The Little Winery of Bhamdoun: Chateau Belle-Vue

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This year, on Lebanon’s Independence Day, I (along with my dad and sisters) was dragged against my will to a “social function” organized by my mother: a Thanksgiving lunch up in Bhamdoun with her American lady friends. I have nothing against social functions, I just prefer to spend my rainy Saturday mornings tucked in bed until noon. Had she told me that we were heading to the home of Chateau Belle-Vue, a hidden gem in Bhamdoun, I wouldn’t have been so reluctant. And I wouldn’t have worn high-heeled boots and a dress either.

Naji Boutros, Bhamdoun native, and Jill, his American wife, make up the couple that started Chateau Belle-Vue back in 2000 with 3 plots of land. Now with 130 plots, new vineyards are planted every year as they try to keep the lands of Bhamdoun within the 10-12 families of the village. They lease it to fellow historic “Bhamdounians” because they want the owners to have this connection to the soil. “Part of our motivation is that people stay attached to their heritage,” says Jill. The other part, she says, is that there would be enough agricultural momentum to stop urban development. Bhamdoun is desirable real estate since it’s basically a mountain home that’s a 20-minute drive from the city. “We don’t want people to build in the valley; it was always vines and it should always be vines.” Chateau Belle-Vue gets its name from “Hotel Belle-Vue”, the first Bhamdoun hotel that was owned by Naji’s family.

Chateau Belle-Vue was bought from the French government 5 years ago through a bidding process. It used to be the summer residence of the French ambassador to Iraq and Jordan. and also doubles as a bed & breakfast with a common space and 7 rooms, each named after a kind of wine. The common space is used by the community for yoga sessions and serves as a public library. Le Telegraphe, the Chateau’s restaurant that opened 2 years ago, used to be the concierge’s quarters. It’s named “Le Telegraphe” because the location was a telegraph broadcasting “La France Libre” before World War II.  Chateau Belle-Vue aims for “organic and biodynamic agriculture.” The vine terraces of Bhamdoun have always had quite the reputation for good grapes and the village was made up of 4km of terraces back in the day.

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All of Chateau Belle-Vue’s wines are dry wines. It’s placed in French oak barrels for two years, allowing for a red fruit and aged oak intense taste. All grapes are hand-picked and the wine is handmade. No additional yeast is added to the fermentation process. We had a 2007 La Renaissance, which is a blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. It was made up of 4 varieties of red grapes from 2 different parts of the valley. The winery is actually run by a team of women. It wasn’t on purpose but that’s just what ended up happening. According to Esperanza, the Spanish vineyard manager, the grapes of the Merlot that are grown in the northeast part of the valley differ from those in the southwest – that along with other factors (altitude for example) can affect the blend’s final taste. “With wine, everything is about balance,” she says.

The Chateau Belle-Vue wines are sold at the winery and at Vintage in Saifi Village, Beirut. Members of the Chateau Belle-Vue wine club (kids too) can come up during the harvest (August to October) to pick grapes and help in the wine-making process, making it a communal effort to create great wine. When a new wine is launched, members are invited to come try them and they get special delivery privileges.

P.S. Thanksgiving turkey tastes even better after fire-place-melted camembert cheese.

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NYC: 3 Meals in 30 Hours

1. GRIMALDI’S, UNDER THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE

Grimaldi's, from across the street (click to see the line of people)

Grimaldi’s, from across the street (click to check out the line)


By Gracia El Ayle

Men at work (taken by Gracia El Ayle)


Grimaldi's pepperoni mushroom pizza

Grimaldi’s pepperoni mushroom pizza

Before heading to NYC, I looked up some places that were “musts” for a New York visitor. Grimaldi’s was listed as “the best pizza in NY” and I figured, if we ended up in Brooklyn and it wasn’t too far off, we could give it a try. I’m usually quite skeptical of places that have such titles on travel sites. After all, how many places have lines around the block and a lot of hype but end up to be flavorless disappointments? An hour into our NYC weekend, we’re roaming around Brooklyn with our luggage on our backs. Google maps led us to an old white building right under the Brooklyn Bridge, across from a red-bricked Eagle Warehouse & Storage Co. Although the line looks intimidating, it moves pretty quick. We waited for about 20 minutes and YES, it’s worth it. Each pizza is made on the spot and tossed into the coal-brick oven. You can choose all your toppings, with or without tomato sauce (white). A favorite is pepperoni mushroom with sauce. It’s Italian style (not Chicago deep-dish) and the dough is just right: it’s not too thin, soggy, or hard cardboard and there’s just enough oil to feel like you’re having pizza without needing to go TSA on it with a napkin. The portion sizes are also quite fair. Be warned: cash only, no delivery, no reservations, and they don’t serve by the slice. Whole pizzas only. If you don’t finish it, DOGGY BAG IT.

