Life & Culture

Finding peace in the aisles of the grocery store


Pre-Pesach feast: Bara Brith for our columnist's Welsh brother-in-law

Recently, in the run-up to Pesach, I cleaned out my baking cupboard. I am a pretty slapdash sort of Jew at the best of times when it comes to observance, and a slovenly Hausfrau to boot, but even I am minded to empty out the food cupboards once a year to clean them, and if not before Passover, then when? Originally, there were five questions at Seder night, the fifth being: ‘Why does the woman of the house get saddled with cleaning out the cupboards before this night?’ But in the 14th century, after a spirited debate among Talmudic scholars, the question was removed from the service and all traces of it eliminated. Current rival theories suggest that the question was expunged because no set answer could be given, while others opine that the service is more than long enough without including questions where the answers only encourage further disagreements.

Looking at the multiple packets of flour, seeds, dried yeast etc now ranked along the worktop, I indulged in a pre-Pesach orgy of baking to use things up. I made soft poppy-seed rolls, dark wholemeal bread with treacle, cherry Madeira cake, and – as a treat for my brother-in-law, who is half-Welsh, a loaf of Bara Brith (made with mixed spice and dried fruit that has been soaked in tea – a sort of hot-cross bun loaf without the cross, ideal for those niche families like my sister’s, which are a little bit Jewish and a little bit Welsh). Since the London Congestion Charge was changed to include weekends, I no longer drive when I visit my sister on the other side of town, so now I have to pack my usual cargo of baked goods into a backpack for the journey on public transport.

I know that more competent bakers are prompted into a frenzy of flour-free baking for Pesach, but – with the honourable exception of almond macaroons, which I think I manage reasonably well (the old-fashioned type with a half glacé cherry or blanched almond on top, not the more fancy-schmancy French ones) – my attempts at traditional Passover cakes have always been disappointing. When I tried to make a plava, The Husband’s favourite type of cake,  the centre sank so dramatically during baking that it looked as if I’d simply plonked my tuchus straight down on it the moment I’d taken it out of the oven.

My love of all things belonging to the Kingdom of Baked Goods runs so deep that at least two weeks before Passover began, I experienced a growing anxiety that I am about to be deprived of my favourite foodstuffs. In this vulnerable state, I was at a beauty salon in Golders Green and when I emerged, I found myself inexorably drawn to a large grocery store on the other side of the road. At first, I thought I was enticed by the display of fruits and vegetables heaped up on stands outside the shop, but moments later I realised that it was the smell of freshly baked bread calling me like the Pied Piper. Though the shop is Turkish, once inside I found a veritable culinary League of Nations, with produce from all over the Middle East, Europe and Asia. I wandered along the aisles, looking at the countries of origin – fruit juices from Bulgaria, cheeses from Greece and Denmark, caçik from Turkey, pickles from Poland, Spanish mountain honey, fat bunches of herbs from Iran – but still the intoxicating scent of the bread drew me further in. Tucked away behind a small screen, a single baker was kneading dough by hand and on a tall trolley nearby were metal trays of cooling loaves. I chose a long, lozenge-shaped flatbread, shallow but puffy, deep golden and studded with sesame seeds, knowing it would be lucky to see the end of the day never mind lasting the remaining few days before Passover began.

The customers were as varied in origin as the foods – Jews and Muslims, black and white, Asian, Middle Eastern, European, all apparently capable of getting on with their lives perfectly peaceably in this place where food is good and plentiful, where we are happy to make way for each other if someone needs to get by then queue calmly when it’s time to pay. While I was ambling along, for once not in a rush, my anxiety slowly subsiding, selecting honey to make my charoset, some fresh leaves for a salad, thick yoghurt for breakfast, the thought crosses my mind that perhaps peace talks would make at least a little progress if, instead of being stuck in arid war cabinets, they took their negotiations to a store like this. Here, negotiators could chat without rancour as they chose their favourite type of olives, debated over the merits of thyme honey or wildflower, sniffed the bundles of fresh mint and coriander, remembering that what unites us – our shared humanity, our drive to protect and feed our families – should always be bigger than what divides us, and choosing to find a path to bring peace.

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