Shmurah Matza [unintentionally] from Better Tasting Wheat
SEVERAL years ago I tasted a matzo I actually liked. It was misshapen and lightly burned, distinguishing it from the machine-made matzo of my youth. And this one possessed something that I had never experienced with matzo: It had flavor. What can I say? Up until that moment, the best matzo of my life was not much better than the worst matzo of my life; you could taste the struggle in every bite. For the first time I ate matzo and thought, This is delicious.
I’m a chef, so of course I was tempted to credit the baker.
Kosher restrictions for Passover prohibit any leavened grain. According to the Torah, the Jews fled Egypt in such haste that there was no time to allow dough to rise. In remembrance, kosher law mandates that Jews avoid any grain that has come into contact with water and been allowed to ferment and rise — “chametz” in Hebrew.
A visit to the bakery where the matzo was made, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, allowed me to see how this law plays out on the ground. There were roughly 40 workers, with earlocks and yarmulkes, white shirts and black pants. For each batch of matzo, from the moment the water met flour, the workers frantically mixed, rolled and baked — all within 18 minutes — guaranteeing no fermentation.
The precision was impressive. But the recipe was just a hurried mix of flour and water. Not even a kiss of salt — nothing to explain that bravura taste, apart from the grain itself.
The bakery, I learned, specialized in an elite class of matzo called “shmurah,” meaning “guarded” or “watched,” which Orthodox communities prescribe for the first night of Passover. For shmurah matzo, the guarding against chametz begins not in the bakery but in the field, with rabbis overseeing the grain from harvest through to milling. Maybe, I thought, the matzo owed its flavor to this rabbinical scrutiny.
So several months later, I drove to upstate New York to visit one of the bakery’s suppliers, Klaas Martens, a grain farmer whom, coincidentally, I’ve known for many years. It was early July, and he was waiting to harvest kosher spelt for shmurah matzo. (Spelt isn’t typical matzo material, but it is one of the five biblical grains permitted in Passover tradition.)
A heat wave gripped the region. The rabbi who had been overseeing Klaas’s harvest for several years had delayed his arrival until the afternoon. Klaas’s John Deere cap was already drenched in sweat. Harvest days are always stressful, but the shmurah harvest is charged with a particular sense of urgency. Wait too long to cut the wheat, even a few hours, and a rogue rainfall could cause chametz; cut too early and the wheat may not be dry enough for storage.
The previous day, Klaas harvested several acres of wheat in 110-degree heat. Examining the wheat later that night, the rabbi found signs of sprouting (indicating chametz) in a handful of the kernels. He declared the harvest not kosher for Passover. It was a loss of several thousand dollars.
Though frustrated, Klaas told me he agreed with the rabbi’s verdict. After many years of oversight, he had come to respect the rabbi’s expertise.
“He could literally walk the field, tasting the kernels, to get the moisture he wanted, which I’ve come to learn is 13 to 14 percent. He knew how long to wait to get it. And by God, he always nailed it.”
As we waited (and waited) for the rabbi to arrive, I considered a question I had never thought to ask before: Is there an ideal moment to harvest wheat? And can you taste the difference?
First, some facts: Wheat can be mature and still too wet to harvest. At the point that the grain reaches physiological maturity, it can contain 40 percent moisture, making it exquisitely susceptible to chametz and spoilage in storage. Left to ripen on the stalk, the wheat will continue to dry down over the next several days. The sweet spot is below 18 percent moisture — ideally closer to 13 to 14 percent, just what the rabbi was looking for. Below 10 percent, the flour won’t perform as well for baking. But waiting works only if the weather cooperates. As one farmer told me, “Every day you’re in the field longer is more risk you’re taking.”
As a rule, wheat farmers don’t take risks. Which is why in regions like the Northeast, where humidity and rain are a constant threat, wheat is often harvested at between 20 and 30 percent moisture and dried down in large mechanical driers. The driers can be brutal and inexact; some of the wheat may overheat, destroying the delicate wheat germ (a shame, since the natural oils in the germ are what imbue the grain with flavor); some may be damaged by condensation that forms inside the bin. The end result is usually serviceable, but not ideal for baking.
Klaas had no choice but to leave the wheat on the stalk. As an organic farmer, he couldn’t use a chemical to desiccate the wheat, and it’s highly unlikely the rabbi would have allowed it anyway. And mechanical drying, which he normally employs, was not permitted by the rabbi because of the threat of condensation and the use of an “open flame” — high heat that could potentially damage or denature the grain. (Some rabbis are less strict about these rules.)
“What was remarkable to me is that being constrained by the rules of the rabbi, it forced us to figure out how to better preserve the quality of the grain,” Klaas said.
Glenn Roberts, founder of the artisanal grain company Anson Mills, outlined his own field protocols. He sounded pretty much like a rabbi.
