61m - Not a library, not just a bistro, not a theatre, not a cultural space. So,...
A kaleidoscope of spices and flavours of the region
Once upon a time, wars were waged for spices (nutmeg) and new travel routes opened over land and sea to reach the fabled Spice Islands of the Far East.
Asked whether he would go to war for a certain spice or preserve, Toufic el Zein laughed and professed his love for saffron, a possible link to his Iranian grandmother. “The other spice I really like are coriander seeds from India and chilli from Urfa in Turkey-it’s very subtle.” When he went to see his other “teta” (grandmother) in the Beka’a, she would, depending on the season, prepare makdous, labneh, jams, cooked freekeh, or bulgur.
Zein’s professional parcours took him to work in publishing for 15 years, then managing a bagel café and vintage furniture store here in Beirut before setting up a PR and communication company. His love for food did lead him to Gramm épicerie fine d’orient.
“I’ve always cooked,” he noted. “When I lived in Paris I used to cook and invite friends over. I’m good with desserts.” Good is an understatement…
When Youssef Haidar, Nada Zeineh and Mona Sayegh approached him with the idea of opening a deli in Gemmayzeh and asked if he’d be interested in coming on board, he jumped at the occasion. The group started working together in December 2014 and opened Gramm in September of this year.
While Haidar is responsible for sourcing spices, Sayegh manages Gramm, Zein mans the deli and runs the kitchen, and Zeineh takes care of the display.
Behind the glass doors of Beirut’s latest deli, stacked high up to the ceiling, and neatly assembled on the dark-wooden shelves, are a myriad of spices, preserves, and mostly edible products, many of them tricky to source.
Stocked with known and less known produce from the region and beyond, the “épicerie”, situated in Gemmayzeh’s Al Arz Street has what foodies delight in: pastes (Bell Pepper, Tomato and Hot Pepper Paste), Preserved Lemon from Morocco, Pickled Algae, Shiitake Mushrooms and other hard to source Japanese products, nuts and dried fruit (pistachio, pine nuts, raisins, cranberries, amongst others), Tahini, sesame and soy sauce, Zereshk (known as Barberry, used in the Persian dish Zereshk Polow), Matcha Tea, Italian dried tomatoes, Turkish sardines and Moroccan olives.
“We get our local products from very small producers,” Zein explained. “It tends to be done in artisanal production. Our products are not (certified) organic all the time but the planting process is done carefully, in harmony with nature,” he underlined.
In preparation for Gramm’s opening, Zein travelled around Lebanon to taste and source high quality produce. He also made various discoveries, notably in the south, as well as Hermel where he discovered Baef Rose, a pink-hued pepper.
Among the local products are makdous, and grape vine leaves, kishk, honey from the Chouf, date and grape molasses, olive oil from Koura, grape vinegar, Rose water, orange blossom, as well as jams and marmalades.
Patrons will find an extensive selection of local infusions from local flora, such as elderflower, zoofah, marshmallow flowers, and roses. “You can make your own mix,” Zein put forward. Connoisseurs will appreciate corn silk tea, which is native to Korea and has many benefits.
Among the herbs, seeds and spices are standards (rosemary, sumac, basil, “herbes de Provence”, marjoram, cloves, anise) and uncommon samples (Khetmiyeh (rambler rose), Zaaroor flowers (Hawthorn), Kholajan (cedar), terebinth Palaestina (a species of Pistacia), as well as African Chili Bite and mixes (Kafta mix, Omani Spice Mix, Kebbeh spices, Tajine Mix).
Zaatar, the most popular spice mix of the region, consists of seven ingredients, the main being oregano syriacum and Thymbra spicata. Among the jars for sale are also fragrant oregano syriacum flowers from the Chouf.
“Besides chutneys, jams, and preserves, that are made in our kitchen, we import spices and preserves from different countries: saffron and “berechh” from Iran, Basmati rice and spices from India, Harissa and lemon preserve from Morocco, and some French products – a must! We furthermore have oils, vinegars, loukoum, and halawa specially made and packed for Gramm,” Zein elaborated.
Gramm is a deli, where you can sit down for lunch, tea or apéro, or get take away. There will be a delivery service available in the near future. It will eventually also be serving breakfasts, and offer cooking courses as well as seasonal events.
The bestsellers so far have been orange blossom, spices, jams, the honey from the Chouf, and loukoum. Of the special Gramm creations that emanate out of the large kitchen downstairs, the Zaatar Nigella Seeds Cookies and Zein’s cakes are absolute ‘must savour’.
Among the non-edible goods are aprons, a small selection of books, pottery, tagine bowls, and to go with the black and white visual identity of Gramm, black and white earthen containers for olives, tea, mustard. Special Gramm gift boxes are available at $120 or $150 and can be customised.
Quizzed about his favourite spots in Beirut and Lebanon, Zein said that he loves walking by the seaside. “Especially in the early morning, but also at night when it’s empty. Traffic is our biggest problem,” he noted.
“I really like Burj Hammoud, it has a very nice spirit. Sadly, the Souk of Sour (Tyre) has changed totally. It’s now filled with Chinese stores. And the mountains – from north to south – I love the mountains of Lebanon.”
The delicious treasure trove that it is, Gramm should consider labelling its goods also in Arabic in order to educate its clientele and promote preservation of ancient indigenous knowledge systems. To the same end, more books should be stocked on spices, flora and local cuisine, including mouneh.
Not all goods display region or country of origin. Especially local producers should be acknowledged and so should be their regions.
For those unfamiliar with many of the products available, labels or info cards could assist patrons who might make new discoveries and decide to experiment with new spices, etc.
Lunch is served between 12.30pm and 3.30pm and there are local and imported cheeses and ham to choose from for aperitif, as well as alcohol.