Taming the Wild Thyme: A Visit to a Za’atar Farm in Lebanon
At the end of a bumpy, red dirt driveway in a small town in southern Lebanon, you’ll find the home of farmer Abu Kassem and his family. For about 13 years, they have been growing za’atar, the once-wild herb that plays a starring role in the increasingly popular spice blend of the same name. The path from field to flatbread is simple on this organic farm, but one fueled by dedication and hard work. Take a peek at how they do it — and you may never look at that bottle of supermarket za’atar in the same way again.
Who: Abu Kassem of Za’atar Zawtar
What: Za’atar spice blend
Where: Zawtar, a small town in southern Lebanon
Before visiting Lebanon, I had a vague idea that za’atar was a blend of many spices — thyme? oregano? — but I learned the truth shortly after arriving on the farm. A good-quality Lebanese za’atar should contain only four ingredients: the dried za’atar herb, sumac, sesame seeds and salt. (But not too much sesame! Because sesame seeds are cheaper to produce than za’atar, a high ratio of the seeds can mean a lower-quality product.)
Za’atar is the Arabic name for the perennial herb Origanum syriacum, also called wild thyme, bible hyssop or Lebanese oregano. It was once gathered in the wild, but due to increasing demand, it is now cultivated. Abu Kassem grows his certified organic za’atar plants from seed in greenhouses and typically harvests in September or October; his farm produces about four tons of the herb every year.
Next to his house, Abu Kassem has a small but airy workshop filled with all the equipment he needs to blend, mix and distill his za’atar products. Everything is done with modest tools: wood sifters and bowls, plastic tubs, glass jars. He makes the spice blend by running the dried za’atar and sumac through a noisy grinder, followed by a mechanical sifter. Then he toasts sesame seeds in an iron pot over a portable gas burner, tossing the seeds in the air until they are crackling and fragrant. Into the mound of soft za’atar and sumac they go, stirred in and then scooped into plastic bags weighed on an electronic scale.
In his workshop, Abu Kassem also distills za’atar water, a powerfully astringent medicinal liquid used to treat everything from menstrual pain to impotence. I tried both the za’atar water and the even more potent oil. In the words of Ralph Wiggum, it tastes like burning! — but my lingering sore throat disappeared the day after I drank it. Coincidence? I don’t know, but I brought home a bottle of the stuff just to be sure.
No visit to a za’atar farm would be complete without a taste of the slightly sour, herbaceous spice blend, so one of the highlights of the day was sitting down to a breakfast feast prepared by Abu Kassem’s wife, Fatima. It included fresh rounds of manouche za’atar, a chewy flatbread covered with local olive oil and and a layer of za’atar. Women in Lebanon typically bring their own za’atar to the bakery in the morning, so the baker can bake the manouche with their personal herb blend.
Fatima also makes jars of pickled za’atar to sell, and had just spent about two weeks canning 700 jars of the brined leaves, which are the thinner, more tender shoots that emerge after the initial harvest. Packed in jars with a mixture of coarse salt, water and lemon, they are an unusual and tasty addition to a mezze spread.
After a couple hours spent sitting at a sunny outdoor table with Abu Kassem’s family and munching on manouche za’atar, labne and cucumbers, gazing at the green fields of za’atar in the distance, it was difficult to leave. Now back at home, I need only open up the bag of za’atar I brought back with me to transport back to the red dirt fields and blue skies of Zawtar. It’s not quite the same, but until I can get back to Lebanon, it will have to do.
(Images: Anjali Prasertong)