Glenn pays a premium for what he calls “field-ripened” wheat, with a residual moisture content of 13 to 15 percent — a narrow window for capturing the “spiciness and deep nuttiness” and “green fresh floral notes” of the grain.
“We don’t allow mechanical driers,” he told me. “Never. It changes the structure of the germ, it kills flavor. This is delicate stuff. Getting it right takes time.”
JUST before 2, the rabbi finally arrived. Bearded and robed in the stifling heat, he ignored pleasantries and raced to taste the spelt. After a quick nod of approval, he sent the combine tractor into action. He stood perched on the ledge just outside the air-conditioned cab, scanning the field ahead.
Halfway around the perimeter, the rabbi raised his hand, signalling the driver to stop. He had spotted wild garlic, which traditionally is not allowed in matzo. The driver avoided the offending patch, ditching the spelt around it.
Klaas told me that for many years, the rabbi saw so much wild garlic that he was forced to walk alongside the combine, slowing it down considerably. At first Klaas wondered why wild garlic wouldn’t be kosher. Then he turned to what is, for him, a more practical question: Why was the wild garlic there at all? He came to believe that the wild garlic was a sign that his soil was “thirsty for sulphur.”
In the years since then, Klaas has grown rotations of buckwheat and mustard, which, he found, helped to replenish sulphur in the soil and reduce the garlic in his fields. “The rabbi knew more about farming than me,” Klaas said. “I can tell you that the spelt ever since has been a heck of a lot tastier.”
Glenn agreed. When I mentioned the offending weed, he told me that wild garlic would have made my matzo spicy and bitter.
Convinced that the matzo I’d tasted must be proof not just of a higher understanding of agriculture but also of a higher understanding of deliciousness, I asked the rabbi if he believed that any of the kosher laws ended up producing better-tasting food.
“No. Absolutely not,” he said. “It’s just kosher law.”
How do you argue with a rabbi? Consult another rabbi. I called Rabbi David Woznica, who had shepherded me through years of high-holiday observance, and asked the same question.
“No,” he told me. “I doubt it’s the primary thinking behind it. We don’t know the primary thinking behind it. And, truth be told, that is less important to me. I think the ultimate reason to observe kosher law is because God said so. When we say that the purpose of the law is to do X, Y and Z, then we’ve removed the holiness of God in that law.”
People’s demand to know more about what’s in their food has recently brought this thinking into the mainstream. Kosher-certified meats have become popular, not for religious reasons, but because the strict rules regarding slaughter are seen as safer and healthier than factory farming, especially when it comes to animals, where there’s a lot at stake.
The rabbi at Klaas’s farm, answered my question with a question of his own: If these kosher rules for shmurah are so important, why apply these laws to only 8 days of the year? Why not follow them every day?
But also unnecessary. I was beginning to see how the annual shmurah harvest improved Klaas’s farming for the rest of the year. It encouraged him to diversify crops, for instance, ridding his fields of weeds and improving the soil for everything else he grew.
“The requirement for close inspections of the spelt means I’m observing things that would otherwise go unnoticed,” Klaas told me. “I apply it to other crops, not with the same vigilance but with … I don’t want to sound corny, but it’s mindfulness. Mindfulness is a part of all my work now, and it benefits just about everything I grow.”
Klaas told me many years ago: “The history of wheat in a question is ‘How do we grow this and make it easier?’” meaning less expensive.
We’ve been spectacularly successful. After all, wheat built Western civilization. We eat a lot of the stuff — in the United States, more than 130 pounds per person each year. Worldwide, it covers more acreage than any other crop.
Dan Barber is the chef and co-owner of the Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurants and the author of “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.” - drawn from Why Is This Matzo Different From All Other Matzos? ORIGINAL By DAN BARBER APRIL 15, 2016
it would be nice to have other tasters substantiate the qualities that the author describes
Wheat germ is the embryo of the wheat kernel. It's removed during the milling process because its oils without refrigeration would become rancid thereby shortening the shelf-life of the flour.
Flour for Shmurah Matza is milled from the whole wheat kernel. The wheat germ [so named because it is the engine-room for the wheat's germination] is not removed but included in the finished product. Such flour can be purchased at the retail level, usually in speciality shops and one can readily detect the oily smooth texture of the wheat germ just by rubbing some between ones fingers.
It is another wonder of creation that the wheat germ does not deteriorate whilst it remains intact and part of the wheat kernel.
The mechanical systems developed to produce the enormous volumes of flour that we expect at the prices we want, makes it easier to mill and remove the wheat germ and then, if necessary, add it back. The same is true for flours that are promoted as whole wheat and wholemeal, the wheat is stripped from everything but its endosperm thus providing the highly sought, brilliant white, flour. Various components will then be added back to produce variations as required.