The goat dairy product, ambarees, has a long history in Lebanon, but as its traditional production process fades out it’s at risk of being lost. The Food Heritage’s Foundation’s Zeinab Jeambey explores the tradition and how to preserve it.
Ambarees, also known as sirdeleh or labnet al jarra, is a traditional dairy product commonly prepared in the Bekaa Valley and the Shouf mountains in Lebanon, where baladi and shami goats are respectively the main grazing animals that produce it. The word sirdeleh refers to the earthenware jar in which the dairy product is prepared.
During the goat-milking season in June, the process starts by filtering and pouring raw goat milk and coarse salt into special clay jars that are porous in nature, with a hole in the base for draining purposes. The mixture is left to ferment at room temperature until the curd separates from the whey water, at which time the liquid is drained through the jar’s opening. Over the span of the summer, the process of adding milk, coarse salt, fermenting, and draining is repeated until each jar is filled with curd. The curd is then left in closed jars for four months to complete its fermentation process, at which stage ambarees develops into a type of labneh, yellowish in color and sour in taste. Throughout the fermentation process the product acidity rises, thus eliminating microorganisms that would otherwise be harmful. “The process of making ambarees is very delicate and one has to have a high level of hygiene so that it doesn’t ruin the final product,” says shepherd and ambarees producer Boutros Bou Maroun, from Saghbine. “That is why, traditionally, we say that only the producer can check over sirdele jars, otherwise the product will disintegrate.” Once ambarees is extracted from the earthenware jars, it can be either packed in glass jars, sealed and sold, or formed into balls, further dried on cheese cloth towels, then placed in glass jars and preserved in olive oil.
Ambarees is mainly consumed as labneh, served with olive oil and eaten for breakfast or dinner. In the villages, many spread it on saj bread and heat the bread on a wood-fire oven before eating their sandwiches. In villages with the custom of ambarees production, it is common as a main ingredient in salads, mixing it with purslane, tomatoes and onions, or reconstituting it with water and boiling kebbe meat, a variation of kebbe bi laban. In Niha El Shouf, ambarees is an essential part of their local cuisine. Abla Majed, from the village is a long-time producer of the dairy product. “It is one of the most important foods in our village,” Majed says. “We are used to having sirdeleh for breakfast rather than labneh.”
Though highly appreciated by villagers and dairy product connoisseurs, quality ambarees is hard to find nowadays due to the decrease and malpractice in its production, related to a common fear among the population of raw goat milk products, the loss of traditional knowledge about the importance of the processing method and the cultural appreciation for this heritage product. Similarly, malpractices in its production method has led to changes in both sensory and health properties of ambarees. “Unlike what people think, goats are the cleanest animals,” says shepard and ambarees producer Mohammad Temrez, from Maaser El Shouf. “They pick and choose what to eat and mainly graze on oak leaves and the tips and buds of wild plants.”
Sirdeleh Jars face extinction
Pottery use for storage, cooking and transferring dairy products in south eastern Europe, Anatolia and the Levant regions, are as old as seven millennia BC. But nowadays it is hard to find quality sirdeleh jars and the earthenware containers now used are often poorly glazed and tend to disintegrate due to the rising acidity resulting from ambarees fermentation. For this reason, many ambarees producers are abandoning earthenware vessels for plastic barrels, which imply major threats to its food safety and its cultural significance.
The loss of the traditional processing method of sirdeleh is threatened because the skill of making sirdeleh jars is not being passed down through generations of pottery makers. In an attempt to safeguard this traditional dairy product, the Food Heritage Foundation and the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture in Zahle and Bekaa are collaborating to raise awareness about this product and its traditional processing techniques. Under the EU funded project Lactimed; funds will be geared towards jar production and distribution to ambarees producers and for training on food safety and hygiene during processing.
Buy quality ambarees
Amal Ghrayyeb Sharara
08 670177, 70 553838
Saghbine, West Bekaa
Convent Ein El Jawze
Saghbine, West Bekaa
Find ambarees on the Darb el Karam food heritage trail (71 731437, food-heritage.org)
Read more about the ambarees tradition
From ‘Akkar to ‘Amel – Lebanon’s Slow Food Trail (Rami Zurayk et al. 2008)
Zurayk takes readers on an extensive journey in his book through Lebanon’s villages, from harvest to production, advocating for the importance of preserving traditional food production and culinary customs as part of the country’s cultural heritage.
Available at antoineonline.com
Was Milk Processed in these Ceramic Pots?
Organic residue analyses of European prehistoric cooking vessels (Melanie Salque, 2012)
An article that looks at the archaeological evidence for dairy production and culinary customs of the time.
Available at academia.edu
Chemical characterization and bacteriological quality of traditional Lebanese goat dairy products
(Elham Hajj Semaan, Lebanese Science Journal, Vol. 12, no. 1, 2011)
This report on the nutrition and safety of goat dairy products in Lebanon is the result of a study with 43 goat farmers from different regions around the country.
Available at cnrs.edu.lb