As we give context on eating in the “Holy Land” the bread deserves its own post. This one to be specific. Here in the U.S. some of us are lucky to have a handy source for fresh bread on a daily basis. (Perhaps they’re even baking it — nah, nobody has that kind of free time.) But more likely folks here buy it in plastic bags where it sits for a few days to a couple of weeks until the uniform slices run out and someone needs to get more bread at the super market. Maybe some folks go buy baguettes and actually get them fresh every 2-3 days. But in general the bread we most often consume is a sad affair.
My first memory of Israeli bread (and more accurately, Israeli bread culture) was in fifth grade when I lived there for the better part of a schoolyear. Every morning my parents gave me some change to head down to the local corner store and buy fresh rolls for breakfast. The choices were either plain rolls or braided ones. And some variations had sesame seeds sprinkled on top. There was also pita. It was all freshly baked early that morning (I was already buying it by 7am) and delivered to the average corner store in a garbage bag. The bag was unceremoniously ripped open by the shopkeeper and sat on the floor of the store for customers to scrounge through to purchase their rolls.
Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that the bread cost less than my parents thought and I spent the bulk of the change on candy which I would hide for consumption later in the day (clearly preparing me for the life of crime I lead now). The fact that the bread was so cheap, fresh daily, available at EVERY corner store in EVERY neighborhood, and came in small portions (i.e. rolls) created the perfect environment in which a culture could truly appreciate fresh bread and demand that it be a part of their existence. We are nowhere close to this happening in the United States. Our bread is optimized for the minimum number of visits to the supermarket per month. It comes in large loaves, pre-sliced, and preserved. And the truth is, who would want more than a slice. The Israeli rolls don’t just eschew slicing cause they’re small, it’s also because they’re so delicious that it’s hard to just eat one much less eat a portion of one.
During our recent month in Israel I suddenly reacquired an old habit. Each morning I would try to purchase just the bread we needed for the upcoming day. But, sometimes I would misjudge and buy a little too much. I really do hate wasting food. I think it’s insulting and ungrateful. That said, the next morning, even if there were enough leftover rolls to cover breakfast, and relieve me of going to the market for fresh, I invariably threw them out. Life is short, and as bad as the waste was, I felt that not eating fresh bread which cost pennies and was sitting 60 seconds from our apartment was the far greater crime. It wasn’t all decadence. The pitas usually lasted at least 2 days. At least I think they did as we usually gobbled them up before the 48 hours was up. Kind of like a middle eastern Tootsie Pop challenge. No one will ever know.
Perhaps the single greatest expression of Israeli bread perfection is the generally Arab produced “baygeleh”. This elongated ovular ring of bread coated to the extreme [the previous three words said in Monster Truck Announcer Voice(tm) ] in sesame seeds and served with an optional side of zatar is an actual piece of heaven. Sold to the Israeli public typically outside of Arab villages on the highway, and most iconically off of carts by the Jaffa gate in Jerusalem’s old city. These creations are filled with a slightly chewy, not-too-airy, not-too-dense, filling and surrounded by a satisfyingly chewy with sparse regions of crunchy shell coated by an impossibly luxurious number of sesame seeds. The flavor is incredibly clean, and the sesame chewiness, slight oiliness, and flavor are super concentrated.
I have to admit to sometimes being relieved that we don’t have Israeli bread here in the U.S. or I think I’d weigh a lot more. That said, if you’re going to have a culinary tradition with a huge emphasis on fresh vegetables, having hugely available, properly portioned, delicious, freshly-baked bread is a foundational component. Israel has it, and a lot of what makes Israeli food great wouldn’t exist without this incredible bread.