Thursday, February 17, 2011

Making Arak

Yesterday I went back to the village of Btedhi in Bekaa. We left at 5am and hit a patch of fog in the mountains that was so thick you felt like you had reached the edge of the world and then went into the nothingness beyond it. The bad weather must have covered all of Lebanon, because when we left Beirut it was raining after a thunderstorm, and it rained all day in Bekaa Valley. You couldn't see the mountaintops. And it was cold. Winter cold. In the thirties. We got there so early that nothing was open for breakfast, even in Baalbek, which is as close to a city as you're going to get out there. Always cool to see the Baalbek ruins and say a silent prayer to Bacchus. Not so cool to see the streets lined with Hezbollah flags, but it is what it is.

The weather was such that we got stuck in Btedhi for the night, but that just made for a great night. One of the highlights was hanging out with a half a dozen guys from the village while they were making arak, Lebanon's version of Ouzo. You could smell the alcohol as soon as you got out of the car, and inside the small room the fumes were enough to make you drunk. At one point there was so little oxygen in the room that no one's lighters would light, which set off roaring laughter.

They had already processed the grapes into alcohol and had added the anise and sugar to work towards the finished product. The first jar they filled was 30% alcohol. It decreased each time to 28, 27, and further down. When they finish the batch, they mix the jars together to get about 25%. I had a sip of the 30% stuff straight from the tube and thought my body was going to catch on fire. But then water was added to the glass, as is the way arak is drunk, and it tasted nice (though it was still too strong for my beer-drinking taste buds.)

I was told the distiller worked exactly like an espresso machine. The top of it is heated and water is poured onto it, causing condensation on the inside, which is what's needed to start the flow of arak.

I've had homemade spirits before - in Bulgaria we drank rakia semi-frequently (often purchased from under the table at the Veliko Turnovo market) - but never straight from the distiller. I enjoyed the evening immensely and thought about similar times in Bulgaria and how, like the Bulgarians, Lebanese grow their own food as if it's a celebration of life.

The clouds cleared for the night and without urban luminosity you could see myriads of stars and feel your own insignificance in the universe. The moon was so bright you could see the patchwork fields and tiny towns of the valley quite clearly, and the mountains glowed white with the snow that had fallen all day. You could almost forget there were problems in the world.

I saw the sunrise over snowcapped mountains and enjoyed breathing the crisp, cold winter air as everywhere I looked were great white heights. The snow had come very close to falling on the village, and truthfully, I wouldn't have minded so much, as I had good heating.

Going back there this weekend (and wouldn't mind getting stuck an extra day if the weather is bad in the mountains.) Will take a look at the USAID built reservoir to see what my tax dollars are doing. Glad to have a reason to wear my hiking boots.

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