Sunday, April 17, 2016

Why Is This Matzo Different From All Other Matzos? An unintended side effect of kosher law: better tasting food

SEVERAL years ago, at a family Seder, I tasted a matzo I actually liked. It was misshapen and lightly burned, distinguishing it from the machine-made matzo of my youth. And this one possessed something that I had never experienced with matzo: It had flavor. What can I say? Up until that moment, the best matzo of my life was not much better than the worst matzo of my life; you could taste the struggle in every bite. For the first time I ate matzo and thought, This is delicious.

In the spirit of the Four Questions, which the youngest child always asks at the Passover Seder, and which begin with: Why is this night different from all other nights? I asked myself, “Why is this matzo different from all other matzos?”

I’m a chef, so of course I was tempted to credit the baker. [...]

A visit to the bakery where the matzo was made, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, allowed me to see how this law plays out on the ground. There were roughly 40 workers, with earlocks and yarmulkes, white shirts and black pants. For each batch of matzo, from the moment the water met flour, the workers frantically mixed, rolled and baked — all within 18 minutes — guaranteeing no fermentation.

The precision was impressive. But the recipe was just a hurried mix of flour and water. Not even a kiss of salt — nothing to explain that bravura taste, apart from the grain itself.

The bakery, I learned, specialized in an elite class of matzo called “shmurah,” meaning “guarded” or “watched,” which Orthodox communities prescribe for the first night of Passover. For shmurah matzo, the guarding against chametz begins not in the bakery but in the field, with rabbis overseeing the grain from harvest through to milling. Maybe, I thought, the matzo owed its flavor to this rabbinical scrutiny.

So several months later, I drove to upstate New York to visit one of the bakery’s suppliers, Klaas Martens, a grain farmer whom, coincidentally, I’ve known for many years. It was early July, and he was waiting to harvest kosher spelt for shmurah matzo. (Spelt isn’t typical matzo material, but it is one of the five biblical grains permitted in Passover tradition.) [...]

“What was remarkable to me is that being constrained by the rules of the rabbi, it forced us to figure out how to better preserve the quality of the grain,” Klaas said. [...]

Convinced that the matzo I’d tasted must be proof not just of a higher understanding of agriculture but also of a higher understanding of deliciousness, I asked the rabbi if he believed that any of the kosher laws ended up producing better-tasting food.

“No. Absolutely not,” he said. “It’s just kosher law.” [...]

I was beginning to see how the annual shmurah harvest improved Klaas’s farming for the rest of the year. It encouraged him to diversify crops, for instance, ridding his fields of weeds and improving the soil for everything else he grew. [...]

As we started down the last row of the 30-acre field, I watched the rabbi study the spelt left to cut. At the end of this hot, grueling day, he didn’t ease into the last few minutes of the harvest. If anything, he looked closer, examining the spelt so carefully, so faithfully, he might have been reading ancient scrolls.

I can’t shake that image because of something Klaas told me many years ago: “The history of wheat in a question is ‘How do we grow this and make it easier?’ ”

We’ve been spectacularly successful. After all, wheat built Western civilization. We eat a lot of the stuff — in the United States, more than 130 pounds per person each year. Worldwide, it covers more acreage than any other crop.

The rabbi, however, was not interested in making wheat easier. And his stone-faced inspection reminded me of what that pursuit has left us with: 

chemicals, denuded wheat, depleted soils and a host of other problems with our food system.
Everyone has his own standards — for food and faith — but that image of the rabbi gave me hope that the solution for a problem centuries in the making is within reach. Call it a fifth question: Instead of making something easier, why not make it more delicious? There’s room at the table for that.


  1. Matzos start being baked chanukah time.

    A few days before Pesach, pre heat your (pesachdik) oven to the highest temperature possible, and put your matzos in for around 10 minutes (or until they start to burn). Let them cool before wewrapping and puting back in the box. Your Seder Night will never be the same again.

    At the same time you can also use the opportunity to deal with the sheleimos problem by burning around the circumference of the broken matzos with something like this (no idea how it is sold in the US/Israel).

    PS I can only speak for hand baked matzos.

  2. I think shmura matzah tastes delicious because it is less refined than regular matzah flour. You can see dark specks in the matzos.

  3. I am a goatherd, and also involved in other aspects of farming. I call our food production "ganic", not "organic". The root of "ganic" is "gan" as in "Gan Eden". (Of course my name is Orlow, so I suppose we are or-ganic.)

    The idea is to use the freshest, purest, most natural ingredients we can find or grow ourselves. And people tell me they like the taste. I think they like what's missing as much as what we put in.

  4. Once a 'shavur', (broken), always a 'shavur'.

    The NYT author should have reffered to 'hand matzah, not shmurah matzah. Of course, there goes his biased discussion with the PC farmer.

    All matzah flour, shmurah or not, is white flour, not whole wheat. Unless you order whole wheat (hard to find; i assume not available in 'miSha'at ketzirah.)

  5. Shemurah is less refined, particularly handmade. Otherwise it would be as white as regular matza and it's not.

  6. addendum: i was at kollel /krm in boro park last nite (was busy there) and they had a few
    (obviously 'heimishe") brands of hand matzat they listed as "whole wheat.' i guess there's a (perceived) demand for that.)

  7. The flavor of matza depends on the fuel used to bake it.hand baked shmura matzo baked in wood ovens thus has superior flavour


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