How far has your challah travelled?

By Nathan Jeffay, July 11, 2008
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It may seem local, but your Shabbat loaf may have come from Israel

No Friday-night meal is complete without an in-depth discussion about the quality of the challah. In fact, few things evoke such local pride in the Jewish community as baked goods.

But before you shower the baker round the corner with compliments, you may want to find out what, exactly, his or her role is.

In some cases, you would be better off directing your gratitude to Itzik Bechar, an Israeli businessman based in the town of Holon, south of Tel Aviv. Or more precisely, the employees of his firm, Gidron, who make and shape the dough for challah and then freeze the unbaked breads in crates which they ship around the world. The recipients need no baking experience — they just defrost them, leave them to proof, and pop them in their ovens.

In fact, you may even owe thanks to the international food giant Nestlé. Bonjour, a Kiryat Gat-based subsidiary of Nestlé-owned Osem, dispatches an enormous container of ready-to-bake dough to Britain five times a year — all of it good for six months, thanks to added preservatives. This bakery might take the credit for the challah, roll, a granary loaf or baguette that you eat from your “local” bakery.

If it is a biscuit or a Danish pastry that tickled your taste buds, it may have been the handiwork of Barouch Frank of Frank Bakery in Ashkelon, an exporter who uses similar methods.

The market for so-called bake-off products in UK kosher bakeries has become significant. It is impossible to judge its extent, given that not everyone who uses them is keen to be identified. But with each shipment from Bonjour — all of it destined for the kosher market — weighing two tonnes, there is no doubt that plenty of British Jewry’s baked products have clocked up in excess of 2,000 food miles.

Environmentalists may balk at the idea, but according to Shloimy Cohen, owner of Mr Baker in Hendon, this method is responsible for much of the variety in the kosher market today. “It used to be that the same bakeries were baking the same thing for 30 or 40 years, but now there is more choice — people can get the products you can find in Israel,” he says.

His shop prepares bread and other products from scratch, but it uses the bake-off method for characteristically Israeli items, such as its large range of filled pastries. These arrive oven-ready from his relative in Northern Israel.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but he points out that importing from Israel can work out more economical. “If you want to make your own Danish, you need trained people working, special equipment etc. It is easier and cheaper to import.”

But why import bake-off bread? Bechar of Gidron insists that preparing even a modest challah can be “complicated” and labour-intensive. It also requires kosher ingredients which are easiest to find and cheapest in Israel.

London bakeries also save floor space by having their products prepared abroad and Alon Peleg of Bonjour cites cheaper labour costs in Israel as another important factor.

He predicts a major growth in the kosher bake-off market in the UK in the next 18 months. This is because, even though the products currently on the market allow people to run a bakery with little expertise and minimal space, they still need room to let products proof. “We are moving into half-baked products that avoid this need.”

However, Jonathan Grodzinski, who runs J Grodzinski and Daughters, believes the growth of this sector is bad news for customers. “All these items are mass produced in factories using the cheapest raw materials, with preservatives to ensure survival through the very deep-freeze process and the long sea journey to the UK,” he says.

In his opinion, the job of the baker is to provide items “more innovative than the monolithic imported product” which he says, “whilst palatable, is not comparable with the product of a master baker”.

    Last updated: 10:17am, July 10 2008