The haimishe challah baked in Banglatown

An East End bakery still bakes Shabbat loaves… for its Muslim customers

By John Nathan, January 21, 2011
Rinkoff’s still bake plenty of challahs for Shabbat, although its clientele has changed markedly since 1911

Rinkoff’s still bake plenty of challahs for Shabbat, although its clientele has changed markedly since 1911

It is Friday morning and it is peak challah-buying time at Rinkoff's. Peter, who works in the legal profession, has been buying challah here for four years. He is partial to the strudel too. Next in the queue is Michelle who lives round the corner, and works as a volunteer for the area's ageing and dwindling Jewish community.

The area was once the cradle of Britain's Jewish community, with more than 150,000 Jewish immigrants. Now there are now only 2,000 or so in the East End where Rinkoff's opened 100 years ago this year. So who is buying the challah in Whitechapel these days?

"Most of them are not Jewish," says 24-year-old Gosh, who has been working behind the counter for nearly the entire four years she has lived in London.

"It's always fresh", says Peter, one of the regular non-Jews.

The shop, just off Mile End Road, is the kind of place you only go to if you know about it. Rinkoff's is a reassuringly functional place. If it is bread you want - bloomers, challahs, cobs, French sticks and sour doughs to name but a few - this is the place. For something a little more inviting there is Rinkoff's café on Valance Road, not 10 minutes walk away. The road was once home ground to the Kray twins. At the gangster's funerals the street was packed and even while they were in jail for murder the twins still sent out every week for half a dozen smoked salmon bagels.

Jubilee Street is where the business and bakery is. According to Derek Rinkoff, one of five Rinkoffs who work in the office next door, the shop is still here only because the council insist that the business has a retail outlet attached to the bakery. Derek works behind a desk these days, but the master baker can still plait a challah faster than the eye can see. So luckily for the locals, many of whom are Bangladeshi and Somali Muslims, Rinkoff's remains.

"They call it 'sweet bread'," says Gosh. "But I tell them what to call it. Now they ask for challah, although many still say tchallah'."

Rinkoff's sour dough loaves remind Gosh of the bread from back home in east Poland. She has no plans to return. It seems that once you start working at Rinkoff's you stick around. Take Richard Watts, Rinkoff's master baker who, every Tuesday and Thursday for the past 26 years, neatly rolls his dreadlocks into a hairnet, and bakes the challah to the recipe that Hyman Rinkoff brought over from Russia in 1911.

To survive, Hyman's descendents - Derek, Harvey, Ray and Lloyd, plus Jenny, Ray's daughter - ply a trade in breads for delicatessens and speciality food shops. By the 1970s Rinkoff's were supplying Harrods, Selfridges, and Harvey Nichols. Now they feed hungry mouths in City corporations such as Price Waterhouse Coopers. And then there is Stella, who gingerly steps into the shop for her weekly order.

While Gosh gathers up Stella's rolls and challah, Stella walks proprietorially behind Gosh's counter. She enjoys the banter with Omar, the Algerian baker responsible for Rinkoff's Danish pastries, strudel and cheesecakes.

"It's my birthday soon," says Stella.

"I'll bake you a cake," says Omar, resplendent in his white baking coat and hat.

"I'll be 85," says Stella, "Bake me two."

Meanwhile, two plumbers - I'll bet a years supply of hamentaschen that they are not Jews - leave with paper bags full of bagels.

"Try the cheese buns" says Michelle, as she rushes to beat a traffic warden to her precariously parked car behind the parade of shops. As she leaves, a middle-aged Asian lady walks in, looks at the shelves piled with breads, points and asks for a "tchallah".

Last updated: 11:46am, January 21 2011