Za’ Atar Barri

Ark of taste
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Origanum syriacum, also known as Majorana syriaca, Syrian oregano, white oregano and za’atar in Arabic (زعتر), is a perennial herb that grows in upright bushes reaching up to 1 m in height. It has square, hairy stems covered with thick, oval, highly aromatic, grey-green leaves. The flowers are small, two-lipped, tubular, white or pale pink with grey-green bracts; flowering occurs from mid to late summer in spike-like clusters. The flavour, the intensity of which can vary widely, is aromatic, warm and slightly bitter. Good quality oregano can be very strong, to the point of numbing the tongue, while cultivars adapted to colder climates have a less intense flavour. Factors such as climate, season and soil composition also influence the aromatic oils present in the plant. The chemical compounds that contribute to the aroma are carvacrol, thymol, limonene, pinene, ocimene and caryophyllene.

In the Levant region, including Jordan and the Al-Balqa area, Za’atarè is considered an indigenous wild herb that has been used for centuries in Arabic medicine and as a cooking herb. The species is distributed in the highlands of Jordan in Mediterranean habitats. As an important culinary plant, it is subject to intensive harvesting, which decreases its distribution and quantity. Harvesting takes place between April and September, bearing in mind that during the summer months the flavour of the plant intensifies.

The crop is widely grown in Europe and India and is native to the Middle East region. It mainly grows in the eastern Mediterranean region: southern Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Sinai Peninsula. In Jordan it grows wild in Amman, Karak, Irbid, Tafila, Jerash, Madaba, Al-Salt, Shobak, Dana and Ajloun. Cultivars and species found in other parts of Jordan include Thymus bovei Benth., Origanum petraeum Danin, Origanum punonense Danin, Origanum dayi L., Thymus capitatus.

Majorana syriaca is a popular herb used fresh or dried in many cuisines, especially in Arab countries, to season soups, sauces, salads, stuffing, stews, roasts, vegetables and meats. Fresh Za’atar leaf salad, for example, is popular throughout the Levant and Al-Balqa: it is a salad made with fresh Za’atar, finely chopped onions, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and Sumac. The same mixture is also used as a filling for savoury pastries, often with white sheep’s cheese and olive oil. Probably the most popular use of Syrian oregano is in the Za’atar mixture, where it is dried and mixed with sesame, sumac, ground roasted wheat (Qalyet Qamh) or ground dried chickpeas and ground Jameed, the characteristic ingredient of the Al-Balqa region; locals point to the addition of Jameed as the element that makes their Za’atar unique compared to those produced in other regions. Za’atar is a popular breakfast item, but it can also be eaten with bread dipped in olive oil or baked in a dough crust, known as manakeesh.

Traditionally, Syrian oregano is preferably cut off the stem, harvested in small bunches and hung upside down in a dry place to dry. Once dry, the leaves are detached from the stem and stored in containers until consumption.

Dried Syrian oregano leaves can be stored dry for up to a year. Over time, they tend to lose their flavour, so they should be stored in small batches. The loss of the fragrant smell of dried Za’atar is a sign of quality deterioration.

Due to its high content of volatile oils, Syrian oregano leaves are used in traditional Greek-Arabic and Islamic medicine, and thymol, the most important active ingredient, makes it rich in antibacterial and antifungal properties.

Traditionally, za’atar is considered the Old Testament hyssop of the Bible. Native to the Mediterranean and Eurasia, Origanum species have been cultivated in Egypt for over 3000 years and were used by the ancient Greeks. One of the earliest records of Origanum use dates back to 1600-1200 BC, when the Hittites of Asia Minor/Syria inscribed plant images on tablets. The name Origanum was first used by Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.) and is thought to have originated from the Greek words for mountain (oreos) and brightness/joy/beauty (ganeos), as oregano and marjoram were commonly referred to as the ‘joy of the mountains’ due to their beauty and the fact that they grew in abundance on the slopes of the Mediterranean. Some sources claim that oregano arrived in North America with European colonisers. This plant has been depicted in folklore associated with love, protection, purification, healing and happiness, and is also deeply rooted in religious tradition and myth.

The medicinal use of Origanum is centuries old, as recorded in early herbaria and natural histories cited by writers such as Theophrastus, Mithradates, Pliny, Dioscorides and Galen, as well as the well-known herbalists Parkinson, Culpeper and Gerard, who recommended the use of Origanum for a wide variety of conditions, both ingested and applied topically. History also mentions other uses of oregano, such as for hygiene, perfume and cleaning. Origanum syriaca has been used in the kitchens of its native countries since the 7th century BC to flavour meat, vegetables, fish and wine, but its culinary popularity is more recent. Historical documents in ‘The Research on Agriculture in Jordan and Palestine between 1864-1918’ indicate that Za’atar was a well-known wild herb in Jordan at the time and was found in the northern highlands and the Karak area; in particular, the documents indicate the Al-Balqa area as being renowned for Za’atar.

No data are available on the exact quantity produced, as it is a wild plant. However, according to Jordan’s Red List of Plants, its estimated area of occupation covers 108 square kilometres.

Since it is a wild herb, it is usually harvested in its native habitats by local communities who dry and grind it for personal consumption or to share with family and neighbours. Some locals sell Syrian oregano to local herb and spice shops (Attar), but most owners of these shops grow their own herbs. In recent years, Syrian oregano has also been planted in the home gardens of some villages, since foraging requires a lot of effort, but locals still prefer wild oregano.

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Production area:Levant region