If you had to let your nose lead you during an early morning walk in Jerusalem you would likely end up at the nearest bakery. The smell of freshly baked bread can drive one crazy diverting one’s senses in this most alluring city from the visual to the culinary.
Walk down Old Jaffa Street or many of the city’s side streets and you cannot escape the all-too-familiar aroma. Nor would you care to, and with the variety of breads today – particularly the health brands – there is little reason to resist temptation. Such a treat would not have been possible until the late 19th century. There were no bakeries then in the Jewish communities of the Old Yishuv – all bread was baked at home. One of the earliest was Berman’s Bakery, established in 1875 and its history is not only a story of a bakery but the birth of a nation. The ‘yeast’ in this story began when Reb Todrus Halevi Berman, a great Torah scholar and his wife Kreshe, and their two sons Yehoshua and Eliyahu, left Russia to make the long and arduous journey to Palestine.
From Dough to Doe
Times were tough and when their savings ran out, fate and foresight intervened when the family – literally – grabbed a ‘window of opportunity’. From her window in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, Kreshe observed the passing show – but what she saw more than just the daily visit of Christian Pilgrims was the potential to turn their presence into profit. Soon she was baking honey cakes and black bread and years later it was her son Yehoshua who would later move the bakery outside the walls of the Old City to Jaffa Street. He was the first Jerusalemite to open a store outside the Old City, a risky venture considering that the area from Jaffa Gate to Nachalat Shiva was still desolate. For a bakery located well-away from the coast it may seem odd to have a ship’s anchor on its logo today – however there is a sound explanation imbedded in history. The horse or mule-drawn wagons that transported the first breads were bought from an Austrian army surplus depot and these wagons sported an anchor representing the insignia of an Austrian military unit. In time, Berman’s adopted the anchor as its own business logo. In 1886, Yehoshua built the first flourmill for Ashkenazi Jews, close to Mishkenot Shenanim, (the site of the arts and craft center today) and over 120 years later, the original two milestones remain firmly in place. Thousands of kilos of wheat were finely ground in the family mill until the eve of the War of Independence in 1948, when the area became no-man’s land. With the increase in the local Jewish population, the Berman family moved to Mea Shearim, building a house and bakery side by side. Not only was it the largest bakery in Palestine but also in the entire Middle East. It was no wonder that it was a major tourist attraction at the time.
No loafing about
With the siege of Jerusalem in 1948, flour and gasoline rationing led to shortages and even starvation. Due to its proximity to the Jordanian border, and since it was the main supply source for the besieged population, the bakery became the target of numerous bombing attempts. Despite this, the bakery never ceased production, and the residents of Jerusalem received a daily supply of bread. Today Berman’s Bakery is in the growing and thriving commercial center of Gival Shaul, and when in 2001 it acquired Vadash Bakery in Ramat Hasharon and the Lechem HaAretz Bakery, a bakery specializing in health bread and special cookies, it became the second largest bakery in the country, producing 3000 fresh loaves every hour, much of which is transported across the country in over sixty trucks – a far cry from the mules and horses over 100 years ago! ‘Anchored’ in history, it all began with a vision from a window in the Old City!
Modern Israelis of all religious and ethnic background love bread, and eat a large variety of it. This is never more evident than on Friday mornings when Israelis, irrespective of their degree in religiosity, cram into bakeries selecting their different size and shape of their Sabbath bread, known as Challah. Made with eggs, this Jewish Sabbath‑and‑holiday bread is immersed in folklore and tradition and is loaded with symbolism as much as it is with ingredients. On festive occasions a blessing is said over two loaves, symbolizing the two portions of the manna that was distributed on Fridays to the children of Israel during their Exodus from Egypt. The breads are covered on the table by a decorative challah cover, representing the dew that collected on the manna in the morning. Poppy and sesame seeds sprinkled on the bread also symbolize the manna that fell from heaven. Challah is made in various sizes and shapes, all of which have a meaning. Braided ones, which may have three, four, or six strands, are the most common, and because they look like arms intertwined, symbolize love. Three braids symbolize truth, peace, and justice. Twelve humps from two small or one large braided bread, recalls the miracle of the twelve loaves for the twelve tribes of Israel. Round loaves, “where there is no beginning and no end,” are baked for Rosh Hashanah to symbolize continuity, while ladder shaped ones served at the meal before the fast of Yom Kippur, reminds Jews that God decides who will ascend and descend the ladder of life. Sweet challahs with honey or raisins are baked during the festive season to bring joy and happiness. The Sabbath and festival breads of the Yemenite Jews have become popular in Israel and can be bought frozen in supermarkets. Jachnun is thinly rolled dough, brushed with oil and baked overnight at a low heat. It is traditionally served with a crushed tomato dip, hard boiled eggs and skhug (Middle East hot sauce). Malawach is a thin circle of dough toasted in a frying pan, while Kubaneh is a yeast dough baked overnight and traditionally served on Shabbat mornings. Lahoh is spongy, pancake-like bread made of fermented flour and water and fried in a pan. Jews from Ethiopia make a similar yeast-risen flatbread called Injera from millet flour. And of course, the most common bread is Pita, created by steam, which puffs up the dough. In both Israeli and Palestinian cuisine, it is the custom to eat almost anything with pita, from falafel, lamb, turkey or chicken shwarma, kebab, omelets, shakshouka (dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, and onions) and most common, hummus and salads.
