When making food by hand to sell direct to the public, one thing you will almost certainly argue about with yourself – and possibly with friends and family too – is pricing. Despite Britain being a place where we idolise chefs, buy recipe books in bulk, sit glued to food-themed TV, and like to fantasise about the artisan food producer life, most people still buy most of their food from supermarkets. And supermarkets are very much a product of the post-World War 2, post-rationing hunger for cheapness and plenty, quantity over quality.
Any artisan food producer has to compete with this.
Einat Chalmers runs Mamoosh1 out of small bakery within an industrial in Newhaven, on the East Sussex coast. Her main product is pitta2 bread. She sells four for £2. This seems like a bargain to me, but then I’m a middle-class stereotype who tries to eschew industrial food. People, even friends, criticised my prices when I sold Italian biscuits on the market, but my margins were very narrow, and the time it takes to handmake real food is a world away from the time it takes for a factory to spit out industrial food.
Einat has some professional kit but is essentially making her pitta by hand: dividing the dough, shaping the balls, feeding a small dough roller, laying them on trays to prove, then dropping them onto her new addition: a proper pitta oven. Then removing them by hand too. With a supermarket’s pitta, the dough is almost certainly not touched by hand at all as it moves through an automated production process in a factory, not a bakery.
And frankly supermarket pitta tastes like cardboard; a conclusion I reached years ago and one that’s affirmed every time I eat Einat’s bread. Never mind that many will find the result indigestible; not because they can’t eat wheat, but because industrial bread doughs simply aren’t proved for long enough.
Einat, who grew up in the north of Israel close to Lebanon, sells her delicious pitta on the markets in Lewes. They’re a key part of my family’s diet these days. My fussy son calls it “pocket bread” and it’s a good way to get him to eat something filling. Einat also makes brioche buns to supply The Pig and Jacket, who do pulled pork and hog roast, and croissants and Danish, which she sells at the smaller market in Newhaven. She says she turns out up to around 250 brioche buns and 900 pitta a week but is gradually expanding. The latter production is helped by that pitta oven.
I’ve never seen one before but it’s a great bit of kit, gas elements heat a large rotating disc of cast iron from below, while other flames brown the pittas from above. Einat says she was encouraged to invest in one by her restaurateur father in Israel, and when I visited the bakery I got a great sense of its efficacy. It heats to about 450-500C (a temperature similar to that found in a wood-fired pizza oven) in about 10 minutes. About a dozen pittas can fit on the disc and the rotation takes about a minute. The results are great: pocketed but puffy and tender, an entirely different animal to the abovementioned cardboard pittas more familiar to British supermarket shoppers. They may cost about 50p for six, but to my mind that’s a false economy: not only are they poor quality in terms of ingredients and production process, they’re also barely edible for anyone who’s even vaguely discerning about the bread they eat.
Einat, who trained as a chef at the French Culinary Institute and interned in bakeries in New York in the late 1990s, taught herself sourdough and pitta at home. She’s lived in Sussex with her Scottish husband for about 15 years and worked on and off for Brighton’s Real Patisserie before starting her pitta business. I think she’s really onto something. I urge anyone who’s in Lewes for the food markets to check out her pitta, they’re one of those foods that very tellingly highlights the difference between real, handmade products and industrial crap. One of those products that, in a mouthful, qualifies and justifies the price differences3.
Mamoosh pittas are available at the Friday morning food market, in the Lewes Market Tower, from Talicious falafel stall, or you can get them straight from Einat’s Mamoosh stall at the Lewes farmers market on the first and third Saturday of every month. I’m eating some now with some of my hummus as I hit “Publish”.
1 Einat explains the name thus: “Mamoosh comes from the word mummy (mother), probably introduced by the Polish Jews and become part of the Hebrew slang. “e use it mainly as a slang for sweetie, darling, honey, dear.”
2 In English pitta or pita is borrowed from the modern Greek πίτα. As it’s a transliteration, presumably there are arguments for both spellings. Indeed, the Greek word can also be translated as pie or cake. Older etymology of the word is contested so can’t help.
3 This is a tangent but just to preemptively respond to any criticism that I’m writing simply from a naive middle-class position, here’s a little more food for thought. Many people say that only the better-off can eat what I call real foods, and the poorer are dependent on cheap industrial produce, often frozen or in the form of ready meals, from budget supermarkets etc. This is obviously a complex issue but a story I read in the i newspaper on 2 March seemed to confirm something I’ve long thought – if you base your diet on fresh veg, grains, pulses, don’t expect red meat with every meal and don’t throw away food (itself an enormous issue, and one of the things that will bring about the downfall of our society), you can eat more affordably.
The article quotes from a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), “the UK’s original free-market think-tank”, and its author says, “A diet of muesli, rice, white meat, fruit and vegetables is much cheaper than a diet of Coco Pops, ready meals, red meat, sugary drinks and fast food. The idea that poor nutrition is caused by the high cost of healthy food is simply wrong.” The IEA is not a body I know well, and it’s of neoliberal disposition and I’ve not read the original report, so I’m slightly wary of quoting from it.