An ice-cold jug of rose-flavoured lemonade on a balcony in Beirut’s summer heat, a glass of rich red wine in a vineyard in the Bekaa Valley or a fierce arabic coffee warming your hands in the mountains– these are some of the settings and memories I most associate with drinking in Lebanon. We are a country of various religions and subsets of religion of course so alcohol is consumed widely — and certainly in my childhood it was difficult to tell if someone was Muslim or not by whether they drank alcohol. These days, things have changed and those differences are sadly much more in your face. But everyone still indulges in home-made cordials when the heat begins to take hold. Pomegranate, rose, mulberry, tamarind and of course lemon are the main flavourings. If your family has some land in the countryside — whether it’s a gorgeous estate, full of fragrant orchards, or a scrap of near waste ground — then you can grow and use your own fruits. I remember one tree in particular — a white mulberry – tout abiad in arabic – that stood in my grandmother’s garden. I’d go and hide there when I had a tantrum with my aunt, who was just a year older than me and my main playmate. Up in the branches, I’d find silkworms and take them home, putting them in a row of little boxes, expecting some beautiful diaphanous dress to appear full-grown from their ministrations like something out of Cinderella. We also used to raid the big red mulberry trees around our village — and not just for the extravagantly juicy fruit. We’d snatch down the leaves and smoke them as if they were cigarettes. (I had to keep up with my aunt. ) I think those mulberry trees must contain an almost overwhelming freight load of nostalgia for me judging by the ridiculous pleasure I took in discovering a secret mulberry tree where I live now beside the Thames. It’s buried away in a small wood just on the edge of a path that leads to a wrought iron gate that opens into an eighteenth century walled garden. That is the perfect setting for such a mysteriously abundant yet obscure tree, whose fruits just about peek through the curtain of foliage around it. I’ve been stocking up from it ever since, taking friends on foraging expeditions in mid summer every year. I was surprised by their surprise at how succulent and delicious the fruit is. You don’t see it in the shops, because it spoils so quickly. I have grown many fruit trees in London, including cherry, pomegranate, quince, apple and loquat. But the best of all remains the lemon tree. Even the leaves give off a wonderful scent — which makes up for the fact that the fruit doesn’t always come good. I usually kill them in the end. I tell my husband that I want to experiment with them, which means each winter we leave them out in the cold — sometimes covered, sometimes not. We had a little grove of lemon trees at one point. All gone now – they lasted two or three years, I think. But this year, it looks like we might be lucky. One of the trees in my garden is already flowering, with buds growing on several branches. So, in honour of this — and in hope as well — I am going to give a little recipe for Lebanese lemonade here. I’ve been drinking it the last couple of days as the sun plays hide and seek. I’ve experimented with all sort of ways of enhancing its flavour — mint, orange blossom, pomegranate, rose syrup. Of course, you can add a touch of arak, too, if you want to make it alcoholic, but still keep it Lebanese. Some of my more conservative Muslim friends and relatives may not be so keen on that. Just as they will find this coming Ramadan right smack in the middle of summer a real trial. Imagine how hard it is to avoid drinking when the sun has been burning down at more than thirty degrees for the whole day and still hasn’t gone down — and somewhere not too far away, you can hear the chinking of jugs and glasses as neighbours treat themselves to an icy lemonade that has been growing in fragrance and richness for hours as the ingredients – the pomegranate, orange blossom and essence of roses – bed down more closely in an irresistible mixture of flavours and scents that , if you were feeling charitable, you might suggest was once the ideal in Lebanon with all its various sects and ethnicities. Who needs alcohol when you already have something so intoxicating…
Lemonade with orange, rose syrup and pomegranate
5 glasses of water
1 glass of ice
2 tea spoons of orange blossom water
1 handful of rose buds
1 tea spoon of pomegranate syrup if you wish
- Wash the lemons and orange and cut the fruit into small pieces
- Sprinkle the sugar on top and leave for half an hour to infuse the sugar
- Mix the sugar and the lemons together then squeeze the juices out
- Add 1 glass of water, mix and sieve the juice into a serving jug
- Add another glass of water to the fruit bowl mix, squeeze the juices out and sieve again into the serving jug.
- Once ready to serve, add the rest of the water, the ice, orange blossom and stir well
- You can add rose buds to the juice for decoration or pomegranate syrup.