2. MAX BRENNER CHOCOLATE BAR, UNION SQUARE

Max Brenner's, from behind the bar

Max Brenner’s, from behind the bar

The bar

The bar

The burger

The burger

We got to this place around 11:00pm with no reservations. Big mistake. You’d think that people would be done feasting by then but we had to wait a good 45 minutes before being seated upstairs. It wasn’t so bad though because that gave us time to inspect all the chocolate boxes at the entrance. The entire place smells like you’re sitting in Willy Wonka’s factory. Although it’s a chocolate bar, we hadn’t eaten since Grimaldi’s so it was time for the pizza’s evil cousin: a fat burger. Medium well meat with a ginormous onion ring & criss-cut fries on the side. One friend got banana chocolate waffles while the other got a Philly cheese steak sandwich…in waffles. Recommended chocolate to take home: milk chocolate covered pralines dusted in cocoa powder available in a cardboard giftbox or collectible tin. There’s also mini boxes by the register next to the chocolate-scented pencils. Yes, I’m serious.

3. MAS (LA GRILLADE), GREENWICH VILLAGE

The pastries, strawberry jam, and sea salt butter (taken by May Chaker)

The pastries, strawberry jam, and sea salt butter (taken by May Chaker)

The burger

The burger

The last NYC meal was at this little French spot in Greenwich. We got there for a $28 set-menu late Sunday brunch so we had the place to ourselves before the kitchen closed. The menu changes depending on chef Galen Zamarra and available ingredients – which are locally grown. Our server was a super-friendly perky lady who was ready to explain each entree. Although she described everything as “delectable,” I don’t think she was exaggerating because regardless of the entree chosen, we were all making happy noises throughout the entire meal. Excellent fresh-squeezed OJ helped with the washing down of a whole platter of pastries (vanilla scones, blueberry muffins, croissants, and mini baguettes) with strawberry jam and sea-salt butter. We were not prepared for the hoovering of the “Grilled Short Rib Burger with Herb Mayonnaise on House-Made Kaiser Roll” but we pulled through. My oh my, that little mushroom shaped bun of meat. I was full until the next morning.

Bambi Recommends: Chimney Cake

Kürtőskalács, or the easier to remember/pronounce “chimney cake”, is a Hungarian sweet snack which is sometimes referred to as “spitcake.” Don’t let the names fool you.

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It’s made by wrapping a long thick string of dough around what looks like a rolling pin skewer. The dough is brushed with butter or egg yolk, coated in sugar, and left to rotate over hot coals. Watch it happen here. The sugar becomes caramelized and once toasted, different flavored sprinkles are added on top (coconut, cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, crushed walnuts). It’s then slipped off the skewer and wrapped; you can tear off pieces of the cake and it unravels like the inner tubing of a toilet paper roll. Sorry, bad association. It tastes best when it’s still warm off the coals. The outside has a sugary crust while the inner part of the strips remains soft like bread. Basically, if sweet pretzels and cinnamon rolls had a baby, it would be a chimney cake dipped in awesome.

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Based on their little sign next to the grill and what I dug up online, the chimney cake originated in Transylvania when it was still Hungarian territory. Born in the bakery of the Szeklers, or Hungarian Szekleys. Szekleys were Transylvanian warriors who were rumored to be descendants of Attila’s Huns. They have pride in their effect on Hungary because Magyar tribes were said to be related to the Huns and thus, the Szeklers are a subgroup of Hungarians in the mountains of Romania. “Magyar” is used interchangeably with “Hungarian” but can also refer to the Hungarian language.

The cake is served at special occasions but can be found made and sold by street vendors throughout Budapest. Like Hungary’s pálinka, kürtőskalács are an EU protected geographic indication of Slovakia (but they’re called Trdelník). Regardless, they remain Hungarian to me.

Bambi Recommends: Bayrut Express

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Bayrut Express is a shop I found on Facebook while researching eco-friendly projects in Lebanon. Next thing I know, Ziad from BE comments on that post telling me to come check out their shop. Little did he know, I’d been wanting to go since discovering their page and finally managed to do so thanks to having today off. It’s located in Asos Center near Sassine Square, Ashrafieh. If you’re driving toward Sassine from Sodeco, it’s in the alley to the right before you reach the main intersection. I didn’t mention my blog while investigating the shelves – let it be clear, this is not a sponsored post.

