The bread of ancient Israel is baked again for modern tables | Israel

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On the wall of Hagai Ben Yehuda’s bakery in a kibbutz near Petah Tikva hangs a black and white photograph of Miriam and Moshe Rozental, who came to Palestine from Poland during the Ottoman era in 1870.

Moshe was a baker: over the years, his descendants have made the family business one of Israel’s largest bread companies. Five generations later, Ben Yehuda is taking the legacy of his loved ones in a new direction, breathing new life into ancient bread-making traditions by reviving local varieties of wheat from thousands of years ago.

“My grandfather told me that we mainly sell rye bread. He said that sometimes the Arab farmers sold him their wheat. According to him, it would make a yellowish flour and be one of the best breads,” the 36-year-old said, as he blessed and fed the dough in a wood-fired oven during the Observeris the visit.

“Now I learned that it was durum wheat. I wanted to slow down and understand where the food really comes from. It feels good to continue in the footsteps of my family.

In 2014, Ben Yehuda participated in a workshop for agricultural bakers in Brittany, France, eager to learn more about traditional and ancient wheat. To his surprise, the teacher and the other participants wanted to know more about Israel’s practices instead, since Israel was in the ancient Fertile Crescent, where the grain was first grown.

Back home, the baker began researching the emmer, the “mother of wheat”, which was used for bread in biblical times and found growing wild near Mount Hermon, straddling the border. from Syria and Lebanon, in the 1940s. Other strains with intriguing colors, shapes and sizes included jaljuli, hourani, abu fashi and dubiya samra – all grown locally for millennia, but in the years 1960 replaced by imported soft wheat, which has a much higher monetary return.

Bread reborn is sweet. Photo: Quque Kierszenbaum/The Observer

Ben Yehuda contacted the Volcani Center, Israel’s agricultural research institute, to see if he could get some of these heirloom seeds, plant them, and experience the taste of bread.

“I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know anything about agriculture,” he said. “I decided to approach it like a winemaker. They know everything about the ground, the sun, the altitude. Being guided by the character of wheat would make me a better baker.

Ben Yehuda started with a one-acre plot of land in Moshav Nehalim in northern Israel. Over time, he became familiar with the differences between wheat, barley and oats, as well as milk thistle, mallow and mustard. Determined not to use pesticides, he tested the best ways to prepare, sow and harvest his small harvest, learning the rhythm of the seasons. After five years, he harvested enough grain to start farming on five acres.

Finally ready to bake with ancient wheat, Ben Yehuda experimented with locally produced flavors, aromas and textures, European techniques and imported organic flours to arrive at what is now one of his signatures: a sourdough spelled.

Drawing diagrams in the flour on the work surface, the baker explains that his French stone mill works in such a way that the interlocking grooves slowly peel the grain, rather than crush it, leaving the germ and most of its minerals and vitamins intact. The bran is filtered by a rotating sifting machine, leaving behind a soft bread flour.

Flour, salt and water are the only ingredients in the sourdough breads, which are baked in a huge stone rotary oven specially built on site at Ben Yehuda by experts from Barcelona.

The result has a dark, crumbly crust and a slightly sweet, nutty flavor: it’s best served with butter, olive oil or honey.

A photo of Ben Yehuda's great-great-grandparents, who started the baking business in 1870.
Ben Yehuda’s great-great-grandparents, who started the bakery business in 1870. Photo: Quique Kierszenbaum/The Observer

Working with his business partner, Baruch Borochov, 32, and with much help from his wife, Noa, 36, an interior designer, Ben Yehuda now makes 250 to 300 loaves a day, most of which are sold to Tel Aviv restaurants and delis.

He is also participating in an exhibition exploring the baking traditions of 17th-century Jerusalem currently being held at Asif Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to “cultivating and nurturing Israel’s diverse and creative food culture”. For the exhibition, Ben Yehuda made flatbread from ancient durum wheat in a traditional clay and straw oven hand-built by Palestinian women living in Susiya, a village in the occupied West Bank.

Ben Yehuda is now looking for a bigger platform for his innovations: He and Borochov hope to leave the Kibbutz Einat workshop and open a bigger bakery and their own shop in Tel Aviv, where they can get closer to markets and start sale. to private customers.

“You have to be confident, to find your own voice in this work. I had an identity crisis when I went to Brittany and people asked me: ‘What is special about your bread, about Israeli bread?’ and I couldn’t answer,” Ben Yehuda said. “Now, if bakers from France, Italy, Germany ask me, I can tell them: it’s the taste of this land.”

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