Meet Beirut’s Ice Cream King, Whose Shop Survived a Civil War
Mitri Hanna Moussa claims that his ice cream shop didn't close "even when bombs were going off.” The oven he uses to bake his cookies is still pitted by shrapnel.
It's 9:30 in the morning when I show up to Mitri Hanna Moussa's shop, Helwayat Al-Salam. Mitri is already busy scooping ice cream with a small golden paddle. Fitting, because the ice cream he's scooping is pure gold.
Some of the first customers are two burly guys, who pull their Land Rover up onto the curb in front of the shop and hop out for an ice cream breakfast. They're complicating traffic, but no one seems in a rush. Students, soldiers, and socialites all stop by for an ice cream fix as we chat.
Tucked in the heart of Achrafieh, Beirut's poshest neighborhood, the unassuming shop is on the ground floor of a crumbling building pockmarked by bullet holes from the Lebanese Civil War, which ravaged the country from 1975 to 1990. The one-room business has three cold cases, a sink, an oven, and a gas burner, on which milk is bubbling in a giant aluminum bowl. A fading sign, written in Arabic, hangs askew outside the door. The shop's been here since 1949, when Mitri's father, Hanna Mitri Moussa, opened its doors. It soon became known simply as "Hanna Mitri."
"I was eight when I started helping," says Mitri. "I was always helping out, but I grew up and studied business. When I was 25 or 30, I got interested in learning how to make the ice cream, why we did things a certain way, but I was still always working at a bank. The bank director would give me special leave during Easter and Epiphany, when [my father] had extra work, so that I could help out."
Sweets were an important part of the business in the early years, and Mitri still produces several. Maakroun—spiced flour and semolina cookies fried in oil, then doused with sugar syrup—are made to celebrate Santa Barbara Day on December 4 (a Christian holiday in Lebanon akin to Halloween). Maamoul, semolina shortbread cookies filled with date paste, walnuts, or pistachios, are served across the Middle East for Eid and Easter—especially the latter here in Achrafieh, Beirut's predominantly Christian neighborhood.
Mitri proudly informs me that the shop never closed during the civil war, "not even when bombs were going off." He recounts how three bombs went off on the street, each one closer than the last, the third destroying their car and shattering all the glass in the shop. "We cleaned up, and we continued working." The oven where Mitri still bakes his cookies is pitted by shrapnel.
Back then, the baked goods were winter staples, with ice cream available only in the summers. "About 20 years ago, my father decided to serve ice cream in the winter too, because people kept asking for it," Mitri says.
There are eight original flavors: four milk-based and four sorbets. Milk is the distinctly Arabic flavor, made of milk that's boiled for an hour or two with and mastic. Sahlab (also known as salep), is a sparkly white powder ground from the root tubers of the Mediterranean Orchis italica (inexplicably known as "the naked man orchid"). This mildly flavored starch thickens the milk. Mastic is a sun-dried tree resin (and the original ingredient for chewing gum), which Mitri brings from Greece. It gives the ice cream a slightly taffy-like texture.
The other milk-based flavors are: chocolate (rich, deep and very grown-up); pistachio (subtle in both color and flavor, but studded with bright nuts); and croquant (a milk ice cream, crunchy with homemade almond brittle, and one of Mitri's best sellers). The traditional sorbets are: delicate rosewater; fresh, sharp lemon; strawberry, sweet with bits and seeds; and an intense apricot with pine nuts sprinkled throughout.
Seasonal flavors are available from time to time, depending on available ingredients and inspiration. "Right now I have mango. My cousin sent the mangos to me from Cote d'Ivoire, because they don't bring this kind of mango to Lebanon anymore. And if it's not the right ingredient, I won't make it." Other seasonal flavors have included blood orange, melon, strawberry/banana, chocolate with orange, and even Nescafé with nuts.
"I use almonds from California, and bring the cocoa from Europe. My pistachios were from Syria before, but because of the problems there I changed to Iran, and the quality is even better. The apricot paste is from Syria. The pine nuts are Lebanese, and so are the lemons. The rosewater is made special for us. But always, the ice cream is made the same way my father used to do it," Mitri tells me.
In 2011, Hanna became ill. "He saw I loved the business, and asked if I would want to take over," Mitri says. He quit his bank job to dedicate himself full-time to the shop. Hanna passed away in 2012, and Mitri is now helped by his mother, and a younger assistant, Fares.
When asked if his children will carry on the ice cream tradition, Mitri shrugs and smiles. "I have two daughters and one son. Will they continue? Nobody knows."