In the Galilee, a Father-son Team Is Making Pita Bread Great Again

This bakery and flour mill uses old-fashioned methods to reproduce the tasty whole-wheat pitas of yesteryear.

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Manakish with pepper spread, za’atar, and labneh.
Manakish with pepper spread, za’atar, and labneh.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

A resident of Rama enters the flour mill in the Galilee village of Nahf, holding a sack of roasted green wheat. She asks the miller, Bassam Qadri, to grind the wheat coarsely “for a mansaf [a lamb, rice and yogurt dish] with mutton and freekeh,” she explains. And both the miller and his customer have a dreamy look, as though they are imagining the taste of a favorite delicacy.

“Before the rice came, we had only wheat. Traditional dishes like mansaf were prepared with freekeh and burghul,” explains the miller. When he finishes grinding the freekeh, the customer asks for four kilograms of whole wheat to prepare fatayer. It’s the end of winter, high season for edible wild plants, and therefore also the time to make fatayer – pockets of dough that are filled with sebanakh (wild spinach) or other local wild greens, and baked. “I prepare large quantities and freeze them for the entire year,” she explains, loading the sack of flour into the trunk of her car.

Another customer arrives, this time a resident of Nahf, the owner of a shwarma place in Carmiel. He has come to the mill, located in an industrial warehouse among olive trees, to pick up an order of lafa – a traditionalMiddle Eastern flatbread baked in a taboun oven. Bassam and his son Mohammed prepare it in the tiny bakery adjacent to the mill.

When the man from Carmiel leaves, Bassam will set out on his rounds to distribute lafa to the shwarma stands in Nahf. Each stand specializes in a different type of meat – one prepares skewers of veal, another skewers of turkey – and all roll up the fillings in Bassam and Mohammed’s wonderful brown lafa.

Between the grinding and the baking, we discover the baker’s best friend: the broom. After each round of grinding – whether flour in the big grinder, or spices, burghul and freekeh in one of the various small specialized grinders – the miller tries in vain to control the flour and za’atar (hyssop) particles or cumin peels that fill the space. His efforts to keep the place spic and span are reminiscent for a moment of the Sisyphean labor of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, who fought in vain against a fleet of determined brooms. But the patient baker doesn’t give up, grinding and cleaning, cleaning and baking.

Bassam Qadri was born in Nahf, his ancestral village, in 1968. For years he worked in a Delta textiles warehouse, until he was laid off due to cutbacks and had to find a new source of livelihood. A friend proposed he build a mill on a plot of land he had inherited at the edge of the village, and Bassam rose to the challenge.

“I traveled to many places, to Jordan and throughout the territories, in order to learn. I wanted to do something new and old – to grind 100 percent whole wheat flour, and to restore to pita the taste it had before they started making it from white flour, without sprouts and bran, the parts in which the nutrients of the plant are concentrated.”

The mill, opened in 2007, is similar to the traditional communal flour mills that have been almost completely replaced by large industrial facilities. The large, attractive flour grinder is painted a honey brown and features shapely curves, hinges and axles. Built in the 1950s, it was purchased after being phased out at a mill that was turned into an industrial plant. Bassam uses it to prepare whole grain flour from Galilee wheat, along with 10 additional types of flour – some from local grains, and others, like buckwheat, rye and teff – from imported grains.

Bassam also has specializedmills to grind dried spices (such as the high-quality local sumac, cumin and black pepper); exceptionally tasty za’atar; coffee; and other traditional wheat products, such as burghul and freekeh, which have been part of the regional diet for thousands of years.

The long preparation process for burghul includes cooking the grains of wheat and drying them for two weeks on the roofs of the village houses. Afterward they are ground to various degrees of thickness. Coarsely ground burghul is used to prepare mejadra (a dish of lentils and rice). More finely ground burghul is for various types of kube dumplings, and the most finely ground burghul is used for preparing tabuleh salads.

Outstanding taste

There is nursi burghul – made of a reddish wheat – which is ground in three degrees of coarseness, and there is burghul from amber wheat, which tends to be yellowish. These latter two wheat species are grown in the neighboring kibbutzim or in the fields of the last fellahin, peasant farmers who still cultivate their land according to the cycle of the seasons. (“Once every farmer sowed a little wheat, a little barley, a little sesame and seasonal vegetables. Now everyone raises only olive trees,” says Bassam.)

The heart of the adjacent bakery, which opened nine years ago, is an impressive taboun oven that simulates traditional baking on river stones. “We wanted to offer people good bread based on our flour,” he explains. The bread is baked with gas flames above and below, and the bumpy metal surface resembles the original taboun ovens.

Mohammed, pleasant and hardworking like his father, prepares the dough, rolling it into balls and placing them to rise on wooden trays. Then his skilled hands roll the balls into circular sheets and place them in the taboun to bake. The result is huge, soft, browned pitas with an outstanding taste and texture. The mother of the family prepares a selection of spreads: a za’atar blend of dried hyssop, local sesame, sumac and olive oil; labneh (a yogurt cheese) with za’atar; sfiha (ground meat seasoned with baharat, a spice blend, and fried onions); and a sweet-and-spicy spread of dried peppers. The father and son spread these on small pitas, turning them into the best manakish I’ve ever tasted.

Father and son work six days a week from 5 A.M. until 5 or 6 P.M. The mill and the bakery are closed on Fridays. At the end of the 12-hour work day they return to the family home, located in the heart of the old part of the village. In recent years, Bassam renovated his ancestral home and with hard work exposed the structure of a traditional house typical of the Greater Syria region. It has an attractive inner courtyard with a cistern in the center for collecting rainwater; balconies and shutters made of carved wood; and a mashrabiya, a traditional projecting window enclosed with carved wood latticework, on the second story of a building. Here the master of the house could sit, opposite the landscape of the hills and mountains on which the ancient village was built, and watch the passersby.

Al-Balad flour mill and taboun, Nahf (located at the westernmost point on the road that rings the community, near the soccer field). For information: 054-805-5953, 054-468-6357

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