Bassatin Baanoub grow their oregano on land rented from a monastery, tucked away at the end of a dirt track, in the south of Lebanon. Oregano was mentioned in writing for the first time on stone tablets dating from the Hittite dynasty (1600-1200BC). It is still used in much the same way today as it has been for centuries. A native species, it is loaded with significance for the Lebanese. So much so that farmers are required to obtain an export licence to be able to sell their crop.
photo of the flowering tips of Origanum syriacum by Yasmina Zahar
how is it used in Lebanon?
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Origanum syriacum for those from this part of the eastern Mediterranean. Native to Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, this variety of oregano has been used for thousands of years for culinary and therapeutic uses. Fresh leaves are eaten in salads, mixed with onion, sumac and olive oil. Dried, it’s a key ingredient in a za’atar mix. Regulations state it can be picked between August and December, and the roots must be left. Bassatin Baanoub select the flowering tips of the plant, being the most tender and fragrant.
photo of oregano drying on sheets in the sun by Yasmina Zahar
In Lebanon, since Origanum syriacum is said to have antibacterial effects, it is often made into an infusion to soothe a cough or sore throat. The essential oils obtained from the oregano, by using an alembic in rural communities, can be made into a distillate. This is used to help gastrointestinal problems. These, along with other bounty made by rural communities, can be bought throughout Lebanon.
jars and bottles of “mouneh” – preserved foods found in the souk el tayeb in Beirut
the aroma of Lebanon in your kitchen
The aroma released from oregano as it cooks will quickly summon hungry souls to the kitchen! Butter beans, which need a bold flavour, absorb the fragrance of oregano as they’re gently fried in extra virgin olive oil. A tablespoon will make all the difference to a tomato sauce. Rachel Roddy, in Five Quarters, suggests roasting tomatoes in extra virgin olive oil with some garlic. Half way through, add a tablespoon of the oregano, and your kitchen will fill with the heavy scent of the Lebanese mountainside.