Two months ago, chef Matan Abrahams decided to remove bacon from the menu of Hudson Restaurant in Tel Aviv. One dish that disappeared as a result was “Law and Cheddar” (a play on the Hebrew words for law and order): a beef hamburger topped with ground entrecote and bacon, grilled cheddar cheese and still more bacon. “The more bacon, the merrier,” Abrahams says. He’s referring to salt-cured pork (generally the belly, breastbone and prime ribs), which lends a salty-umami-sweet (and sometimes smoked) taste to a range of foods. This flavor is hard to beat.
“Law and Cheddar wasn’t part of the regular menu,” Abrahams says, “but it became an iconic dish that was identified with the restaurant. A steady clientele came specifically for that dish, and even reserved it by phone.” Other special dishes that have gone by the boards are spaghetti carbonara and the BLT (the classic American bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich).
The removal of bacon from the menu was not related to kashrut or any attempt to reach out to a broader public. Hudson, which in my opinion is the best meat restaurant in Israel, is also one of its most successful and popular. Bacon vanished from the menu because for the past year it’s been difficult or impossible to obtain quality bacon in Israel.
“The price of bacon has almost doubled because of the current pork shortage,” Abrahams explains. “There’s a sharp decline in the quality of the product that’s available. I used to buy my bacon from Silber, a family business that has been manufacturing bacon using slow and traditional processes for 80 years. Because they can’t, unfortunately, supply me with bacon at the moment, and because the bacon that’s being manufactured in the big factories that have taken over the market isn’t of sufficiently high quality, to my taste, I chose to remove the dishes containing bacon from the menu.”
Other restaurateurs are also complaining about the shortfall, as a result of which they have replaced high-quality bacon with inferior substitutes. “The quality of pork in this country has fallen off amazingly in the past year,” says chef Einav Azguri from Café Nordoy and Bar à Vin in Tel Aviv. “And because of the shortage, I no longer serve terrines and other classic dishes.”
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Since 1994, when the Meat Law was passed under pressure by the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties, meat without an official kashrut certificate from a rabbinic institution cannot be imported into Israel. The absurd result is that the law confines pork consumption in Israel to local products, manufactured exclusively from the limited output – in quantity, and in some cases also of quality – of Israel’s few pig farms. Put simply, the importation into Israel of bacon, prosciutto, ham or any other pork product is prohibited.
In the past year, in the wake of a disease that attacked local piggeries and reduced the birth rate while heightening mortality in young pigs, the price of pork soared, causing a shortage of pork brust, from which bacon is made. Even at the Silber family’s factory, established in 1938 by Shoshana and Shimon Silber, bacon is considered rare gold these days.
“I don’t even dare take bacon home,” sighs Anne Glassberg, an associate CEO of the Silber factory who belongs to the family’s third generation. “The price of pigs has increased by 20 to 30 percent since the disease erupted. The brust is the cut most in demand and there’s a major shortage of it. We are manufacturing as much as we can, but we have no choice but to prioritize and sell the bacon to big clients, like the Benedict chain [of restaurants]. At the moment I can’t sell to chefs like Abrahams, with whom we’ve been working for years. And by the way, all these chefs are willing to pay two and three times the price for quality bacon, but how would it look if I were to be greedy and take advantage of the situation in order to make a killing at their expense? We are a family business, and nothing is more important to us than our reputation.”
Her cousin and associate CEO, Idan Oren, adds that there are signs of recovery in the market in recent months. “But we still can’t meet the demand for bacon.”
Shoshana and Shimon Silber opened their sausage shop on Jaffa Street in Haifa in 1938. “Grandmother came here from Austria alone, without a thing,” says Glassberg. “Grandfather took her under his wing when they met and were married. He came from Poland in 1936 with another sister. The other nine siblings – there were 11 children in his family – stayed in Europe and were murdered.” At first, the small Haifa store sold pastrami and other meat products from various manufacturers, “and gradually they started to manufacture ham in the back of the store. My grandfather went on breeding pigs by himself until the 1960s.”
