Oy. (There, we said it.)
Dan Barber, the activist chef and author, published a charming and fascinating piece in the New York Times on Sunday extolling the virtues of a food familiar to many Jews but to few others: shmura matzo. "Why," he asked,"is this matzo different from all other matzos?"
Like regular matzo, shmura, or guarded, matzo has a very short list of ingredients: flour and water. Unlike with regular matzo, the supervision of shmura matzo begins in the field, from before the time of harvesting, when rabbis certify that excess moisture hasn’t caused the still-planted wheat to ferment, as Barber detailed. If it ferments, it will rise and become chametz, precisely what the rules of Passover forbid. Once the rabbi approves the grain, it gets harvested and, like regular matzo, milled and eventually baked—all under strict rabbinical supervision.
The result is a large, disc-like matzo with the taste and consistency of a burnt flap of cardboard. Instead of a giant, bland cracker. Some people like it. Few would eat it more than once a year.
“It’s matzo—it’s not supposed to be super enjoyable,” said Yisroel Bass of Yiddish Farm in Goshen, N.Y., which makes organic, kosher, handmade matzo, similar to the kind Barber enjoyed.
But there's another reason this matzo is different from all others. Regular matzo usually costs a few bucks a box. On the low end, Holyland Handmade Shmura Matzo is going for $19.95 a pound on Amazon.com. MatzaBakery.com in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, sells its version for $23.00 a pound. Depending on where you buy it, Yiddish Farm's shmura can cost from $33.99 a pound, if preordered during winter, to as much as $50 a pound at stores in Manhattan.
Now consider other foods in the same price range. Murray’s Cheese's Valdeon blended blue, made from the milk of goats and cows raised in the Castilla y León region of Spain and aged up to three months, costs $18.99 a pound. FreshDirect’s 100 percent grass-fed, raised-without-antibiotics racks of lamb from Tioga County, N.Y., are $34.99 a pound, currently on sale for $29.99 a pound. Askinosie Chocolate’s signature bean-to-bar, single-origin dark chocolate bars cost $8.50 each, or about $45 a pound. Unlike, say, an organic bag of carrots at the supermarket, which could cost as much as three times the price of the standard kind, these foods come with their own backstories—and real flavor to boot.
The price of shmura matzo is high for the same reason other certified foods—whether kosher, organic, or otherwise—almost always command higher prices than their ordinary counterparts. That it is handmade from bespoke grain may add to it a bit, but the price is really attributable to the extra supervision that, in this case, comes in the form of a rabbi inspecting the field.
Whether that price is worth paying when religious law doesn't demand it, if the product tastes, at best, only marginally better than the regular kind, is a fair question. Another question to ask, of any specialty food: If there were no backstory or fancy label, would I still pay this price? Or, as the youngest child might ask, why on this day do we spend 90 bucks to make lamb for dinner?