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You wake up one morning to discover that right next to your house, a small, French-style boulangerie has just opened. Every morning they bake hard-crusted baguettes, delicate croissants dripping with golden butter, and crusty breads speckled with Greek olives and artfully arranged basil leaves.

This immediately improves the quality of life - not just of those who seek a good cup of coffee alongside a morning pastry, but of the entire neighborhood. On days when Tel Aviv's Gan Meir is hosting a small flower market, you suddenly see people walking around with colorful bunches of roses tucked under their arms. The new neighborhood bakery adds people clutching baguettes and pinching off pieces, Parisian-style, to this urban landscape. After all, as the saying goes, any baguette that arrives home in one piece isn't worthy of the name. Then there are those who come for morning prayers at the local synagogue and come knocking on the bakery doors afterward, and the parents and kids who like to munch on some chocolate cookies before heading off to work or kindergarten.

In times past, members of the bakers guild had to imprint their seal on every loaf of bread - a sure way to keep bakers from fiddling with the weight of the bread and the quality of its ingredients, offenses considered a justified pretext for a public flogging in the town square. And this wasn't the only tragedy in the hardship-filled life of a baker. There were the nocturnal working hours, the toxic coal vapors of the old ovens in the underground kitchens, the flour dust that caused chronic coughs and the back-bending weight of the dough.

Nowadays, baking is no longer deadly, but it is still very hard work. In contrast to more intuitive types of cooking, baking requires steadfast discipline over weights and measurements, and is subject to the iron rules of leavening and rising. Dough is a constantly changing living substance that needs a loving, skilled hand and periodic rest.

The man behind this new little bakery is Motti Haimovich, a tall, handsome and shy fellow who prefers the company of the baker's best friends: his secret recipes, the quality of his raw ingredients and the timing and manner of his kneading. For Haimovich, two things are more precious than life itself: his unique sourdough starters and his baking oven. He keeps a small quantity of starters in his home refrigerator just in case a disaster strikes, and is hopelessly in love with his old stone oven, which he bought from two elderly bakers when they retired.

He is also in love with the idea of personal, hands-on contact with each loaf of bread, and with his freedom to create five vanilla cream danishes and five apple danishes each morning, if he feels like it.

La Moulin, 55 Bograshov, Tel Aviv, 077-5311110

Bread on a grand scale

Thoughts about the neighborhood bakery and the many bread shops popping up in recent years led us to the Netanya industrial zone, an area with one of the highest bakery densities in the country. Everything in this industrial zone is big: Furniture Giant, Colossal Deli, the largest organic supermarket in the country and some big bakeries, too. Lehem Erez and Arcaffe have their bakeries here, and also sell bread on the premises. From here, the bread is shipped to their various branches. No one can take the credit away from Erez Komarovsky for making this country appreciate traditionally crafted breads made from natural cultures, and for the creative selection of breads he creates, but almost anyone who shops at one of his dozens of branches will have to agree that for some time now, the bread has been - literally - a tough disappointment. The use of natural cultures instead of artificial leaveners will always produce a bread with a shorter shelf life, and there's something to be appreciated in the use of traditional work methods, even in large-scale production, but maybe what's appropriate for a few dozen loaves of bread is less suited for thousands, especially when they have to be shipped all over the country two or three times a day in order to maintain freshness.

Lehem Erez, 19 Yad Harutzim, Netanya industrial zone, 09-8855615;

Arcaffe, 3 Giborei Yisrael Boulevard, Netanya industrial zone, 09-8644001

Fit for royalty

This is how the elegant banquet tables must have looked before the European nobility switched from service a la francaise, when all the food was set out on the table at the start and decorated with spectacular sculptures, to the Russian serving style, in which courses were brought out one by one.

The enormous table at the center of the Artisan bread shop offers a sampling of all kinds of breads and cakes. Set on the massive wooden table are piles of bread made with dark chocolate; soft, white Italian bread; and heavy, dense whole-wheat breads dotted with pistachios and walnuts. Next to them are quiches and mini-pastries filled with cheese and vegetables, some crowned with a flaky dough and filled with raspberry confiture and walnuts; cookies adorned with crescent-shaped chocolate bits; and towers of biscotti and tiny butter cookies.

Joshua circled the city of Jericho seven times. We circled this table dozens of times and still couldn't conquer everything, but the view from every angle was dazzling. In the Netanya industrial zone, Guy and Haim Sadot produce traditional European breads, including some of the best of their kind in Israel, and their goods can also be purchased at a branch in Kfar Sava.

Lehem Artisan, 5A Giborei Yisrael, Netanya industrial zone, 09-8854462

Organic bread

It's hard not to get carried away when one enters the giant supermarket. Those women's gardens of eden, the big European department stores that marked the beginning of the worship of consumerism, apparently had the same effect on those who stood before their display windows, promising a world of tempting adventures. Eden Teva has a magnificent fruit and vegetable section, a stand selling pralines made by local chocolatiers, an organic hummus eatery in the center of the store and a dazzling array of spices, essences, nuts and legumes. At one end of the store, they bake twice a day. As soon as the patronage increases at the new store here, they'll be baking around the clock - as in the Or Yehuda branch - a tasty selection of breads, pretzels and miniature loaves, all made of different types of organic flour. And the prices are relatively inexpensive for organic goods.

Eden Teva, Poleg Market, 4 Yad Harutzim, Netanya industrial zone, 09-8931500

Bardo

Hilik Efraim makes breads here that are a little more adapted to the Israeli palate, that is, softer and less sour than traditional European breads. Standouts include the rich and dense rye breads and the whole-wheat bread seasoned with dried tomatoes and coriander seeds. A bustling cafe adjoins the bakery, which ought to grow into a chain eventually.

Bardo, 12 Habonim, Netanya industrial zone, 09-8654935