1722m - Tripoli’s café culture is smaller than Beirut’s. It still...
Tripolitan Cookies and Taqa Bars Conquer Lebanon
That Tripoli is the home of many an amazing sweetsmaker is widely known. Lebanon’s second largest city is slowly becoming famous for being the home of the country’s first wheat-free bakery, Bread Basket Square.
Behind the success is a passionate, determined and happy-go-lucky entrepreneur, Soumaya Merhi, who after living in Montreal for eight years came back to kick-start the bakery her father had built.
“He had built the oven and I brought the concept, did sell the idea, took on the marketing,” she explains and readily admits that it took her two years to figure out what she was doing after jumping in.
The bookshelf behind her desk is filled with titles such as The World of Organic Agriculture, David Woolfe’s Superfoods and From Akkar to Amel – Lebanon’s Slow Food Trail. They sum up her philosophy quite well and her rigour in choosing – or even growing – her own ingredients. The price for her audacity and firm belief in food health was that some people started to take note of the woman from Tripoli, selling cookies.
Backed by four partners who invested in the project and with the Bou Khalil Centre offering a place to bake in its Bahsas location in Tripoli, Mehri started to create a range of cookies that are outstanding as much as they are addictive.
Bread Basket Square prides itself for being wheat-free. While a gluten free item will always be wheat free, a wheat free item may not always be gluten free. Wheat is used in a variety of products, but its use as flour for bread and baked goods is the most prevalent. One of the key reasons why wheat is best suited for bread making in comparison to other grains is its high gluten content.
Gluten is what gives yeast based dough its elasticity. One of the most heavily consumed proteins on earth, it is created when two molecules, glutenin and gliadin, come into contact and form a bond. Besides in wheat, gluten is commonly found in rye, barley and some oats. Worldwide, gluten intolerance (celiac disease) is steadily increasing; 1% of Americans alone are suffering from it.
Among the grains Merhi is using are rye and oats, which grow in colder climes and are therefore imported from Germany and spelt, which farmers in Syr el Donnieh have been growing successfully.
“I’m a big advocate of healthy food and wholesome ingredients and refuse GMOs and any manipulation of food, which really is what makes food sane or hazardous. I rather support the revival of other crops,” Merhi argues.
She added that in many areas, the food diversity was dwindling, which often had negative effects for local agriculture. Hence her efforts to grow spelt on a small scale in Syr el Donnieh. “It was our first harvest and spelt is high in protein.”
Merhi is also a strong supporter of reviving traditional diets, which still prevail in villages but not in the cities and tend to be more diverse and include more chickpeas and lentils. She is proud to be the first bakery to use pure coconut oil, instead of sunflower or palm oil.
Initially, Bread Basket Square started out with bread. It still sells square-shaped Arabic Rye Bread and fresh buns but has added a range of salty and sweet items, such as Oat Kaak Thyme and Oat Kaak Sesame to the product list.
Selling like hot cakes are the Oat Dark Chocolate Vermicel Cookies although the Oat Orange Cookies, a tribute to Tripoli’s once abundant orange trees, and the various Maamoul cookies pair fabulously well with a good cup of tea/coffee. With her modern take on Maamoul, Mehri has turned traditional pastry into an everyday cookie. So far, there are Oat Date Maamoul Square, Oat Maamoul Walnut Square, Oat Pistacchio Maamoul Square, Oat Mixed Maamoul Square to savour. At the back of every paper package is the Bread Basket story in English and Arabic – the Arabic write-up is in Tripolitan, a nod to her hometown.
Inspired by the now legendary Clif Bar, Merhi has also successfully launched the Taqa Bar (taqa means energy in Arabic), Lebanon’s first energy bar. After initially selling her trademark square Arabic bread and then also her cookies at Souk el Tayeb, Bread Basket Square expanded to health shops between Tripoli and Tyre, and some supermarkets. Merhi who has also garnered a few corporate clients and is working hard on broadening her distribution has her goal set on selling her Northern delights in every Lebanese supermarket.
“It’s coming along nicely!” the young entrepreneur said, about to commence her second year. “I’m proud to have been able to prove that a woman from Tripoli and her cookies could indeed conquer Lebanon!” In the process, she has also been able to get to know her country through her sales trips, taking her up to Aley, all across Beirut and along the Lebanese coastline.
When she’s able to get a break, Merhi loves being outdoors. She’s started rock climbing and loves being in Tannourine, trying routes there. She also enjoys hiking, notably along the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT). Mina, Tripoli’s port district is her favourite part of her hometown and she is excited about the fact that there are some new initiatives and venues opening up, notably Rassif and Beit el Nessim. “Tripoli is a city that’s challenging but that I love,” she maintains. “It’s nice to see people coming back to Tripoli.”