A Druze Delicacy, Hand-crafted

In a family bakery in the Druze town of Majdal Shams, women still prepare the traditional pastries without the aid of machines.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Golan bakery.
Golan bakery.Credit: Dan Peretz
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Usually, work at the bakery begins at six in the morning, but a week after the big storm – which kept the residents of this mountainous town shut inside their homes for nearly 10 days – the women bakers head out to work a bit later. The ice that has built up on the steep inclines is dangerous; best to wait for it to thaw. Finally, around nine in the morning, when the streams of melted snow begin to flow down the streets of Majdal Shams, the neighborhood bakery near the Syrian border and the Shouting Hill opens its doors. When they light the fire under the saj ovens, the aroma of freshly-baked goods mingles with that of the wood fires with which the homes are heated; hot vapors and smoke swirl together in the cold air; and in the alley behind the bakery, facing the snowy white mountain slopes, mounds of dirty snow blackened by soot and mud pile up.

At the Abu Jabal family’s bakery, they make two things: manakish (flatbread) and fatayer (stuffed pastry), baked on the black, concave iron surfaces of three saj ovens. In the few months that the modest bakery has been in operation, it has built up a very lively business filling orders for people in this far northern town. In the past, the women of the family would prepare the traditional foods every day on the saj at home, but today not many women still continue this tradition. The feverish pace of the work, all done by hand, is mesmerizing to watch.

Early in the morning, Samar, the mother of the family, prepares the two kinds of dough for the two types of pastry. The dough is a living thing, sensitive and ravenous. On freezing winter days, she adds warm water instead of cold, so it will rise better. She divides the manakish dough, which is rich in olive oil, into small balls and sets them aside to rise. Two hours later, she rolls out the dough on the hot saj and pats it down with skilled fingers, covering the surface with indentations that will be ready to take in the various bubbling toppings. She and her assistant repeat the monotonous process of making the dough, rolling it out, spreading it with the various toppings and baking it again all day long, six days a week.

One of the best kinds of manakish here is baked on the saj with a spread made of red peppers. This marvelous spread, with its deep, rich flavor, is made by hand from a concentrate of fresh sweet peppers, sweet peppers preserved in olive oil, hot peppers, cumin and sesame. There is also za’atar manakish – topped with a blend of olive oil, za’atar and sesame, and a sumac manakish with a lovely violet hue and a slightly tangy taste.

Fatayer instead of skiing

Golan Bakery.Credit: Dan Peretz

“She has always been a good cook,” says Samar’s brother, popping into the bakery to gobble up some manakish. “I had a friend who used to come up here from the Tel Aviv area to ski on the Hermon. We’d go into Samar’s house just to have a little something to eat first. We’d have a fatayer stuffed with meat, and then another one, and another one or two or ten, until my friend would fall asleep right there in the living room instead of going skiing.”

Samar inherited the recipes – including one for the giant fatayer (described below) – from her mother and grandmother. The family says that their special culinary knowhow and skill comes from the grandmother’s Lebanese roots (As usual in this part of the world, Lebanese cuisine is touted as the absolute best).

Samar’s son Yaman is in charge of taking orders over the phone, writing them down in a notebook whose cover has gotten dusted with flour, packing them and, often, delivering them to the customers’ homes too. Other people stop by the bakery to pick up the baked goods themselves: little bags full of different kinds of manakish, but especially the giant fatayer, which is similar in size to a large pizza pie and comes packed in a disposable pan. Samar rolls the oil-free dough into a large circle (“Sometimes we add labaneh, mint and scallion to the dough. That’s really yummy. Let us know next time you’re coming and we’ll make it for you”). On top of the dough she places a generous mound of one of the following fillings: grated potatoes or sweet potatoes with olive oil, black pepper and her own baharat spice mixture; or chopped wild spinach mixed with sumac and sesame. And then she begins to pull and fold and pinch closed the dough in the center. The women then lay this heavy bundle on the saj, pat it with their hands until it’s as flat as a wide pizza, bake it until the bottom is golden brown and then flip it over. If only it were possible to sit and eat right here in the bakery, like in an Italian pizzeria. For now, the only option is to buy and then continue on your way.

Golan Bakery, 052-740-5333. Streets in Majdal Shams are unnamed. Drive toward the central square, where the statue of the Druze hero Sultan al-Atrash and his troops stands. Then turn right, toward the border. The bakery is about 200 meters from the square, on the right-hand side of the road.

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