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Hanna Mitri: The World's Best Ice Cream
I highly doubt that any local doesn't know or has not heard of Hanna Mitri. The one and only Hanna Mitri known for his uniquely fresh ice cream, perfect Maamoul and arrogantly rude character. Following his steps is his son Mitri Hanna, the sole carrier of this legend's recipes.
I pass by Mitri at least once a month and believe me, I can safely say that this place sells one of the best ice creams in the world. So if you think you’ve had good ice cream before; trust me, you haven’t until you’ve tasted Hanna Mitri’s Middle Eastern ice cream in Achrafieh.
Each time we visit Achrafieh, my wife insists we pass by Hanna Mitri and I honestly didn't understand this unconditional love she has for this place until I tried it. Down the street coming from Zahret El Ahsan, in the heart of St. Nicholas, Achrafieh is a white-painted, one-room shop in a battered old building, where a whole family has been dedicated to making ice cream for the past 60 years. Today, Mitri Hanna Moussa, Hanna Mitri Mouusa's son is serving ice cream made with rose water, pistachios, apricot, lemon and milk to name a few.
Reaching the old shop where a sign, half broken shows (Bouzat El Salam). Inside is a shop unchanged since 1949. The story all began in the early forties, where three kids, brought up together in the streets of Beirut discovered the art of ice cream making while playing innocently. Inside a shop they discovered a man who used to prepare some fine Lebanese sweets in ultimate secrecy. Teaching those kids, he never thought one day that they would become famous, one even more than the other. Saab, Ward and Hanna each grew up their way into the business life of adults. Three famous ice cream shops that are known by everyone.
In 1949, when by pure coincidence, Hanna decided to leave his job after a dispute with the landlord; he struck out on his own. He was only 20 years old back then. "Al Salam Sweets" was the name chosen and inspired by the football team "Al Salam" that used to train nearby. This same team is still known today in the village of Zghorta. It didn't take too much time for Mitri to excel and become the best of all, the master of all with an unmatched quality both his friends couldn't replicate. A journey that started with the production of all imaginable Lebanese sweets, soon changed - due to lack of time - to become focused on ice creams and Maamoul, during winter and the festive season.
The place: A small cube shaped place. White walls surround the space. Hanna Mitri's photos fill the space. Old Lebanese tiles cover the floor, the same ones that have been there since the sixties. An oven, the same since the old days still has marks of the war on it. A weight balance used to prepare the 1/2kg boxes and dose the ingredients. Three fridges, one for the prepared boxes, another for the cone preparation and a third for the VIP clientele orders. An old TV, still functioning to date. A fan to keep the heat away. A split air conditioning unit, hidden behind the kitchen's curtains. Four white lamps suspended from the ceiling. Two glass doors of which one is open for the clientele to enter. Unlike we all think, the man's family name is Moussa and not Mitri.
Mitri, who took over the family business, started working with his dad at the age of 8. He is the sole holder of the secret recipe not a single other human being knows. Each and every day except Sundays, Mitri opens the shop at 07:30am where the hard work begins. Everything is done in-house from the simplest things like crunching the nuts to the more complicated issues of preparing the fresh fruits. "Does anyone come to eat ice cream for breakfast?" I ask. Yes, answers Mitri, more than you can imagine.
I spent more than two hours with Mitri who told me stories all the while... What an afternoon, I didn't want it to end. Stories kept on coming, one after the other, about the old days, the celebrities and politicians who came into this shop as well as why his father was known to be a harsh character... Mitri tells me stories of incidents his dad has encountered with kids and disrespectful people. He was confident about his products and their quality, so kicking people out of his store was not a major problem. This is why he is known to be arrogantly rude, when I now know that it was a reaction to people's misbehavior. I was curious to know if Hanna was that harsh at home but Mitri tells me with an emotional voice that his father was the sweetest person imaginable but he had to be firm as he could not tolerate disrespectful clients.
Two hours, where I tasted everything available inside the fridge with their potential combinations.
- Milk: Maybe the only real milk ice cream in town. A tempting smell and beautiful sticky texture that is adequately sweet and no ice crunching under your teeth. Mixed with musk (meske), salep (sahlab) and rose water (ma zaher), this ice cream is unmatched anywhere else.
- Amareddine (N2ou3): Amareddine or apricot paste is one of the best. A superb ice cream constituted of fresh apricot taste and crunching cold pine nuts. Pine nuts, considered the gold of food for their elevated price are used generously and available in each and every bite.
- Strawberry: Real strawberries, crushed as is. You feel the crunching strawberries bits inside this wonderful sweet flavor. How majestic!
- Lemon: Indescribable. Better than any lemon sorbet I've ever tasted in my entire life. Not Haagen Dazs, nor Oslo come close to approaching a tiny bit of this extraordinary creation. A taste of pure lemon hidden inside this yellow mix, concentrated and soft, tender, watery and crunchy ice feel. In every bite, lemon zests explode to activate all your taste buds at once. An ice cream that melts like butter and leaves a pleasant aftertaste that lasts for long minutes after.
- Rosewater: The smell alone is enough to make you smile. The journey starts with the smell and continues with a flavor that embraces all your mouth mucosa. I love the pure white color this ice cream has. Just pure perfection! I would recommend not to mix rosewater ice cream with anything else as the aromas would cover all the other flavors.
- Peanuts with pure crunchy bits: Beautiful green color. Awesome!
- Croquant: Mitri prepares the caramel croquant biscuits himself, breaks them in small tiny pieces before filling them inside the ice cream. Every bite has a nice consistent crunch as its name describes it. Caramel and peanuts (praliné d'amandes)
- Chocolate: Very dark brown chocolate ice cream: dark chocolate, strong, musky and milky. The color is enough to have you know the purity of the mix.
The mixes I recommend:
- Milk + Amareddine: Awesome. A mix of both together, cold, sweet, soft and full of heavenly flavors Strawberry + milk: Ouf! Wow!
- Milk + Chocolate: A classic I recommend! Important!
Hanna is known for his MILK ice cream. It is not ashta and certainly not vanilla. Try not to mention these two words so as not to anger him. The famous amareddine's real name is N2ou3 in Arabic. If one of your favorite flavors is not available during a certain day, that means Mitri didn't find the fresh products to produce it.
The motto: "Do it perfectly or don't".
Everything is created in-house: Literally everything, fresh on the same day. All fruit ice creams are pure sorbet with no additives, no colorant and no milk added. Hanna's ice cream is found nowhere else in Lebanon: only at the Achrafieh shop.
You have to go and taste it for yourself to discover what I am saying. Yes, we still have real artisans in Lebanon serving unique quality products the world has to know about.