The Apples of Mnaytreh

The festivities that accompany the apple harvest at the start of the month of October are the perfect occasion to familiarize those who have never discovered Lebanese apples with the fruit. The celebration also is a chance to get to know the land the apples come from, the men of this land…and their women. By today, the apple trees would be already stripped of their shining fruits, and would be awaiting pruning – they will greet the winter and its high-mountain snow pruned-down and cold.

The history of Lebanese apples is tied to the areas that produce the country’s best fruits: Mnyatreh, Aquora and Qartaba. Perhaps the gods have something to do with these regions, seeing as how they are at the feet of the mountains that open into the valley of Adonis. This valley is the mythic site where the love between Adonis and Astarte (the Syriac Aphrodite) blossomed, and where the young and vigorous god was killed by a wild boar.

The legend says that from the blood of the beautiful Adonis – in accordance with the wishes of his divine lover – caused the red and fragile anenome flower that announces springtime and beautiful days to spring from the earth.

But looking at these apples with their deep and intense red…it is as if they are the color of blood, ripening towards the end of summer – it is clear that some drops of Adonis’ blood touched these fruit: they are divine apples, therefore, in all senses of the phrase.

The apples are grown in the highest mountains of Lebanon, a zone inhabited by the Christian -Maronite people. It is a habit in this area to group together cultivation of various crops, physical areas, and religious factions: the apples go to the Christian Maronites of the mountains; the olives to the Christian Greek Orthodox of the plains in northern Lebanon; the grape vines to the Christian Greek Catholics of the Bekaa valley; the tobacco to the Shiite Muslims of the south; and the citrus cultivation to the Suni Muslims of the coastal plains of southern and northern Lebanon.

The history of the apples of Mnaytreh is also the history of a single man, Gebrayel Germanos, a Lebanese gentleman who returned to his homeland in the last century after making his fortune in Venezuela.

Germanos did not limit himself to simply buying a piece of farmland; instead he took over an entire mountain. At the time, his Lebanese countrymen were amazed by Germanos’ decision to invest in a lost corner of the earth instead of buying up blocks of the city, but he was following his dream and realizing a long-held personal project.

Here a woman enters into the story, sitt Waddad, the only daughter of Gebrayel Germanos. The term sitt could possibly be translated – in other circumstances – as a gentle term for ‘woman’. In reality, sitt Waddad is a perfect mix of uncompromising aristocracy, of peasant courage, of elite and sophisticated breeding…and also a perfect shot. We must mention that because we are speaking of one of the fastest and best-regarded shooters of the area. This region was once a little like the West during the cowboy days, and there was definitely a need to protect this ‘lost’ land!

Returning to apples, the greater part of the varieties cultivated today were imported from the United States (Golden, Starcken, Ronson, King David.). Although you find some local varieties, for example, the Khoury Sleiman (literally ‘Sleiman priest’) of which the sitt is very proud.

The harvest happens at the end of September or the start of October. The harvest must be timed to take advantage of the moment when the intense heat of summer winds down and autumn – which brings rain and cool weather – begins. The fog is an important element, and it is awaited eagerly. It is said, in fact, that when the fog comes down the apples assume their most lustrous colors. It is important that it not rain or that, worse still, there are no gale winds, because the apples would come tumbling to earth. The losses in these cases are devastating.

The harvest of the orchards begins in the orchards located lower areas of the land and in those fields that get the most sun, for there the fruits are the most mature.

The harvesters are primarily female, of the attaffat. They move in groups, or in families; they come from Afqa or Medjel, two small nearby villages, but also come from further away, from Wadi Khaled or Sir el-Doniyeh. From the Sir el-Doniyeh village, situated in to the extreme northern limit of Lebanon and Aakkar, the harvesters are primarily men, they are the most skillful and are highly valued for this kind of job. You hear it said everywhere that the men of that village are precise and incredibly fast pickers.

On the contrary, the aarab of Wadi Khaled are the gypsies of the area. The pickers are primarily women – women of all ages and generations – from the grandmothers to the children. The women of Wadi Khaled are all under the surveillance of a single man: the grandfather. The male representative acts exclusively as a chaperon, rigorously abstaining from every practical issue of the job.

In the days of the collection the harvesters rise at dawn, around five in the morning, when the sky is still dark and the eastern wind caresses the man cooking the morning’s coffee. The harvesters begin at 6, leaving from the highest part of the orchard and working their way down towards the lower region. First the low branches are stripped, then the younger workers – lighter and more agile – scramble up the tree to pick the highest fruits.

The atmosphere depends on the group of pickers. With the men of Sir el-Donyieh, the work moves like a tornado, fast, effective and silent. Among the women of aarab Wadi Khaled, instead, the air is joyful and full of song.

It is not important how you pluck and apple from the branch, how it comes, it comes! In the first place, it is necessary to grasp it in the right way, with the palm of the hand, and not with the fingers – they inevitably leave signs and prints on the shining fruit. It must then be relieved from the branch through a light twist, which serves to separate the tiny stem from the branch. It must be harvested in this way, otherwise the stem-less apple would rot, and if it part of the tree were hastily pulled off the tree, growth would suffer in the future.

When the apples hang in clusters on the branches, they must be collected in bunches or they will all fall on the ground. The fallen apples are never collected in the first harvest; they will rot quickly and you need only one to turn an entire flat of apples. Therefore, they are used to make juices, cider, and jam – or basically any product that can be made quickly from the ripe fruits.

The polished and seemingly resistant fruits are treated with extreme care – they are actually quite delicate. They are collected and deposited in hampers, then are arranged in boxes and stored. The apples must be treated as if they were made of glass.

The apple boxes were once made of wood, today they are made of plastic. Each can contain approximately 20 kilograms of apples, and once full they are covered with a cardboard sheet and tied with twine. Boxed thusly, the apples are transported by tractor to the road, and from there to the refrigerated warehouses and stores.

The harvester’s day is closes around four in the afternoon. The pickers pause only once around noon to devour tomatoes, onions sweet white onions and bread. The more important meal is at the end of the day, when the harvesters have left the orchards and returned to the encampment, after writing their the names in the worker’s list (an indispensable step, as they must do this to be paid…).

Sitt Waddad and her family eats supper at home and each harvest day’s menu features potatoes and garlic prepared in various ways. Later, in the course of the evening, the head builders harvesters come by for a visit (never the simple workers), they share a drink or an herb tea, but they never linger long, as the next morning they must begin at the crack of dawn.

The khlassah is the festivity that marks the end of the harvest. Sitt Waddad invites all – harvesters, bosses, head-harvesters – to her house for a dbyih’ah. An animal is butchered, a goat or a ram, often more than one, and every piece of meat is prepared differently: raw beaten by mortar an pestle; or cooked on hot coals. This is also the moment when the meat is sprinkled with arack, alcohol perfumed with anise (a type of ouzo or raki) typical of the Lebanese mountains.

Tomorrow will be a great day – or we could say, ‘the’ great day – it is payday.

Then life returns to its normal, established rhythm: the orchards are emptied, the harvesters return to their villages, and sitt Waddad fills her days caring for the apple trees and for the land.

Kamal Mouzawak is a contributor to Saveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, the Lebanon’s most important f&w monthly

Translation by Anya Fernald

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