In 1942, the Silbers bought a small British-owned meat factory. To this day the family business is headquartered in that two-story building on the outskirts of Haifa. “Grandfather had a great craving for good food and cooking,” his granddaughter says. “He was the foreign minister – traveling, bringing pork and marketing the products – and she was the real boss in the house. She was a tough woman. She worked in the store every day until nine in the evening, and he was the one who raised their four daughters. When grandfather died, 29 years ago, she took over as head of the enterprise.”
None of Shoshana and Shimon Silber’s four daughters worked in the meat factory. For years, the family business was run by two of the sons-in-law, and more recently the third generation has taken over. Idan Oren has worked in the business for 25 years, and Anne joined in 2010. “On my birthdays, there were no snacks served, like Bamba and Bissli,” she says. Like her grandfather, she’s a fan of good food and meat. “We were served a platter of charcuterie, kabanos and small cocktail sausages.
“My mother was deathly afraid that I would go to work in the meat factory. I was always drawn to it, to the flavors and the aromas, and from the age of 14 I worked in the family store in the Lower City. Grandmother foresaw everything. When I decided to study law, she said, ‘What do you need that for? You need to be in the factory.’ But I thought I would be like Ally McBeal, and I specialized in criminal law – only to discover that it didn’t interest me.”
The Silbers’ original store – this writer still remembers the marvelous hot pastrami and smoked goose breast that melted in your mouth – closed 15 years ago. That was after the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, which is considered to have boosted pork consumption in Israel.
“At first things really did flourish,” Glassberg recalls. “But then a lot of new meat factories and delis appeared. My grandfather aimed very high in terms of quality, and we continue diligently to follow the original recipes and use slow processes with high-quality whole cuts. That goes for pork, mutton, lamb, goose or turkey. But people don’t want to pay a lot, clients in Israel have become used to low-quality industrial sausages. But there’s no way around it: you pay more for quality.”
There is no longer a Silber factory outlet, but its products are sold directly to chefs and restaurants and can be found in delis around the country, especially in the long-established ones that have worked with the small-to-medium-sized factory for many years. The flavors of their products – even the seemingly simple turkey pastrami – stand out on the local charcuterie scene.
The bacon crisis – the current shortage of pork in general and of quality bacon in particular – is another chapter in the surrealistic saga of pig breeding in Israel. The pork law of 1962 prohibits the breeding and slaughter of pigs in Israel – other than in a small number of local authorities where there is a Christian majority – and in research institutes. (The pig farm at Kibbutz Lahav in the Negev, for example, is categorized as a scientific research institute.) The result was the rapid contraction of the geographical area for pig breeding.
Contrary to a persistent urban legend, pigs in Israel are not bred on raised platforms to prevent them from touching the soil of the “Holy Land.” As in other countries, they are bred on raised surfaces to facilitate drainage of their bodily waste.
Israel’s Christian minority has little or no representation, and so local pig farming lacks a strong lobby of the kind enjoyed by other agricultural industries. Thus, it has always suffered from management problems, and has found it hard to improve the breeding process and the final product. In other words, pig farmers in Israel are a persecuted, oppressed minority, and not one of them agreed to be interviewed for this article. It’s hard to blame them, given the treatment they get from the authorities.
The Meat and its Products Law of 1994 barred the importation of non-kosher meat to Israel. However, one clause in the law allowed the importation of lard (a key raw material in the charcuterie industry), under the controversial rubric of “innards.” Until 2018, imports continued, like everything related to the pork industry in Israel, covertly and by tacit consent.
It’s hard to date precisely the outbreak of the disease that has caused a pork shortage for the past year – because the Ministry of Agriculture refuses to provide information on the subject. (“No comment,” is the official response of a government ministry, which is supposed to provide the Israeli public with information about the meat it consumes.) According to sources close to the industry, the disease is “porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome.” The viral disease, which is not infectious and does not pose a danger to other animals, affects the number of live births per litter and the lifespan of young pigs. The Agriculture Ministry declined to respond, a spokesperson claimed, because of a case currently being heard in Jerusalem District Court relating to the importation of lard to compensate for the shortfall in local lard.
It’s important to emphasize that the disease affecting pigs is not dangerous to human beings. God knows that pigs, which don’t exactly enjoy good PR in Israel, can do without another blow to their image.