The Gedandsky bakery in Tel Aviv, in the '20s. אלבום קונדיטוריה

What Cooks in Pre-state Israel Made for Lord Balfour in '25

When Lord Balfour, a known gastronome, visited the Holy Land in 1925, the cooks of the Jewish Yishuv went into action. Scholars, chefs and bakers look back on what they prepared, 101 years after the Balfour Declaration



To the secretary of the Tel Aviv municipality,

In wake of the city’s announcement about welcoming Balfour, I propose to serve Balfour a torte decorated with the shape of a bible, the Cyrus Declaration and the letter containing the Balfour Declaration. A gold thread winding from the book to the letter, to symbolize the connection between the two announcements, and a path filled with stumbling blocks and brambles – This is the Jewish people’s path of exile. I request that the honored secretary inform me, with the utmost haste, about how the torte is to be served and the location of the meal… as I must prepare this torte so it will be fresh and good.

Yours,

Mr. Gedansky

23 Adar 5685 (19 March 1925)

Dan Perez

October 2018, the David Laor Patisserie in Mevasseret Zion. The display at the front of the bakery and coffee shop offers tarts made with late summer fruits, apple strudel dusted with powdered sugar, braided chocolate and chestnut yeast cakes, and a tower of brioche pastries with Buche de Chevre goat cheese. In the kitchen in the back, a small group is gathered around one of the work surfaces: pastry chefs and co-owners Michal Ludriks and David Laor; pastry chef Roni Haimovich-Gal, the great-granddaughter of the founder of Tel Aviv’s legendary Gedansky Bakery; and Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, curator and manager of Visual Documentation and Exhibition at the Ben-Zvi Institute.

The group has come together to attempt to recreate the great cake that the baker Avraham Eliezer Gedansky proposed to make in honor of Lord Arthur James Balfour’s visit to Palestine in 1925. “We have no written or photographic record from anyone who saw or ate the cake,” says Shalev-Khalifa. “And we believe that the proposal was not accepted and the cake was never baked. But Gedansky’s letter, preserved in the Tel Aviv municipal archives, attests to the tremendous excitement that gripped the public and to the type of imagery that was associated with the declaration and the man who authored it.

“The Balfour Declaration, signifying the British government’s recognition of a Jewish right to sovereignty in Palestine, was presented on Friday morning, November 2, 1917, and from that moment on, symbols marking its importance continued to arise in the Jewish world. The portrait of Lord Balfour himself was one of these symbols. It was copied onto souvenir calendars, postcards, rugs and other decorative items. He was put on a par with the great Zionist figures, including Herzl. Many likened the day of the declaration to King Cyrus’ edict, and the Return to Zion [from the Babylonian exile]. November 2 became a kind of national holiday, with ceremonies and big gatherings and celebrations.”

Dan Perez

With all due respect to historical explanations, Laor is mainly concerned with the taste of the torte (a classic sponge cake), and that it be faithful to Gedansky’s culinary-artistic vision. “But what flavor did Gedansky give the torte?” he keeps asking. “When Nirit first told me about the old letter, I was sure it would also include directions about the flavors and the ingredients, but Gedansky mostly talks about the symbols and the way to decorate the cake. I found his excitement and the flowery rhetoric he used quite touching.”

“My mother, who was 10 years old when her grandfather died, also remembers his unusual Hebrew,” says Haimovich-Gal, great-granddaughter of the baker who hoped to welcome Lord Balfour with a sculpted cake. “She describes him as a plump and jolly man who liked to get into deep discussions and wrote and self-published books on Jewish philosophy. On the wall in my parents’ home is the clock that hung on the wall of the bakery in Tel Aviv, but aside from a few black-and-white pictures, there are no family recipes or other mementos left. My choice of profession as a pastry chef also had nothing to do with the family history, though someone might argue that it’s in the blood.”

Haimovich-Gal, who worked as a pastry chef in Meir Adoni’s restaurants and now teaches at Estella – Master Class in Pastry, Chocolate & Bakery, a cooking school in Tel Aviv, attended the gathering as a curious observer. She knows very little about the history of her great-grandfather Gedansky, who came to Tel Aviv from Poland in 1923 and opened a bakery on Herzl Street. Descended from an eminent Hassidic family, he had decided to learn a trade before immigrating to the land of his forefathers. He later opened a branch of the bakery on Yavneh Street, which became a popular meeting place for poets, writers and members of the Lehi pre-state militia. It became one of Tel Aviv’s first hotels later on. The family eventually moved to Ramat Gan, and left the baking business behind.

