A heavenly aroma greets you when passing by a bakery; tangy flavors linger on your taste buds long after you have swallowed that last bite. Yes, we are talking about zaatar—the faithful companion of the man’ousheh, a Lebanese breakfast favorite.
Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon each have their own versions of zaatar, mixing different herbs and seeds with dried thyme leaves. The Lebanese zaatar mix typically includes dried Lebanese thyme (scientific name Origanum syriacum), sumac, toasted sesame seeds, and salt.
This simple staple has been the object of innovation in Lebanon, through the cultivation of the thyme itself or, more recently, through twists to the original recipe.
Lebanese thyme is a wild herb found in almost all of the country’s mountainous areas. It is plentiful, as it needs very little water to survive. It is collected mainly by rural families, who dry it and mix it with the other zaatar ingredients. It is then either sold it to commercial distributors and resellers, or to friends and family.
However, careless harvesting—ranging from pulling the plant from the roots to cutting the leaves before they have fully matured—is harmful to the herb and risks depleting Lebanon’s resource of wild thyme.
To reduce over-harvesting and protect Lebanon’s thyme, Law 179 was published in 2012 in coordination with a project funded by the UNDP. Under this law, those who want to collect thyme have to abide by several regulations, including obtaining a license, which indicates the area they want to harvest in, and harvesting only once a year, between June and October.
The power of planting
While measures were put in place to monitor those harvesting wild thyme, international NGOs also encouraged farmers to grow thyme themselves.
After the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, these organizations worked on projects that would provide families in rural areas of south Lebanon with a source of livelihood. It was then that the idea of cultivating thyme took root—although many farmers resisted, believing that cultivated thyme would be of a lower quality than the wild variety.
Cultivating thyme ensures a steady supply of the zaatar mix, which, due to its high demand in the local market, makes it a viable source of income.
Although some are still reluctant to plant thyme, Mohamad Nehme, a construction worker turned thyme farmer, is a firm believer in the practice. He was one of the first farmers to fully embrace thyme cultivation back in 2000, and he says he began to plant thyme even before it was encouraged by international NGOs.
A brave new world
As Nehme recounts, he and his family, who are from the village of Zawtar in south Lebanon, collected modest quantities of thyme every year. They would then turn it into zataar and sell it as a supplement to the family income.
This activity was not without risks, according to Nehme, as they were on the frontlines with Israel and were subjected to sniper attacks or risked setting off cluster munitions whenever they would collect thyme from certain fields. It was then that Nehme thought of finding a way to grow thyme in a safe place, instead of risking his family’s lives by collecting wild thyme in these dangerous areas.
Nehme says it took a lot of trial and error—especially at first, since he was working alone with no support—to be able to plant thyme that survived the season.
When the UNDP took an active interest in thyme cultivation in 2006, after the July war, it found Nehme and helped him develop his planting techniques to increase his yield. In turn, Nehme helped UNDP promote thyme cultivation among Lebanese growers, using his own success story as an example.
Nehme slowly began to develop his business, renting more land on a long-term basis to plant thyme on whenever his profits allowed. Today, together with a partner, he has planted 120,000 square meters of land with thyme. The land is divided between a small plot in his hometown of Zawtar and a bigger plot in Baalbek, where, as he explains it, land is cheaper and more likely to be available.
Nehme produces 10 tons of cultivated thyme per year, which translates into 50 tons of zaatar that he sells for $13 a kilogram. Ninety percent of his production is sold in Lebanon to restaurants, high-end bakeries—because his zaatar is more expensive than what bakeries that sell mana’ish (plural for man’oushe) for half a dollar can afford, and small-scale traders. He exports the remaining 10 percent to the USA.
Nehme also sells distilled pure thyme that can be used for medicinal purposes, and whole thyme plants, offering free consultations and advice with each plant sold.
Where it all started
Innovations in thyme do not stop at the farm—the traditional recipe for zaatar was recently given a modern interpretation by Fady Aziz, a branding specialist and designer.
Aziz had always loved being in nature—he was a scout as a child and in various hiking and eco clubs in his youth—and so after 15 years of working a desk job, he decided to find a career that allowed him to be in nature. Aziz also wanted his children to spend more time outdoors, especially in his hometown of Kfar Houneh, in South Lebanon.
