Christmas in the camp is different.
We don’t live in tents anymore, but everyone’s roofs and extensions are made of corrugated metal sheets. It’s never a silent night when it’s raining. Every single drip of rain is heard tic-toc-ing on the roofs echoing one another into a deafening harmonious symphony.
Christmas in the camp is engulfed with church bells jingling at midnight calling for celebratory mass. The Maronite monastery uphill, and our modest Greek Catholic church by the side of the camp both hold masses filled with joyful Christmas chants for believers to have a blessed eve. I lead the choir for a while after being a member for long. Those chants were magical in lyrics and melodies that fill you up with warmth and joy.
Then you go back to the cold. The wall-to-wall homes pack humidity and they feel colder. Homes are now guarded with ACs, switched on Heat if they have enough electric supply for it, otherwise it’s a gas canister attached to top or front-heating device that should keep you warm. The wood-fired metal stoves were reserved for the mountains where they are more needed.
17 years ago, when we couldn’t afford an air condition. Our affordable warming method was the rectangular grill (if you’re from the Middle East you surley know this) filled with coal and regularly fed with crushed dried olive pits, the leftovers of olive pressing. This is a cheap addition that extends the life of coals to last for a couple of hours more. The only downside is the harmful gases produced from burning. Otherwise, that kept us warm during stormy seasons
Christmas at the camp is different. We don’t live in closed shoebox-apartments. Our houses may be tiny, but they’re open to one another. On Christmas eve, not exclusively, the aromas of cooking wrap the streets with the smoke from grilled meat and chicken. It stroll with the jingles of bells from the dozens of Santa Clauses roaming the streets carrying red bags and distributing gifts to homes. Santa Clause was never real for us. It was always someone we know; a cousin, an uncle, a relative, or a neighbor. But we didn’t care. The joy was immense.
Christmas didn’t mean an endless table of extraordinary foods. It meant a family gathering, something we don’t have often due to my father’s work in a restaurant that denied him from Sunday lunches and holiday gatherings. Except Christmas. The table was set with whatever we had. Nothing special. A salad or two, hummus, some pastries, and grilled meats. Something we’re used to. It was only until us the children started working that we could afford pulling a special menu I would design, set up a Christmas table, and gifting a family member.
In the past couple of years, I took control of the Christmas menu. I would either take the American Thanksgiving menu and apply it, or mix and match some dishes I’m eager to try. A cheese board is now always present, be it on Christmas eve, on any night that calls for a gathering before the big day, or any night after with the leftovers.
Building a cheeseboard is fairly simple. You only need some knowledge in cheeses and cold cuts. It’s always a plus if you know your wine and choose good ones. So here’s a brief guide I work by
WHAT TO GET
Opt for brie as a start, then move to camembert for stronger flavor and aged soft goat cheese. Great with rosemary, garlic, and marmalade
From regular white cheddar (DO NOT DARE MENTION PROCESSED CHEESE SLICES) to aged white cheddar, to aged orange cheddar. The aged ones are acquired taste. Chew on them slowly and release the flavors to appreciate its qualities.
Such as parmesan, grana padano, and manchego. These have a beautiful crumbly texture and a strong presence. You are probably used to them grated or shaved on your pasta and salads but they are equally enjoyable to take by the bite. They pair perfectly with meats, sausages, and cold cuts.
Such as blue cheese, roquefort, strong goat cheese, green kishk, and even shanklish (Traditional Lebanese fermented dairy preserves)
Smoked or grilled turkey over processed deli turkey. A deeper more smokey flavor and a more natural texture that’s more favorable than the one-cut turkey.
Grilled ham, for the same reasons above
Salami, chorizo, or even soujok. Their spices are excellent to compliment the mild cheeses
Vegetables like carrots and cucumbers with a creamy dip
Fruits like apples, pears, grapes, and pomegranates
Olives and pickles
And of course, BREAD
Spend a little more on the bread because it will be the base for every cheese and meat combination. It should be good on its own.
Get yourself a good rustic loaf, sourdough, poppyseed baguette, and such types. Stay away from cheap white baguette and square sandwich bread.
Order some sourdough bread from Bread & Salt in many shapes or go to Bar Tartine and grab a couple of baguettes
Now on arrange the board. Do not go for shapes. We’re not kindergarten children nor we are in the 70s. So lay off the salami flower bouquet and throw your ingredients in what would seem like a mess. Arranged mess
Put the cheese wheels and the large chunks first, then fold the meat around and on the sides. Fill the empty spaces with the dips, sliced vegetables, nuts, dried fruits, and chocolate.
Leave little to no empty spaces. It will look plentiful.
Some wines I like:
I’ve been obsessed lately with one local wine maker: Chateau St. Thomas.
A family winery turned into business. They are so passionate about their product and very proud of it. It shows why once you try the wines yourself.
My favorites are the Obeidy, made from indigenous Lebanese grapes, a clean enjoyable white wine that is perfect on its own, with fresh salads or mild cheeses. Their recently rebranded Chardonnay is great as well with the aged wood notes with every sip. Do not miss the Les Emir for as their casual “second-cheapest” wine (in price, not in quality) that will make you proud every time but do spend the extra lira on their Merlot and Chateau collection. Merlot the child of Joe-Assaad, the wine master of Chateau St. Thomas, as he dedicated a lot of his time to this specific grape variety
Earlier this year, I received a package from Ksara containing their red Chateau and Chardonnay wines. I have to admit Ksara isn’t typically my go-to wine, especially the pouring wine in restaurants and pubs, but this one was enjoyable with lots of tannins and aged wood notes
Other local wines that I like: Ixsir and Domaine de Tourelles. Also look for Chateau Nakad. Their wine is pretty affordable and the quality and taste they serve. Opt for their Prestige des Coteaux for the aged woody taste
Now get yourself a wooden board or a beautiful tray and get creative with setting it out for your guests to be amazed!
For more Christmas writings:
Read my published writing in The Carton publication