David Laor carefully blows gold powder into a warm lump of sugar that he then pulls into threads to create the gold ribbon that connects the Edict of Cyrus with the Balfour Declaration, as Gedansky envisioned. “I thought the cake that we’re making inspired by his verbal outline should first of all be very festive, in keeping with the magnitude of the event,” says Laor, who learned his craft in Paris. “Nowadays they’d probably print the whole design on a sugar paste, but I thought it would be fitting to recreate the cake the way the old school Austro-Hungarian professionals would have done, when you had to prepare and shape each part of the cake manually.” Ludriks and Laor made a cream-covered cherry and rum torte for the base of the cake, for a gallery talk held earlier this month at the Ben-Zvi Institute on the 101st anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Upon it stood a white Bible made of a classic torte coated with butter cream, and upon that, the Balfour Declaration and Cyrus’ Edict, made of marzipan with chocolate lettering. The arduous path traversed by the Jewish people was created from streusel (a crumbly topping of flour, sugar and butter), representing boulders, and “brambles” made of caramel.

Dan Perez

Bread balls

60-70 grams bread per person. Soak the bread in cold water, squeeze well. Pass through a meat grinder, add a little fried onion, parsley, salt, a little flour, 4-5 egg whites. Mix everything together. Shape into balls, when they rise to the top [of a pot of boiling water] remove and serve with onion juice (cooking time: 10-15 minutes).

Onion juice:

Place the sliced onion in boiling hot oil; when nicely browned sprinkle on a little salt and let it fry. Pour in a little cold water, salt, pepper, a bay leaf, a little diced tomato. Let the juice cook for about a quarter of an hour.

- From a Kevutzat Hashomer Hatza’ir recipe book, 1930

In 1925, eight years after the Balfour Declaration was issued, Lord Balfour was invited to deliver the keynote speech at the dedication of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “The hero of the Zionist movement arrived here at the end of March,” says Shalev-Khalifa, “and everywhere he went – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Deganya, Balfouria – he was given a royal welcome. They built gates out of palm fronds festooned with flags and held festive parades. Balfour was apparently quite a gastronome too, because wherever he visited, official meals had to be prepared. Most people who lived here in those years ate a very meager diet and everybody worried: How can we cook a meal befitting the palate of the British lord? They went to great lengths to prepare all kinds of elaborate delicacies for him, made with rare ingredients. The historic research into the meals that were served to Balfour can teach us a lot about daily life here in that era.”

In Balfouria, a moshav, or cooperative farm, founded in 1922 and named for Balfour, the guest of honor dined on a half-grapefruit with a cherry on top, chicken liver for a first course, chicken soup with mandelach (soup nuts), chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans, and a compote of dried fruit. In Deganya, as one of the locals reported in the Davar newspaper, the members ate lentils on Monday, beans on Tuesday, rice on Wednesday and eggplant on Thursday. Eggs and meat were reserved for Shabbat and holidays, and to help heal the bodies and minds of ailing kibbutz members.

When the request to host Lord Balfour arrived, the kibbutz members decided that their humble daily menu and the tin dishes on which it was served were not suitable for a nobleman, and hired a cook from one of the hotels in nearby Tiberias. Wearing a fancy tailcoat, the cook brought along a lavish meal that was served on silver and ceramic dishes, causing Lord Balfour to mistake him for the most important man in the settlement.

Researchers from the Ben-Zvi Institute have yet to discover the menu for the meal that was served to Balfour at Deganya. But in the process of gathering the historical material (and it’s gratifying that academic research institutes are finally using food as a window to the past), a hidden treasure was discovered in the archives of Kibbutz Afikim. This is an anonymous handwritten journal, with recipes for the dishes members of Hatzer Hakinneret, a Hashomer Hatza’ir kibbutz, were eating in 1930-31. For guests at the gallery talk, Sassi Levy of Jerusalem’s Meuchas restaurant prepared bread balls in onion juice, prototype of the infamous bread-meat patties (80 percent bread, 20 percent meat, in the best of times) for which kibbutz dining halls were known.

The gallery talk was held in conjunction with the launching of a catalog for a modest exhibition of documents and other historic artifacts connected to the Balfour Declaration, including an exact copy of the original declaration from the British Library and souvenirs emblazoned with the portrait of the British lord. The exhibition will be on view at the Ben Zvi Institute until Independence Day.

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