Picture the scene. High in the grasslands of Tibet, farmers boil pans of yak milk over stoves fuelled by pungent yak manure. They are cooking the milk to extract a protein called casein which will be sold to a US manufacturer.
A truck pulls up and out steps Rabbi Akiva Padwa, director of certification and senior rabbinical coordinator for the KLBD. He’s an unlikely visitor to the mountainside, in his traditional white shirt, knee length black trousers, long socks and wispy beard.
“An American company was buying it as an ingredient for a processed cheese spread, which they sold as kosher. I thought it must be impossible for it to be kosher, so I went to check,” he explains. “The altitude was so high that when we descended the mountain in our truck, my water bottle sucked in like when you have taken it on an aeroplane.”
The casein — which, Rabbi Padwa says, smelled awful — is dehydrated on the mountainside, taken to factories, sterilised at high temperatures then processed to render it suitable for food manufacture. His verdict? “Technically, it’s clean, but the same people also do a similar thing with mare’s milk, so there is a tiny chance of contamination; and they only use one set of big pots which they also use to cook other food in too.” He wrote a ten-page report explaining why casein was not and could not be kosher.
This rabbi will go to any lengths, and packs in thousands of air miles. “I’m on a plane somewhere most weeks — at least once a fortnight”. He travels mainly in Europe and Scandinavia, where a large part of his work relates to dairy producers. “I also visit China four to six times a year — we have more than 100 factories to look at there — and Vietnam. I inspect all raw materials — from food additives to pigments and sweeteners.”
In China, he visited manufacturers with a mountain of corn-less cobs to process. This trip revolutionised Passover for diabetics. Rabbi Padwa explains that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of corn are grown in China, so they have vast quantities of the cobs as a by-product. Sweetener, Xylitol, is made from the cobs.
“My role was to think out of the box,” he explains. “Many religious Jews would not eat it at Passover, as they assume it is kitniyot; but the cob is just a piece of wood from which xylitol is extracted with a drop of sulphuric acid and water, so it was kosher for Pesach.”
The 52-year old father of five (and grandfather of 11) gleaned his know-how on the road, having worked at KLBD since 1998 but he also has kosher heritage.
“My grandfather was the Chief Rabbi of Kedassia and as a teenager, I used to help him for experience and to make a few bob.” He now oversees a certification department, surprisingly small for an organisation with wide international reach, with a staff of six based in a quiet office in leafy North Finchley.
Although he didn’t train as a chemist or engineer, nor has a background in food manufacture, his years as an inspector means he is up to speed with any industrial terms. Some food processes also require lateral thinking and he is often brought in as a problem solver.
“I might look like a traditional rabbi, but I’m speaking their language, and present kosher to them in a way they understand. I often sit with developers and designers or their technical staff and can discuss how to make their production compliant with kosher rules. Sometimes I have changed their procedures and even enhanced production.”
He worked with Italian cheese manufacturer, BellaDelli, so they could sell whey, a by-product of their cheese-making process to a Germany company making kosher infant formula. Kosher cheese must be made by devout Jews and not touched by anyone else. Rabbi Padwa devised a plan to mechanise the system.
Cameras watched what was going on to ensure the process worked. It was made by machine, so there was no human involvement. “It’s the first real Italian cheese made with the Padwa system. All they had to do was press the start button.”
Rabbi Padwa was also behind the elevation of Ryvita from regular kosher crispbread to the higher-level Pas Yisrael hechsher, allowing even the most devout diner to snack on it.
He has a special interest in whisky and has been a pioneer in developing kosher whisky, of which, he says, there are a now a dozen. “I campaigned for 28 years for them and have visited many distilleries. Whiskies with special finishes are matured in different casks, which affects the kashrut.”
It’s a subject on which he has spoken all over the world and is himself an appreciator. “I only drink single malts but I’ve never been intoxicated in my life.”
He has recently worked with English wine connoisseurs Nathan Hill and Tom Harrow of Honest Grapes to produce a kosher version of Bordeaux wine, Chateau Pontet-Labrie. “It was a fantastic plan. A consortium of well-off people who couldn’t find high quality kosher wine, decided to commission their own kosher wine. They wanted it exclusive, so are only producing two barrels.”
He explains that it was an expensive business. As kosher wine must be produced entirely and throughout by devout Jews and not touched by anyone else, the amount of labour involved in supervising two barrels was the same as for 200,000 litres.
“It was the only way for this group to produce a kosher version of this wine and they will have 70 cases of a wine that no one else will have.”
He’s also a foodie. “I love cooking but never use recipes. I’m very inventive.” Kashrut restricts what he can try when travelling: “When clients take me out to dinner, I eat only fruits and vegetables, but I watch what they eat and ask questions.”
So, if you try a new sort of kosher whisky, or notice an obscure ingredient in your kosher foodstuff, you probably have Rabbi Padwa to thank.