Loaves of rye bread from Hagay Ben-Yehuda’s oven. Dan Perez

Scion of Eastern European Baking Family Makes Bread the Old-fashioned Way

Even in the sweltering days of summer, fifth-generation baker Hagay Ben-Yehuda is happy to make bread in a wood-fired oven, a method that is close to extinct

On a Wednesday in early July, the temperature at Kibbutz Einat was 31 degrees Celsius, with 65 percent humidity. As he does every Wednesday, baker Hagay Ben-Yehuda went to the bread oven in his parents’ yard, stuffed it with logs and lit a fire. In hot weather or in pouring rain, the fire must be lit 24 hours in advance for the oven to reach the necessary temperature for bread baking. You kindle the logs, move them from side to side in the chamber to obtain uniform heat inside the oven, remove the hissing coals, clear off the oven’s stone floor, and then keep repeating the process.

As soon as the heat under the stone dome reaches 400 degrees Celsius, the baker removes the coals for the last time and shuts the iron door. The loaves of sourdough bread, which have been through a 24-hour process of fermenting and rising, are baked at a temperature of 350 degrees Celsius. There is no open flame; the heat has been stored in the oven, which has three layers – bricks, cement and thermal isolation.

“The loaves of bread suffer, and so do I,” says the young baker, referring to the nearly 48 straight hours of preparation and baking in the intensely hot Israeli summer. And adding yet another challenge to the whole undertaking, the wood-fired oven, built by Ben-Yehuda and his family, is fairly small, holding only 10-15 loaves of bread at a time.

Very few local bakers still use wood-fired ovens. The method is ecologically problematic and rather extravagant in a country like Israel, where plant-based fuel is not plentiful. (Some traditional tabouns in the region, built to employ the same technique of storing heat under rounded brick domes, use dried sheep dung as fuel, rather than wood.)

Dan Perez

The main disincentives, though, are the arduous manual labor involved in priming the oven and the difficulty of providing a uniform product to consumers. “A wood-fired oven has a life of its own,” admits Ben-Yehuda. “No two loaves that come out of it are identical. And the work involved in using the oven is very hard. I don’t know how long it could last in the ‘real world,’ when you have to bake on a large scale and make money, but for the way I want to make bread, it’s right for now.”

In a few bakeries in the Palestinian Authority and in Arab towns and villages in Israel – such as Fahri Bishtawi’s bakery in Acre – you can still find wood ovens, but these are mainly used to make pita and other flatbreads, which are less complicated to make than sourdough bread.

Anomarel Rotem Ogen, Ben-Yehuda’s mentor, used to bake sourdough bread in a wood-fired oven when he lived in Klil in the Western Galilee. “With Hagay, it’s about pure idealism,” he says. “Of all the people I’ve taught, Hagay is the one who seems to have gotten into it the most deeply. Even if he eventually switches to a more modern type of oven, which is practically inevitable in this day and age, I think he’ll emerge from this experience as a baker with a very distinct identity. When you bake without any modern technology between you and the dough, your ability to listen is heightened, along with your sensitivity to smells, feel and taste.”

Hole in the loaf

Ben-Yehuda, born in 1986 in Kibbutz Einat, comes from a long line of bakers and pastry chefs on both his mother’s and father’s sides. “In the early 20th century, Moshe Rosenthal, my maternal great-great-grandfather, was a baker in Bialystok, Poland, and he wanted to move to America with his family,” says Ben-Yehuda. “He couldn’t get to the New World, he didn’t have enough money, so he moved to South Africa and opened a successful bagel bakery there. When he saved enough money, he tried again to get to America and on the ship he met a Jewish fellow who told him about his life in Petah Tikva.”

Rosenthal disembarked at the Jaffa port and followed his new friend to Petah Tikva, “where he liked what he saw – there was a synagogue and the place reminded him of a shtetl in Eastern Europe.” So instead of going to New York, the family immigrated to Petah Tikva, where in 1914, Moshe Rosenthal opened a bakery that came to be called Tikotsky’s Bakery and was in continuous operation as a family business into the 1990s. “He built a big oven and baked challah, bagels and Polish-style rye bread, whose trademark was a hole they made with a stick in the middle of the loaves.” Ben-Yehuda’s paternal great-grandfather was a baker who arrived from Latvia in the early 1920s. “Yeshayahu Kedem immigrated here with his family, all of them bakers, and they opened a bakery at 8 Geula Street in Tel Aviv. When his uncle was killed in a tragic accident related to firing up the oven, Yeshayahu went to work for the Angel and Berman bakeries in Jerusalem, and later was one of the founders of the bakery in Kibbutz Einat.”

Hagay Ben-Yehuda moved with his family to Petah Tikva at a young age. His mother was a food technologist and his father a vice-president at the Angel bakery. “But I didn’t dream of becoming a baker. I’m a musician. As a teenager I started a band that performed at the Barby Club, and from the time I was young, all I wanted to do was move to Tel Aviv and make music. After my army service in the Nahal Brigade I did move there, and I started a new band and did odd jobs to get by.”

One of those jobs was in the Lachmanina Bakery, where he ended up working for two years, before going to Paris with his partner, Noa, to do a baking internship at Le Moulin de la Vierge. The next stage was a traditional baker’s course in Brittany. Ben-Yehuda returned to Israel, spent close to a year studying baking with Anomarel Rotem Ogen, and then built the oven he uses today. “When I brought my grandfather one of the first loaves to taste, he asked why it looked so ugly. Only when I finally managed to please him did I feel I was on the right path.” Like his colleagues in France, his goal is to bring back traditional varieties of wheat. “Trial and error is the only way to learn,” said Ben-Yehuda a couple of months ago, standing in the golden wheat field that was filled with tall stalks of traditional wheat. Every weekend, Ben-Yehuda makes three or four types of bread, including spelt bread, rye bread, and a “country bread” that combines various types of imported traditional Mediterranean wheats like Emmer and Einkorn. Two weeks ago, he bought almost a hundred kilos of Nursi wheat from a local Arab farmer, and he hopes to try it on its own and in combination with other flours. “I don’t necessarily want to bake French bread, but rather local types of bread from traditional wheat that were once typical of this region. Because of my background, I’m familiar with the industrial bakeries and I don’t think of them as the bad guys. Ultimately, they’re the right solution for the long run and for baking on a big scale. The little places like the ones I picture – a bakery that grows its own wheat, grinds it and makes bread from it – will be the pioneers in promoting the tradition and greater knowledge about wheat and good bread.” 

Hagay’s Bread, Thursdays and Fridays on Kibbutz Einat (and on Fridays also at the farmers’ market in Reut), 054-673-8317; hagaybread.com

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