BE sells clothing, shoes, and accessories but all the merchandise they have is related to a cause. GGRIL and Waste products are sold there along with Inkkas, handmade sneakers made by artisans from Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. Inkkas is a kickstarter project that was successfully funded last December. Each pair is a combination of colorfully patterned South American textiles and bright nylon shoelaces. On their Kickstarter page, they state, “From the beginning, Inkkas set out to be a company that would have a beneficial impact on the world, not an exploitative one. The company was founded on the principles of fair trade, philanthropy and authenticity.”

The product is made to counter planned obsolescence and the whole initiative backs South American causes and communities. For example, with every Inkkas purchase, 10% is donated to preserving the Amazon rainforest. Above is the shelf of Inkkas at Bayrut Express. The high-tops run at 220,000 L.L. (~147 USD) but are on special this week at 155,000 L.L. (~100 USD). Can’t wait to rock mine tomorrow.

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Bambi Recommends: The iPhone Doctor

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My precious iPhone had been malfunctioning for the past few days leaving me with a black screen. It was still operating but having a dead screen means you have a smartphone that functions like a home receiver from the 90s. Touchscreens need illumination and Siri’s voice dialing can only go so far; she called my friend in England by mistake. My tech expert friend told me about an iPhone guru in Sin el Fil so off we went. In a side street in Horsh Tabet is Amer & Raed, a sales and repair shop specializing in Apple products.

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Upon entering the shop, Raed, a George Khabbaz doppleganger, sat behind a Macbook surrounded by the remains of iPhones and other wrapped patients (sick phones are rubber-band-wrapped in white paper containing the contact info of the owner). I handed him the phone and he dissected it with ease. He carefully removed the chips and pieces, stripping it down on the table in front of him. It was like watching a  cardiologist behind an operating table. He used nail pliers to pinch circuits and sprayed a toothbrush with cleaning fluid to wipe away residue – the same residue left from months before when my phone took a dive in my Nescafe. He has a microscope that he uses to inspect the nanobits that come together to create this device that we are all addicted to. Once he figures out the problem, he re-fuses circuits using needles that look like phone defibrillator pads. I had the urge to yell out “clear” during the revival.

At one point, an older man came in with his daughter’s iPhone that had drowned in water. The phrases that were used were as if they were discussing a patient that needed surgery. He asked if it could be saved to which Raed replied, “inshallah kheir.” We asked what we should do if we ever dropped our babies in water after hours. This is how we learned that Raed takes emergency calls too; saying he’d come in and open in the middle of the night if necessary.

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The good thing about Amer & Raed is that you actually watch them try to figure out what’s wrong with your phone. Other places I’ve been to jump into how much it’s going to cost and try to sell you a newer model instead – before they’ve even looked at what could actually be wrong. Besides that, they overcharge for slow work that has poor results. Raed fixed my phone in under 30 minutes, in front of me, and didn’t over charge. In fact, he didn’t charge at all. Ma btehrouz. (it’s not necessary)

Now that’s a doctor who isn’t working for the paycheck. That’s a doc who’s saving lives.

How to get there: the road that heads towards the Mkalles roundabout disaster [on the same road where Marky’s is] take a right where the big black globe sign is and Amer & Raed will be up ahead on your left.

Contact them at +961 1 494 303

The 2nd PARK(ing) Day in Beirut

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PARK(ing) Day is an initiative brought about by some AUB landscaping design students in partnership with Beirut Green Project, Green Living, and AltCity. The idea is that they will occupy a parking space and convert it into a mini-park; it’s like a green protest against asphalt and the fight for more public GREEN spaces.

Balsam Aoun, one of the organizers, answered a few questions about the whole event which is to take place TOMORROW AFTERNOON (Friday, it’s late Thursday night and I’m allergic to sleep). Last year, they had one setup in front of Cafe Hamra (see below photos). This year, they’re having FOUR separate parking spot setups scattered throughout Hamra. Check out the Facebook event page for details.

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PARK(ing) Day, 2012
Photo provided by Balsam Aoun

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PARK(ing) Day, 2012
Photo provided by Balsam Aoun

1. What’s the message you are trying to send through this initiative?

“Park(ing) Day is an international event that happens all around the world on the same day. This year it happens to be September 20th. It is an event where metered parking spaces are turned into temporary parks. The aim of this is to show how a simple parking spot can become a park, how important parks are and how we are wasting space for our cars when instead they can be used for parks and green spaces.

