Ever since the Jews fled ancient Egypt with their unleavened bread, matzo has traveled with them to all corners of the Jewish Diaspora. And just as Jewish life has found fresh expression on new soil and with new generations, so has matzo.
As Jews prepare for Passover, the seven-day festival that celebrates the Exodus and begins at sundown Monday, their options for matzo, a staple of the ritual meal made of milled grain and water, are nearly as bountiful as the meal itself.
FOR THE RECORD - An article on matzo that ran in the Taste section in Wednesday's editions of The Sun incorrectly referred to spelt, a grain. It is not gluten-free. The same article referred to oats as a gluten-free food, but according to the Whole Grains Council, oats can become contaminated with wheat during growing or processing.
The Sun regrets the errors.
Thick and thin, round and square, plain and gourmet, rolled by hand and machine, matzo has been adapted to meet the needs of Jewish settlements from the Venetian Ghetto to the deep South to Zabar's on New York City's Upper West Side.
Despite matzo's burgeoning variety, there is a growing demand for genuine Passover bread, baked in haste as it was so long ago. "I've been selling flatbreads all my life, and [handmade] shmurah is the real thing," says Baltimorean Eli W. Schlossberg, a veteran of the gourmet-and kosher-food industries. It most resembles "the matzo that the Jews ate when they left."
Shmurah, or "guarded" matzo, prepared by and for Orthodox Jews under rabbinic scrutiny, offers the same artisanal appeal as the baguettes and focaccias produced in upscale bakeries.
Strictly guarded to prevent leavening from the moment of harvest until it is packaged, shmurah has found popularity beyond the Orthodox community. "I think people are trying to get more authentic," says Joan Nathan, an authority on Jewish cuisine and author of numerous cookbooks. "Even Manischewitz has a line of shmurah matzo," she says. "It tastes better."
"More and more people are starting to use shmurah, which is now packaged even for grocery stores," Schlossberg says. "Years ago, only Orthodox people were accessing it."
Shmurah matzo is a "tremendously growing category," says Menachem Lubinsky, president of Lubicom, a New York company that tracks kosher food sales. Last year, the shmurah matzo bakeries he queried reported sales increases ranging from around 15 percent to 17.5 percent. "Even these little bakeries are producing huge amounts of matzo," he says. "I have every expectation that this year will be the same."
Eating matzo, "the food of faith," is the central commandment of the Passover Seder. After blessings, the bread is consumed alone and as part of a sandwich filled with bitter herbs and a fruit-and-nut mixture called charoset that symbolizes the experience of slavery in Egypt. Later in the Seder, children often delight in retrieving the afikomen, matzo hidden before the meal has begun.
Leftover matzo also finds its way into a multitude of dishes, from soup to chocolate confections. During the week of Passover, Gail Lipsitz often prepares a lasagna made with matzo. "It is a good lunch or dinner dish with a salad," says Lipsitz, coordinator of marketing and community relations for Jewish Family Services in Baltimore. "I added the spinach myself for a healthier version of the original recipe."
Those who don't adhere to the strict laws that dictate what is "kosher for Passover" can choose from matzo made with eggs, onion, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and a wealth of other flavorings. To appeal to consumers with health concerns or a preference for natural products, matzo manufacturers are substituting oats, spelt and whole wheat for white flour, and organic grain for the conventional variety.
Inexpensive Israeli matzo brands also have extended the profusion of matzo possibilities.
"Whereas 10 years ago, you might have seen one or two [matzo] brands on the shelf, today you might see as many as eight or 10," Lubinsky says.
Even within the realm of Orthodox Judaism, there are choices. Shmurah matzo may be made by hand or by machine. It also may be prepared with gluten-free grains, such as oats or spelt.
Handmade shmurah matzo is round and has a pleasingly charred, uneven, almost fibrous texture. Because of the high cost of grain grown under supervision and other labor-intensive factors, shmurah matzo fetches gourmet prices -- as high as $15 to $20 a pound, compared to mass-produced matzo, which can cost less than $2 a pound.
Not everyone can afford shmurah matzo. Through a program called "maot chitin" -- money for wheat -- Jewish communities around the world provide matzo and other Passover food for poor Jews.
"We give away hand shmurah to hundreds of families," says Schlossberg, who is also executive trustee for the Ahavas Yisrael charity fund, a kosher food bank in Baltimore.
While about half the price of handmade shmurah, the machine-made variety also requires constant supervision. "We do a limited run of shmurah," says Alan Adler, director of operations for Streit's, a 92-year-old family business in New York.