The matzah that Toby Rosenberg will pull from a wood-fired oven this weekend is definitely not your mother’s matzah.
It’s made with the same ancient grains used in biblical times – the grains that made bread for the Pharoahs and that the Jews took with them on their flight from Egypt. And it tastes nothing like the packaged, mass-manufactured matzah found in today’s grocery stores.
“We’ve lost touch with what I call real matzah for the equivalent of the Wonder Bread of matzah,” Rosenberg said. “For me, to taste that, it really throws me back to, ‘This is what my ancestors did.’ They didn’t buy a square matzah. They made a really flat cake and probably baked it on hot rocks.”
Rosenberg believes this connection to the past will make preparing, baking and eating matzah that much more meaningful during Passover this year.
“It makes my hands feel like they’re connected to their hands, and my taste buds connected to their taste buds,” she said.
Rosenberg and other members of Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland are inviting the public to learn about these rare heritage grains at a special weekend event called “The Mystery of Matzah.” It’s two days’ worth of study circles, and includes a Sunday workshop where participants will be able to actually bake some matzah made with organic flour from two ancient wheats, einkorn and emmer, in a wood-fired oven.
The study circles and lunch each day are free. There will be a $5 charge for the matzah making to cover the cost of the rare flours. (The flours will also be on sale at the event for about $6 a pound.)
The study circles will be led by Elisheva Rogosa, a scholar and organic farmer from the University of Massachussets-Amherst who travels to the Middle East and Eastern Europe to rediscover ancient grains and test their potential for growth in the United States.
Rogosa, founder of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy, is testing the viability of growing 96 varieties of heritage wheat in New England. She has been a speaker for the past two years at the Kneading Conference, the annual gathering of artisan bakers in Skowhegan that has been garnering national attention.
“The Mystery of Matzah” launches a year-long project at Congregation Bet Ha’am of growing, harvesting and baking with biblical wheats, with public involvement at every step. The synagogue was one of just 20 congregations in the U.S. to receive a grant from the Union for Reform Judaism for a project that would help strengthen its relationship with the local community.
Julia Bailin, one of the organizers of the weekend event, said their hope is that foodies, gardeners, bakers – anyone with an interest in the topic or interest in growing the grains themselves – will participate. In addition to “The Mystery of Matzah” program, the congregation will plant a 10-by-30-foot plot of heritage grains later this spring on its Westbrook Street property. There will be a harvest of that wheat, more baking (perhaps some challah, Rosenberg says), and then another planting of winter wheat that will be harvested next year.
Passover begins April 18, so the focus of this weekend’s workshop will be making matzah, the unleavened bread that is part of the seder plate and then eaten in place of bread until Passover ends April 26.
“During the Exodus, when Jews were escaping from Egypt, the story goes they had to bake bread very quickly and leave,” Rosenberg said. “They didn’t have time to let it rise. They baked it really quickly and then ran off. It then becomes part of the Passover seder year after year as a memory of that experience.”
The South Portland project reflects a growing demand nationally for gluten-free, organic Passover foods. There’s even a bakery in Vermont that is making what it calls “Vermatzah” – unleavened bread made with emmer, one of the heritage wheats that will be explored in “The Mystery of Matzah.”
Emmer, with its beautiful purple head, is known as “mother wheat,” Rogosa explained.
“All other wheats evolved from emmer, and emmer was the only grain that was eaten in ancient Egypt,” she said. “It grows wild in Israel, of all places on the planet.”
Einkorn, the first wheat mentioned in the Old Testament, “was the grain eaten by Abraham and Sarah,” Rogosa said. It has a richer flavor than modern matzah, which “has plummeted into an almost lifeless cardboard.”
“When you see these ancient grains that I grow, which are taller than you and me, it’s like this virtual reality in the field of waving grains,” Rogosa said. “They’re delicious and they are alive and they sing and they have a soul. And then you see (the results of) Midwest mechanization. Modern grains have been bred to be less than half the height. Their roots have been shortened so they can quickly absorb synthetic chemicals. And that’s why people have been getting sick from gluten. It wasn’t a problem 100 years ago.”
The seeding rate for modern wheat, Rugosa notes, is 100 to 150 pounds per acre. “I plant 5 pounds per acre, each seed 1 foot apart, and it fills up the entire field because the old grains are big, bushy plants with deep root systems and big, fat heads,” she said.
The difference in taste and texture, Rosenberg says, is like eating whole grain pizza baked in a wood-fired oven instead of grabbing a white-crust slice from the corner store. The einkorn and emmer are richer, nuttier and earthier.
But the synagogue’s heritage wheat project isn’t just about making a better-tasting matzah. It’s about honoring what the earth has given in its natural state, Rosenberg said, and undoing some of the excesses of modern agriculture.
“One of the values in Judaism is called tikkun olam, and it means healing the world,” she said. “This is a great way to heal the world.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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