The South African ‘Ingredient’
Away from the giants of bread manufactures in Israel, are several boutique bakeries who pride themselves in baking mainly health breads. One such is Saidels Bakery – name recently changed to Saidel’s Artisan Baking Institute – located in the village of Ginot Shomron. Nestled in the shade of weeping willows, with the tranquil trickle of a babbling brook to delight the senses, this family bakery is run by husband and wife team, Les and Sheryl Saidel, immigrants from Johannesburg, South Africa. Modeled on the time-honored family “village bakery”, Saidels is a far cry from the high volume, industrialized operations of modern bakeries. Les, a student of world renowned pastry chef Michel Suas (San Francisco Baking Institute) and “an artisan bread baker” with over 30 years of baking experience, laments that “our global health is declining and the food we put in our mouths has a lot to do with it.” He refers back to an age where there “were no major bakery chains and no E-something chemical list. Bread was baked in a local village by the baker from scratch.” Furthermore, he continues, “The mills of those early days could not grind the flour too fine so it retained all the components of the wheat grain, including the wheat germ. This was real bread.” All this Saidels proudly emulates. “We mill the whole wheat flour ourselves and use it immediately in the bread dough so no refrigeration of wheat germ is necessary and the wheat germ has no time to go rancid.” As Saidels bake their bread and sell it fresh out of the oven, there is no need for “stabilizers, preservatives and dough enhancers. We are artisan bakers and when we say 100% whole wheat that is exactly what it is – direct from nature, organically grown and no tampering.” Their masonry oven was built by Les himself according to strict guidelines and is one of only two such ovens in the entire Middle East. Constructed with century old bricks imported from Belgium and with its Tudor-like facade, “our oven is not only the tool of our trade, it is a wonder to behold and attracts tourists and baking enthusiasts from all over the country.” Les says he finds it enriching watching “the flames lick the brick interior of our oven, in the knowledge that our ancestors baked this way and that we are continuing their fine tradition” Les says, “we have shifted our focus and allocate 70% of our time to running workshops across the country instructing in challah, artisan, healthy, French, Italian, Donut and flatbread baking. Once we even did a workshop on a large boat on the Sea of Galilee.” Interesting new additions to the Saidels ‘repertoire’ is Rambam Bread, named after the Middle Ages Jewish philosopher and Rabbi, Maimonides, who advocated a healthy lifestyle and of special interest to their South African customers – Biltong Bread.
Chew on This
“After many years of experimentation, carefully manipulating the sourdough process and using a secret blend of spices,” says Les, “we finally hit upon the secret formula. There is NO MEAT in this bread. The Biltong taste comes from the combination of sourdough and spices and when you taste it, you will react the same way we did after the eureka moment – “OMG this actually tastes like Biltong!” Like real Biltong, this bread is meant to be nibbled, as a snack. The flavor is very dominant and may be overpowering in a sandwich. “People buy it sliced, ready for munching, or chop it up further into sticks or croutons for use in soups and salads”. Adhering to their health philosophy, Les says, “Our Biltong Bread is organic, has 80% whole grain flour, is high in fiber, low in gluten (over 60% is rye flour), has a low glycemic index, contains no preservatives, chemicals or dough improvers. It is all natural – flour, water, salt, malt, molasses, sourdough yeast and all natural spices (no MSG – that is a swear word in our bakery). Only 55 calories a slice – one slice is very filling, you won’t need more than one.” Finally, says Les, “It is the perfect, delicious snack to nibble on that is actually GOOD for you!
Eating healthily today means enjoying a hearty, healthy breakfast and this includes enjoying Israel’s hearty breads. In the sixties, ‘bread’ was hippy slang for ‘money’. As food, the doughy stuff has long been considered “the staff of life” and in Isaiah 55:10 we read: “For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater.”
As the ‘Joburg’ ladies might say: “This bread is divine!”