It’s been 14 days since the last time sesame seeds were placed inside the grinder that stands in one room of the tiny factory in the Elah Valley. “It missed the sesame,” Michal Melamed says affectionately about her cherished machine, which stood idle due to a temporary shortage of the high-quality sesame seeds that are imported from the Humera region of Ethiopia.
“The importer sent us another type of sesame, also from Ethiopia, but the quality was inferior and the final taste of the tahini came out completely different from our regular product, so we had no choice but to halt production for two weeks.”
On the day production resumes, the room fills with the familiar aroma of sesame seeds being ground into paste. Melamed and her small team (her 18-year-old son, who is the production manager, plus two workers) are visibly relieved. This modern-looking grinder has millstones powered by electricity, which work on the same principle as their ancient predecessors. But the machine has been altered by Melamed in ways that enable her to grind tahini just as she imagined it before plunging into this venture.
Melamed calls her business Tahina. Her tahini is made from whole, pre-germinated sesame, and has not been oven-toasted. These three factors are believed to render the sesame paste more natural and healthy, but they also extend the production time and make it more expensive. In most commercial tahini plants, the final product – raw tahini paste – typically undergoes two grindings in two different grinders. At Tahina the heavy paste is ground about 10 times, and the end result is still nowhere near as liquid as the tahini we’re familiar with. The texture is more akin to peanut butter, and it can be eaten with a spoon or spread directly on bread. It could be called sesame butter.
“It’s not easy to withstand all that we put it through,” says Melamed about the machine, which seems to sigh under the weight of the task, as if it were human. “Every machine in the production line was a story unto itself. In the beginning, five years ago, I thought I’d make the tahini I wanted in an existing factory, but then I discovered that the existing machinery wasn’t suitable for this production process. I raised money and hired a mechanical engineer to design a unique production line for me based on the needs I described. Nearly two years of development yielded machines that didn’t do the job and didn’t meet the standards of modern industrial mechanization.
“Since I was already strapped for cash, I said, ‘Let’s start like this anyway.’ Within a few months, the machines fell apart, and then I had to start all over again – raise money again and rebuild the machinery. I’m not a mechanical engineer, but I have a good head, and the ability to think and analyze, and a fairly good technical sense, it seems, so we continue to learn through trial and error how to improve the production process and make it more effective.”
A new direction
Michal Melamed was born in Jerusalem in 1971. “I was a good girl,” she says with a smile. She went to Boyer High School, served in the army Intelligence Corps Unit 8200 and then earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and anthropology and a master’s degree in clinical psychology.
“I worked for years in some very demanding frameworks, like Orr Shalom, an organization that cares for kids and teens who’ve been removed from their homes,” she says. “I loved it, but it’s very intensive and draining work and you have to know how to set boundaries in order to be able to keep it up. Eventually, when I couldn’t do that, and when thoughts about the minuscule pay compared to the emotional burden started to gnaw at me, I started looking for other directions to go in.”
Nine years ago, Melamed and her (now ex-) husband and three children moved to Kibbutz Netiv Halamed Heh. She met one of the kibbutzniks who made tahini at home and had researched the subject, and her interest in the ancient local food was piqued. “The entrepreneur in me was awakened,” she says. “I was excited about the idea of building something from nothing and challenging myself in different areas, from designing the machinery to labeling and marketing.
“It’s hard for me to just work for a living, I need to be doing something that has meaning for me and for the world, and something about the simplicity, honesty and rootsiness of tahini really spoke to me. The last five years have been tough and scary. There were times I wasn’t sure I would make it. But in the last year, since we got regular production going, I’m starting to feel like things are falling into place and maybe the time has come to reap the fruits.”
A long, slow process
Every stage in the production process for Melamed’s tahini is slower and longer than is normally the case. In the first stage, the sesame seeds are rinsed with the aid of four mechanical spoons that rake the seeds ever-so-slowly so as not to separate them from their husks (in many modern factories, the seeds are first separated from their husks, even plants that manufacture whole tahini, and then the husks are returned at a later stage. In some industrial plants, salt water is used to make the separation process easier, but this affects the nutritional value and is also a pollutant). Then the seeds are soaked in water to bring them to the pre-germination stage, the stage at which the vitamins amassed by the plant are most accessible. Then the water is drained off and the seeds are transferred into a cylindrical drum – rather than a toasting oven – where they are slowly dried with hot air (at a temperature that does not exceed 40 degrees Celsius) over a period of many hours.
The final stage is the grinding. The entire process takes close to 48 hours. The output of Melamed’s small plant, where the sesame is still manually moved from one machine to the next, is 60-70 kilos per day. Large industrial plants produce hundreds of kilos a day, while small traditional presses, which have practically disappeared, make just 40-50 kilos.
Does the taste test justify the long, slow processes that boost the product’s nutritional value? I’m not totally convinced. I admire Melamed’s dedication, and the care that goes into each stage of the process is truly impressive, but I have to say I missed that typical toasted flavor of other tahinis. You can add water and lemon juice, just as with regular raw tahini, but it still does not achieve the same degree of liquidity.
“It’s a different kind of tahini,” Melamed agrees. “I tell people who are tasting it for the first time not to expect the same taste and texture that you commonly find with tahini. But that’s just what I wanted, to get as close as possible to the taste of the natural product, and more and more people are discovering our tahini and becoming wildly enthusiastic about it, and not just for health reasons. We’re starting to think about other products, too, like snacks, truffles and chocolate tahini.”
Tahina, Netiv Halemed Heh, 054-433-5016 (the company’s Facebook page lists shops where the tahini is sold)