A short history
They say if you look into any general’s life you will find he played with Toy soldiers. The thing about bread is – I can only see the part it played in my life in retrospect. Growing up bread was just…bread, a staple food for sure, and a daily part of my life but- not one I thought about. Having grown up in the social experiment that Israel calls the Kibbutz, most of my culinary life up to a point was that of badly cooked plain food in a central industrialized kitchen. Almost nobody cooked at home…it was a socialist community and everyone worked long hours – men and women alike – so the cooking was left to the cooks. The bread was industrial, yeast, mostly white or what we called “dark bread” which was a little more whole. One did not think of bread as something on it’s own – just a tray to put things on, a sandwich.
Hind vision of course has a way of painting different colors…and so certain memories remain more vivid than others. There was a bakery down the hills from my group home (group homes were part of Kibbutz life…the children lived together and only saw their parents for a few hours every day on the afternoons. Think about it as something like a socialist version of– “Lord of the flies”) in the kibbutz. Thursday nights they would bake the Challah for Friday mornings. Around 3am the smell would waft through the window and wake me with that undeniable hunger that comes from fresh baked bread. This hunger could not be satisfied (meals were orderly, we ate at prescribed times and there was no snacking) and so those moments stayed as sweet longing that could not be filled. There was also the sandwich thing…
At some point my family and I left the kibbutz. My mother began cooking again and I gained 10 pounds in our first year out. However – my mother would not allow me in the kitchen (she had good reasons…I nearly burnt the house down once) except for one thing – make sandwiches. So they became a passion and so did bread.
Later in life, I gravitated towards the culinary world. First as a bartender, then a cook, a chef and finally – a baker. Somehow the combination of hard work, endless learning, passion and a kind of relentless longing for growth fit my peculiar character.
It was as a young sous-chef in a restaurant I came across baking. My chef at the time was a passionate and proficient baker and we spent hours and hours on breads, Focaccias and other baked goods. It hit home and I baked from that point on. The professional baking came in later, when I was looking for a form of culinary art that could support my family. Being a baker seemed like the way to go. There were, of course, a couple of challenges to overcome. The main one was this – the place we were about to move back to, a small hippie village in the north of Israel, had only solar-powered electricity. This meant – No electrical oven, No mixer, No fridge, No air-conditioning…in other words – I needed to learn how to do this Old-school.
At the time there was no one to consult in Israel about a bakery like this. Even the ones who did not think I was out of my mind could offer no practical advice. Since this was quite long ago there was also very little information on the internet, or in books. The solution was a baker I had known years ago in northern Italy who did exactly this – baked a commercial amount of loaves every week in a wood-fired oven and did not use a mixer. I made contact, he agreed to mentor me, and I took a plane to Milano and traveled my way up to the beautiful area surrounding Lake Como. My mentor had a small bakery, built into his converted garage. A wood-fired French oven, a birch baking trough, a few shelves and two fridges. That was it. The only electricity he used was a blender for his hazelnut and molasses mixture (more on that later) and lights. That was it. His way was more a philosophy than a practical choice…a devout man, he believed in putting his love and care into his food…or as he said it – the mixer connects to electricity, the hands- to the heart.
What I came back with was a completely different understanding of how bread was made. My mentor baked the way he learned in a Southern Italian Monestary, a method that was essentially a thousand years old. He mixed, bulked and proved dough his wooden baking trough, used only whole flours, kept a stiff sourdough he called Mother and baked his 120-150 loves in the round wood-fired oven. He did not explain much, and I asked little…instead I watched, practiced, baked and learned.
My first realization coming back to my own village was that it would take a hell of a lot more knowledge than I had to translate what I had learned in the cool, temperate and stable ambience of Northern Italy to the scorching summers, cold winters and generally unpredictable weather of my country. Plus – he had fridges.
With what I can only think of as a foolhardy belief in my own capacity to learn on the go, I proceeded to build a bakery anyway. All the while I studied like mad, learning biology, chemistry and physics to better understand the principles behind the flour, fermentation, dough and oven. I read articles, researches, talked to scientists where I found no answers and used all of this to problem-solve. I learned how to bake when it was really hot and really cold. How flour changes, seasons, water. I had almost no buffers, it was either problem-solving or bad bakes. I probably gave away 5000-10000 loaves my first year…but I learned.
Time, that secret ingredient in all good things, passed. My bread became better, than good, then a reason for people to travel. People began coming for advice, for training, for consultations. As it grew outside so did the inner understanding grow. How bread was connected to elements, to life, how the baker was connected to his craft, but also – the people. Bread became what it always was since the dawn of humanity – A synergy of nature and man, of craft and culture, history and the endless human struggle for making it just a little bit better next time.