As Lebanon’s agriculture sector struggles to feed the country amid a crippling financial crisis and nationwide shortages, Belgian culinary company Key Sixteen has partnered with the Food Heritage Foundation to find the very best Lebanese farm-to-table food and share them with the world.
“It’s a personal relationship that we are developing,” the company’s founder and COO Eric Humbert told Al Arabiya English. “We’re trying to push the small farmers and producers. For them, it’s been the most difficult. As a chef, I like to work with those products and to look for them is my passion.”
Key Sixteen was originally created in 2014 with the idea of offering patrons a culinary experience by bringing them to destinations in different parts of the world to sample authentic local flavors.
When travel restrictions were introduced following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company pivoted to a new business model; bringing the same exotic tastes to people stuck at home with carefully curated food boxes containing traditional regional goods.
“If you asked me to cook a meal for 1000 people, it would not be tasty, but if you asked me to cook for 10 people, I can invest more into it,” Humbert explained. “I think it’s like that for the farmer. It’s fine agriculture. When you open this box, you see in every product a description of the person that is working all day long, just to make the perfect product. It tells you a story.”
Key Sixteen’s first Lebanese project – the Mezze Box themed around traditional preserves – has proven to be extremely popular with its European audience. Now, the firm hopes the Manoushe Box will receive the same feedback.
The manoushe is a traditional bread dish typically served with a topping of thyme and olive oil. It has remained popular in Lebanon for generations.
“[The] manoushe was the common denominator,” said food author, photographer and Slow Food Beirut president Barbara Massaad. “It was cheap, it was street food and it was available to everyone. You can call it the emblem of Lebanon.
Unfortunately, due to the current economic crisis, it has become something that you have to think twice about before you buy, which is a horrible idea.”
The Lebanese lira has lost more than 90 percent of its value, and foreign currency bank accounts have been frozen to preserve the equity of Lebanon’s financial institutions, leaving many in Lebanon stranded in poverty.
Because Lebanon imports many of its raw ingredients, including the flour and oil used to make manoushe dough, the cost of this once ubiquitous snack food has risen rapidly.
By introducing artisanal Lebanese goods to the lucrative European market, Key Sixteen hopes to provide farmers and producers with a vital economic boost, while raising their profiles.
“They are bringing Lebanese products to Europe, putting them on a pedestal, and giving work to local food producers in Lebanon,” said Massaad. “This is really great because they are earning money in euros [and] they are paid directly. There’s no middleman. That’s how we know for sure it’s going to them.”
“It’s my belief that when you give back, you get back,” Humbert agreed. “We have volunteers – local and foreign – who are coming and helping us with our events. They will give something back, whether it’s [preparing] food or giving education sessions.”
This commitment to local farmers echoes the mission of Key Sixteen’s partners on the Manoushe Box, the Food Heritage Foundation (FHF). Dedicated to reviving and documenting Lebanese recipes, culture and traditional foods, the group aims to improve market access for independent growers and producers.
“We work very closely with the small scale producers,” said Marwa Soubra, speaking to Al Arabiya English on behalf of FHF. “One common difficulty that producers are facing is the ability to market and sell their products, so that’s why we have created Food and Roots.”
“[This] is a new, socially-engaged brand of traditional, innovative Lebanese products,” she explained. “[Our mission] is to create market access to the small scale producers by buying their products and then selling them at different points of sale. Everything we do [goes] back to our community.”
While the situation in Lebanon remains volatile and extremely difficult for many, Humbert and Massaad are confident that their efforts will, in the long-term, allow the farmers to continue their operations, and preserve their unique traditions and flavors.
“It takes a lot of work,” admitted Massaad. “It’s a lot of red tape and it’s not an easy process, but when you see the results and you see that people are so excited and they love the products, it gives you hope for the future. This is part of our heritage [and] our culture, and we have to fight to keep it alive.”
“We want people to be more aware of where these amazing products are coming from,” said Humbert. “It’s always a pleasure to come back to this amazing country. Here, people keep smiling. That’s the beauty, and that’s what we’re trying to bring back.”