2. Where does the concept of occupying a parking spot with greenery come from?

“The idea was from the international group called Rebar. They came up with the concept, and slowly it spread all around the world. If you want more information about the event, check out their website. This our second year doing the event. Kristelle Boulos, Arwa Al Jalahma and I are the heads of the organization; Kristelle being the “pioneer” since she brought it from Berkeley. She was there for summer courses and I helped her out last year to bring it to life. This year, Arwa joined us because her and I are the heads of the AUB Landscaping Society. ”

3. What is something the youth can do to help this cause?

“What the youth can do to help is be aware of the lack of green spaces, especially in Lebanon and more so in Beirut. Beirut is the least green city in the world, or one of them. There are no parks and there are a million parking lots and parking spots. They can raise awareness, join us every year in helping make the event bigger and better. We are trying to expand the event, so that hopefully after some time we can have the event in Hamra, Mar Mikhael, Ashrafieh,….all over beirut. Then, eventually, in different towns and cities like Jounieh, Saida, Dbayeh, etc. ”

8 Things We Can Look Forward To

Update: Creamfields was cancelled due to the unstable situation. Poo.

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…instead of “World War III” as some people are dubbing it. There’s a lot of let’s-crap-on-our-country going around. Given that the situation is getting worse, I don’t blame people for being pessimistic and worrisome about what may be in store for us in the next few weeks or months; it is difficult to think about the future when you are afraid if you’ll have one. However, I’d like to remind you all that we can look forward to good things on the horizon, things that other people are putting in motion to make this country better, things that dissociate us with bombs, death, and destruction.

Remember, we can choose to drown or we can choose to swim.

1. Lebanon on Rails Exhibition – Sept 4-15, 2013

Train/Train NGO, mentioned previously on this blog, is working towards saving the legacy of the Lebanese Railways. They’re organizing an exhibition in Beirut Souks displaying old relics and photographs of the historical trains that used to run through the country years ago.

2. Thursdays with FERN at Tawlet – Sept 5, 2013

Also featured previously on this blog, FERN is an NGO that works towards incorporating better waste methods in Lebanon. Fresh salads, an open bar, and signature organic roasted chicken. $25 open dinner buffet, open 961 beer, open Lebanese wine and proceeds go to FERN’s efforts to improve Lebanon’s waste habits.

3. TEDxLAU #TheCrossRoad- Sept 7, 2013

Held at Gulbenkian Theatre, LAU campus – in usual TEDx fashion, speakers will be giving inspiring talks about their own journeys through life. Unfortunately, the event is already sold out but I will be live tweeting it so you can follow me on Twitter for a play-by-play in case you didn’t manage to snag a spot.

4. Creamfields – Sept 7, 2013

Gino’s got 7 reasons why you should attend this big shindig. It’s a massive music festival jam packed with a bunch of DJs on 3 stages brought to you by Uberhaus and White. And their posters have flooded Beirut so you might as well see what all the fuss is about.

5. Horsh Ehden Nature Reserve Hike – Sept 7-8, 2013

Two days of free hiking up in the cedars of Ehden is a great way to escape the city and hectic reminders of real life. The weather up there is cool and the fresh air will do you some good. It’s the perfect place to clear your head…and fill your stomach with kibbeh zghortawiyyeh from Ferdaws.

6. Wickerpark Music Festival – Sept 15, 2013

Project Revolver wrote about it – Looks like it’s going to be a fun day in Batroun. Sure, it’s free-spirited in a hippie way but why not? Wanton Bishops are great and the weather should be cool enough to spend a Sunday chilling “on the grass.”

7. Beirut Art Fair – Sept 19-22, 2013

The fourth edition of the Beirut Art Fair “stands out as a leading platform for the promotion of contemporary art & design” for the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia. Collections are comprised of paintings, sculptures, designs, installation art, video and photography.

8. Beirut Energy Forum – Sept 26-27, 2013

Said to be “the largest event in Lebanon and the region related to energy efficiency, renewable energy, and green buildings”  will be going on for the 4th time at Le Royal Hotel, Dbayeh. It’s supposed to be a 2-day conference with presentations and speakers from all over the world. Dr. James Woudhuysen, the keynote speaker, is Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester in the UK. As usual, places are limited so you have to register but I’m intrigued as to what this event is going to propose for a nation so in need of alternatives in this sector.

And a whole bunch of other things going on this month can be found here.