There was a piece of land next to to a monastery in Kfar Houneh with abandoned centenarian terraces that Aziz says he had always loved, and so he considered renting it as the base for his undecided project.
Aziz says that when he approached the monastery’s father for the land, the priest was surprised as Aziz had no background in agriculture. He asked Aziz to produce business plan, upon which he would lease him the land.
[pullquote]Innovations in thyme did not stop at the farm—the traditional recipe for zaatar was recently given a modern interpretation[/pullquote]
It was then that Aziz started seriously studying potential uses for the plot. His ideas ranged from starting a snail farm to planting chestnuts or organic fruits and vegetables, but nothing captured his interest—until the idea to plant thyme suddenly struck him, when he thought of how much zaatar is a part of his daily breakfast routine with his children.
With his plan in place, Aziz rented the land from the monastery on a long-term basis in 2016. He then began meeting with zaatar producers, thyme growers, and agriculture experts to familiarize himself with the industry. It was Nehme who sold Aziz his first thyme shrubs and taught him some of the practicalities of planting it.
After cultivating the thyme, Aziz began thinking of where to go with his venture, and turned his marketing and creative experience inwards to his own brand.
Because his research had exposed him to the challenges in the local zaatar industry, Aziz had already decided to develop a creative zaatar brand that, as he puts it, Lebanese could be proud of. “Because there is no quality control or regulations in the zaatar market, it is chaotic. Also, most Lebanese take zaatar for their relatives when they travel, as do most tourists, so I thought, why not have a well-presented and well-branded zaatar to go out of Lebanon?” asks Aziz.
Aziz wanted to take his project further than the typical zaatar mix and. “I wanted to create a new concept from the zaatar that we know, especially now that everything fusion is trendy,” he says.
The Good Thymes, officially launched in September 2017 during Beirut Design Fair (BDF). Aziz has developed 38 zaatar mixes, eight of which have already been introduced to the market and include hot zaatar, zaatar with nuts, and zaatar with fruits. Whenever possible, he gets the ingredients for the mixes from rural families in his village and surrounding areas, to support the local community. His workshop is also in Kfar Houneh, where he employs local youths to help him with the preparations and packaging.
The Good Thymes is primarily available for purchase through the company’s website. A bag of zaatar ranges from $10 to $20, depending on the mix, and LibanPost delivers orders over $20 for free across Lebanon.
You can also find the zaatar in Sandwiched, Salt and Butter, Voltfit, and J Grove for now—but Aziz says he has received interest from delicatessens and high-end retail stores. Aziz is also in the process of completing the paperwork to begin exporting The Good Thymes.
Since BDF, Aziz has participated in several festivals and exhibitions across Lebanon, and says the response has exceeded his expectations. These festivals served as a platform to introduce The Good Thymes to the market, and since then opportunities have been pouring in.
[pullquote]Aziz says he aims to elevate the status of zaatar production in Lebanon to that of wine production[/pullquote]
So far, Aziz produces a total of 4,500 bags of zaatar per month. “Once you dry the herb, the zaatar can stay for two years, maximum, and I can have a steady supply all year long. This is why I am expanding my land to have a bigger stock to work with in the winter when harvest is over,” he says.
In addition to the initial 8,000 square meter plot in Kfar Houneh, Aziz has rented 7,000 square meters in Karkha (also in southern Lebanon), and is in the process of acquiring additional land. Aziz also plans to works with thyme farmers, guaranteeing he will buy all their crop if they abide by the quality-control standards which he sets: no usage of pesticides, specific time and method of harvest, etc.
Initially, Aziz invested $100,000 of his and his wife’s savings into the land, the equipment, and the branding and marketing (which Aziz says has been the biggest investment). He hopes to continue working alone for as long as possible, but says that he would consider taking on a like-minded investor if needed.
Aziz says he aims to elevate the status of zaatar production in Lebanon to that of wine production. “I want to create the fame that Lebanese wine is gaining locally and abroad, but with zaatar cultivation. And we can do it: The infrastructure and land is there,” says Aziz, who has already begun working toward that goal by welcoming many friends to his farm in Kfar Houneh, and planning a thyme harvest day where visitors can experience zaatar-making first-hand.
By taking a second look at agrifood products—whether it is zaatar or wine or any other Lebanese production—Lebanese entrepreneurs are breathe new life into them.