Slice of Life: The Evolution of the Israeli Loaf

Over the years, Israelis' bread-eating habits have evolved - from simple 'standard bread' and rye to boutique-style, artisanal breads.

These pages have not undergone bi’ur hametz − the ritual of burning all not-kosher-for Passover food − so if you want to be a stickler about observing the holiday precepts, please cut this text out and save it until the week passes, or sell it to a goy.

Under the Festival of Matzot Law, 1986, it is forbidden to display bread in public for sale or consumption during the holiday. Accordingly, many of us will not eat bread, even if we may stop and think about it.

We may wonder, for example, when is was that we Israelis started buying low-calorie, whole-wheat, country-style bread, fortified with bran and an endless list of ingredients − and why? Why did we forsake simple bread? Is this about making an intelligent choice in terms of nutrition, or taste − or could it be that we are, ourselves, just a small speck of not-yet-sprouted whole wheat overwhelmed by a whole heap of industrial, economic, agricultural and social transformations?

According to Natan Dunevich’s book “A City Dines: One-Hundred Years of Dining in Tel Aviv” ‏(Ahuzat Bayit, 2012; in Hebrew‏), in the 1920s, there were three types of bread for sale in Palestine: white, rye and black ‏(dark‏). Also available were various sorts of rolls, pita, ethnic baked goods and, toward the end of the week, challah. Bakeries operated next to grocery stores and supplied them with fresh bread. Afterward came mechanization and the streamlining of the bakeries, and bread became processed and standard. It was sold in packages with brand names, acquired lengthy shelf-life − and lost its nutritional value.

Dunevich, a veteran journalist singles out Erez Komorovsky as the fomenter of the recent revolution in local bread consumption. At Lehem Erez, the shop he opened in Herzliya in 1996, the Cordon Bleu cooking school graduate introduced the local palate, for example, to the crispness of sourdough bread. The store grew to a chain with 30 branches, which offered a range of handmade breads. In its wake, innumerable mom-and-pop boutique bakeries have since sprung up, which produce all manner of breads via a process that can be called artisanal baking. The big bakeries have now followed suit, and earn their bread from higher-quality products: country-style, low-calorie, nutritious − and expensive.

Meanwhile, the history of lehem ahid ‏(standard bread‏) seems to be less gastronomical than political. The need to supervise the quality of bread and its price arose in part because of flour smuggling, cases of bread that caused mass gastroenteritis in the 1940s, public pressure and fluctuations in bread prices. Since then, as part of the government’s social-welfare policy, standard bread has been included in the basket of basic, essential food products whose price is subsidized and controlled by the state.

A historical press survey shows that from the very beginning, the bakeries found it difficult to accept the supervised price. They united to protest and repeatedly issued threats and demands, implemented sanctions, went on strike, disrupted the bread supply and conspired to coordinate their prices.

Kikar Halehem

Decades later, the loaf of standard bread became the symbol of the protest against so-called economic “decrees,” within the context of an anti-poverty movement/tent camp called Kikar Halehem ‏(a pun in Hebrew on the words for “loaf of bread” and “square”‏) that sprung up in Kikar Hamedina in Tel Aviv in 2002. Four years later, Yisrael Twito, one of the leaders of this struggle, established the Lehem Party, which obtained 1,381 votes in the election for the Seventeenth Knesset that year.

In 2007, a new “bread war” broke out when the industry and trade minister at the time, Eli Yishai, sought to abolish price controls for bread in return for a one-time grant to various underprivileged population groups. Yishai withdrew the proposal when the bakeries announced enormous price hikes. In turn, the bakeries stopped baking standard bread, with controlled prices, claiming it was causing them losses because of a rise in the cost of raw materials. The bread returned to supermarket shelves only after a new agreement was reached.

At present, a loaf of dark standard bread and a loaf of white bread weighing 750 grams each sell for NIS 5.29; a 500-gram challah costs NIS 5.77; sliced and packaged standard bread goes for NIS 7.93; and sliced and packaged white bread costs NIS 7.05.

“We cannot cover our costs with the controlled price that has been set, especially when there are competitive markets,” Yaron Angel, one of the owners of Jerusalem-based Angel Bakeries, told TheMarker last September. “Since the state was established, dozens of bakeries that produce subsidized bread have closed because they were unable to survive the government’s pricing policy.”

In the wake of every bread war, consumers ‏(at least, those who are able‏) get used to other bread products. Thus, for example, in the summer of 1985, at the height of a wave of spiraling inflation, the daily Maariv published a survey of the prices of special breads, in an article titled “Not by ‏(standard‏) bread alone.”

Pumpernickel bread then cost 667 ‏(old‏) shekels, rye bread went for 1,260 shekels, Russian bread for 1,490 shekels, country-style bread was 1,100 shekels and dark natural bread cost 790 shekels. By comparison, a 750-gram loaf of standard dark bread cost 205 shekels and white bread of the same weight sold for 355 shekels. The writer noted that “demand is generally a function of the standard of living and level of income,” and summed up: “With these prices for bread, maybe we’d be better off eating cake?”

Indeed, one’s economic status is sometimes accurately reflected by the loaf of bread put in one’s shopping cart. According to data released by the Central Bureau of Statistics in October 2011, to mark International Food Day, the country’s top decile spends 3.4 times more per month per capita on specialty breads than the least affluent decile ‏(NIS 45 vs. NIS 13‏). At the same time, the latter group spends 2.75 times more per month per capita on standard and sliced bread than the highest-income decile ‏(NIS 22 vs. NIS 8‏).

All told, each Israeli citizen spends an average of NIS 17 a month on standard sliced bread, along with an average NIS 26 a month on specialty bread. Thus, within the framework of the recent revolution in the bread industry, a major change has occurred among consumers who, according to their purchase choices, apparently define not only themselves but who they are vis-a-vis society.

Dietitians relate to white bread as a public enemy, reminding us that the combination of water and flour used in these loaves creates a sort of glue that blocks our intestines. They even single it out as a key cause of illness in Western countries.

These claims have struck root, so whoever has the wherewithal may bypass such standard bread and invest in packaged, sliced, low-calorie nutritious bread − especially if it looks dark and dense. By this means he will also get closer to the circle of people who are food-conscious − to the lean and beautiful people − and will distance himself from the bread he ate in his parents’ home, or during his army service or other days when he opted for the cheapest and simplest loaves on the shelf.

Orna Ben-Haim