Sunday, 24 April 2016

Ode to Charoseth

Charoset
Jewish cuisine. To some, an oxymoron. To others, the warmest cosiest hug your stomach could ever have.

Either way, laden with heavy carbs and cloying fat, regular consumption guarantees a lifetime of Gaviscon dependency, with the very real possibility of major cardiovascular surgery by the time you're 60. Or even 50.

But not all Jewish cuisine is the same, there being a rough division between Ashkenazi (communities originating from Eastern Europe) and Sephardi influences (from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East).

My family’s origins are Ashkenazi, coming from Latvia and Belarus, amongst others. I do wonder what led my ancestors - back in the day - to settle in these bleaker lands in lieu of warmer, gentler Southern climes...


Great-great-great-etc Grandfather and Grandmother Chvallance, in a donkey-cart laden with their worldly belongings, lost somewhere in the 10th Century, arguing over a scroll

Great-great-great-etc Grandfather Chvallance [grumbling]: I told you we should’ve turned right.

Great-great-great-etc Grandmother Chvallance: Well the map said left. And besides, that was eleven weeks ago! We should've asked for directions. You never ask for directions...

Grandfather [peering at the grey landscape in dismay]: Oy vey zmir. This is clearly not Spain. It's flat, it’s freezing, there's a sign back there saying ‘Belarus’, whatever that is, and all I see are bloody turnips!

Grandmother: Well, turnips aren’t bad...

Grandfather: Well that’s all we’ll be eating. And our children. And our children's children. Generations will blame us. We could’ve been in Spain. We could’ve been eating oranges, pomegranates, a spot of tapas…

Grandmother: Oh shut up! Where did you get that map anyway? It’s useless! Besides, perhaps one day the Good Lord might give our people some portable global-positioning navigational device that directs in real-time whilst displaying an array of convenient route options by foot, donkey, and Uber-carriage...

Grandfather: And you call me meschugge…!


So, however my family arrived in East Europe, my culinary upbringing has been consigned to a select variety of uninspiring root vegetables, rather than the thrilling diversity of Sephardic cuisine. And this distinction is also embodied in that most traditional of Passover dishes - for it is that time of year - Charoset.

Charoset is basically a thick paste comprised of apples, nuts, wine, cinnamon and sugar. It’s really a ceremonial dish, there to symbolise the mortar used by the ancient Israelite slaves when building various Egyptian infrastructure projects - no austerity at that time - and reminding generations since of our ancestors fleeing slavery to become a free people. To coin the blog’s title, it’s not just 1-dish-4-the-road, Charoset actually is the road.

It’s also a Marmite dish. Or perhaps SchMarmite. Some love it. Some hate it. But most telling is the Ashkenazi/Sephardi distinction. Claudia Roden’s seminal ‘The Book of Jewish Food’ references no less than eight different Sephardi recipes, all of which sound deliciously enticing: Turkish (flavoured aromatically with orange zest and raisins), Egyptian (dates and sultanas), Algerian (figs and nutmeg), Iraqi (a drizzle of date syrup), Surinam (apricots and cherry jam), Moroccan (cinnamon and cloves), and Italian (pears, prunes, pine-nuts, and ginger); even the Piedmont region of Italy has its very own version (with chestnuts and egg yolks), reflecting Italy's fiercely regional cuisine.

In contrast, there is just the one basic Ashkenazi recipe, and it looks like a turd.

Okay, so the Egyptian version actually aspires to resemble the local Nile silt, but to be fair, that's about as authentic as Charoset could possibly get. The Ashkenazi Charoset story can't match that. Still, that's the version I was brought up on. Its ceremonious moment comes during the family Seder meal, at a pivotal point between the climaxing of prayers and songs, and just before food is served. It's eaten sandwiched between two pieces of crunchy crumbly matzo crackers, stuffed alongside its eye-wateringly fiery partner, horseradish, there to symbolise the bitterness of slavery.

Yes, that's raw unadulterated horseradish in there. We are talking full wasabi. It literally destroys your nasal nerve-endings. So all those fine subtle Sephardic aromas would just get obliterated anyway. And that's where the Ashkenazi sweet stodge comes in. It's the perfect monochrome counterbalance to all that heat and bitterness. And it never changes, year after year, generation from generation, a culinary constant. And that's why I love it. Happy Passover!



Charoseth: the unassuming champion of the Seder plate. Tasty aromatic dip, or so 1970's (BC)? Sephardi or Ashkenazi? Love it or hate it - which side of the Red Sea are you on?...



..and if you want to read more about Passover, feel free to check out my Passover post in 2017 - 'Chocolate babka at Honey & Co'
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