs” in Arabic, this dense liquid is high in natural sugars and rich in minerals. In Lebanon, grape and carob molasses are widely consumed. Surprisingly, we discovered that apple, cactus fruit and sweet orange molasses are also being made, at times out of necessity, sometimes out of creativity.
“Debs”, the Arabic word for molasses, signifies abundance, often referring to the thick juice of dates, and inherently meaning ‘sweet’.
Faces and sweet memories
Shibli Abi Assi’s grape molasses
Shibli Abi Assi an agricultural engineer from Maasser el Shouf, decided to invest in his family’s lands by practicing organic agriculture, mainly producing grapes. Making molasses has always been a family event that lasts for three full days.
On day one, grapes are collected, juiced and soaked with a type of white soil named “houwara” in Arabic. Shibli explains that houwara, is high in calcium and neutralizes the grape juice acidity. The mixture is then boiled and left to rest for 12 hours. The following day, the clarified juice called “moustar” is collected for a second phase of boiling. Moustar nights are festive occasions where friends and family drink the liquid mixed with walnuts. The moustar is then boiled until it reaches a third of its original volume. At this stage the molasses are beaten to solidify, which usually requires another day to reach the right consistency. Abi Assi produces around 100 kilograms of grape molasses every season.
Sweet memory: As kids, Abi Assi and his brother were responsible for feeding the fire under the molasses pot while family members took turns in stirring. One day the kids saw many birds flying over. They stacked a pile of wood under the pot and left for their favorite hobby, hunting. The heat suddenly increased under the mixture, causing it to burn slightly. Alarmed by the smell, the family rushed to salvage what was left. Abi Assi laughs as he remembers; “Our joy over the one-bird catch quickly faded when seeing dad’s anger. I will leave the rest to your imagination!”
To purchase grape molasses, contact Abi Assi at 03 915313
Iman Sabbagh’s cactus fruit and sweet orange molasses
Sabbagh started working with food 13 years ago, after taking courses in macrobiotic diet. She believes that a diet should revolve around locally grown, wholesome foods with no preservatives or added sugar. This creative lady has never stopped innovating: after developing her line of hazelnut, peanut and almond butters she started experimenting with making new types of molasses. Her purpose? To have natural sweeteners for her jams, desserts and chocolate. She has made cactus fruit molasses and sweet orange molasses.
Sweet memory: Sabbagh recalls when she first made molasses. A Saudi customer asked for sweet pomegranate molasses and of which Iman made her first three bottles. Hesitant at first, she then realized that t was a sensation. She personally loves to dilute it with water and serve it as a refreshing late summer drink.
To purchase cactus fruit and sweet orange molasses, contact Sabbagh at 03 891483
Toufiq Abou Alwan and Talaat Boustani’s apple and quince molasses
Molasses has always been a way to conserve fruit in excess. In Barouk, apple cultivation started in 1927. Over the last decade, apple farmers have been struggling to sell their produce, with 30 to 40 percent going to waste. Inspired by an apple molasses product from France, Toufiq and Talaat, both responsible for the agriculture cooperative of Barouk and Fraidiss villages, convinced farmers to make molasses out of the apples they can’t sell. The cooperative currently produce around 1700 kg of apple molasses a year.
Sweet memory: About a year ago, a businessman passing by Freydiss came across the village agriculture cooperative. Thrilled with the idea of apple molasses, he asked if it was possible to make a limited quantity of apple and quince molasses to export to London. The product sold under the Marigold brand, found huge success in the UK and for this season, the company has tripled its order of molasses.
Rif Al Koura Cooperative and carob molasses
Although carob molasses is known to be a product from the south of Lebanon, our search for someone producing it in the north led us to the Koura Cooperative. Though specializing in olives and olive oil, we found their carob molasses to be exceptional with a smoky flavor acquired from having been reduced over a wood fire.
Sweet memory: For Hajj Ali Tamer, president of the Koura Cooperative, the smell of carob molasses brings memories of Ramadan during which “debs” is diluted with water as a sherbet and passed around to sooth the thirst of those fasting.
To purchase carob molasses, contact Tamer at 03 131856
This article was published in Lebanon Traveler magazine