Flat and fabulous: From wraps to foccacias, our appetite for new and exotic breads knows no limits
Lucy McDonald visits the bakeries of Tel Aviv to to find out what we'll be eating next.
Friday 01 June 2012
It is eight on a Monday evening and business at Bar Lehem, a bakery in a quiet suburb of Tel Aviv is good. Even at this late hour people are queuing to buy some of the city's finest loaves.There is focaccia stuffed with chard, cheese and mallow (a spinach-like weed that is profligate across the Israeli city), a four-seasons style flatbread, and a skinny, salty loaf ribboned in black seaweed and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
But while most customers are content with a loaf or two, one woman is buying up pretty much the whole shop. She is Marks & Spencer product developer, Marianne Lumb, and she is giving me a tour of the city's bakeries in her quest to find the perfect flatbread.
Marianne, who was a Masterchef professional finalist and has baked for Elton John, says: "Flatbreads are one of our bestsellers and customers want to experiment with flavours and textures. Seeds are going to be big this year and it's not just about the bread, but the toppings."
The public's relationship with bread has become more demanding. Whereas once a white sliced loaf or bloomer would do, there are now loaves for every occasion and palate. In recognition of this, John Vincent, the man behind the Leon restaurants, recently opened Flat Planet in London, which only sells flatbreads.
He says: "I love it. It's a better alternative to pizza, which is either a stodgy, Westernised food or something with a very thin crust. This is about the beauty of the bread and what goes on top. I wanted to capture, but slightly Anglicise, the Middle-Eastern traditions. It's about using the flatbreads in a biblical way and about enjoying sharing food."
Back at Bar Lehem, Yuval Snir and Dagan Shaham (in case you believe in nominative determinism, shaham is Hebrew for grain) are on a culinary mission to bake the best bread in the world. Yuval explains: "In France they make great baguettes, but here we have lots of different types of bread because there are so many global influences."
They are not the only Israeli bread-makers creating a stir, both at home and abroad. Incongruous though it may sound for a country more frequently in the news for conflict not cuisine, some of Britain's most successful bakers hail from Israel. Such as the chef Yotam Ottolenghi and the men behind the gourmet bakery chain Gail's.
Ran Avidan, co-owner of Gail's, explains. "When Israel was created more than 60 years ago, it brought lots of kitchens together – from the Arab world, east and west Europe, all over. So Israeli food has lots of different influences. The culinary scene's not as well known as New York, Tokyo, Paris or London – but it's amazing. There's lots going on."
It is no surprise then, that food-lovers are heading East for inspiration. On my whirlwind tour of the city, I am joined by Jewish food writer Janna Gur, and one of Marks & Spencer's best product developers, Matt McAuliffe, who declared Bar Lehem's chard, cheese and mallow focaccia one of his top five foods ever.
My visit is a fleeting one and in 30 hours I tasted around 30 different types of bread. Flatbread, pita bread, Yemeni bread, seeded bread, rye bread, stretched pretzels, cheese-stuffed focaccia, bread cooked in heated caves and giant pikelets dry-fried in pans.
Although many cultures lay claim to "inventing" the flatbread – that circle or oval of unrisen or lightly-risen dough, that is perfect for rolling, wrapping and dabbing – Janna says its origins here stretch back to biblical times.
She says: "We're one of the flatbread capitals of the world. While India has Naans and chapatis, here focaccia and pita are very much part of the local food culture. Bread is more than something you eat. It's the staff of life and part of the Jewish identity."
Were it not for the baker's Nike trainers, the Bukhara bakery in one of the city's food markets would be timeless. Individual flatbreads are slapped on the tiled interior walls of the domed, walk-in oven, where they quickly cook, before being peeled off to sell.
Nearby is the Yemenite bakery where large, thin pikelets are cooked in batches of five in slightly buckled, metal frying pans. To me, they are a novelty. Like a crumpet but lighter and the size of a dinner plate. I eat mine unadulterated, warm from the pan, but they are good with honey, butter, hummus, or even, the baker tells me, used as a plate to hold a Jewish version of the Full English.
Breads that the M&S team fell in love with included a soft, pillowy pita and an oval flatbread scattered with nigella, poppy, linseed, sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Both have now been launched in-store.
Marianne says: "The bread here's just amazing. I love the melting pot of all the different cultures – it blends the familiar with the unfamiliar."
As Israel is further around the Mediterranean than, say, Greece or Italy, the flavours used are similar yet different. For example, rosemary and basil are replaced by mint and coriander. Food is flavoured with date syrup, sumac (a purple spice with a lemony-flavour) and tahini (a sesame-seed paste used in hummus).
Food developers may be heading east, but one Israeli baker is taking his flatbreads west. Uri Sheft owns the 24-hour bakery, Lechamim, in Tel Aviv. Later this year he will open a branch in New York's Union Square and he is confident his focaccias, pitas and challas will charm even the most discerning native with their authenticity.
It is the culmination of a lifetime's love of baking. Even as a boy, Uri, was interested in bread, but it was not until he was older that he started to think it was the most important food of all. Uri says: "Growing up I loved the falafel this man used to make. I said to him one day: 'Tell me your secret?' He laughed. When I grew up, I bumped into him again and asked again. He laughed once more and said, 'It's not the falafel, it's the pita. It's always about the bread."
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