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Ahead of passover, this factory works overtime for a deliciously thick matzo that rises above the rest

For eight days in the spring, Jews honour their ancestors’ escape from slavery in Egypt. Passover’s allegorical meal, the seder, tells the exodus story with each ingredient. Parsley dipped in saltwater represents tears shed by the enslaved Jews. Charoset, a fruit and nut paste, signifies the mortar used to construct the Pharaoh’s buildings. Matzo has two meanings: The unleavened bread illustrates how the hastily fleeing Jews had no time for their bread to rise, and it also symbolizes their suffering – hence its nickname, the “bread of affliction.”

Suffering is a fitting word for anyone who has tried matzo. The flimsy flatbread is more akin to cardboard than actual food. As to whether the total lack of taste or the bone-dry texture is more responsible for making it so unappetizing, it’s a tie. And don’t get me started on its tendency to put the brakes on your intestinal tract. Growing up Jewish, I loved our familial Montreal seders – and loathed the matzo.

Modern Ashkenazi Jews, like those in my family, have come up with ways to make matzo palatable. My siblings and I would slather it with cream cheese to combat its stick-to-your-mouth dryness. My bubby would sauté the crunchy matzo in eggs for matzo brei, like tortillas in chilaquiles. My aunt Joni slathered it in chocolate and caramel. But it took a move across the Atlantic for me to learn there is a better way to alleviate the suffering.

After relocating to the southern French port of Marseille seven years ago, I was eager to explore Europe’s third-largest Jewish community, most of whom are Sephardic. This population’s Mediterranean origins has resulted in a very distinct cuisine from northern Ashkenazim. I had no idea these differences extended to matzo.

While shopping for my first Marseille seder, I picked up a box of a brand I’d never heard of: La Bienfaisante. When I opened the box, I couldn’t believe my eyes – or my taste buds. Unlike the paper-thin square matzos I had grown up with, La Bienfaisante’s lacy round doilies looked like they were hand-carved by craftsmen. Deliciously thick and remarkably toothsome, these matzos merited their name, galettes, the French word for pancake and shortbread.

David Sax, Canadian journalist and author of Save the Deli, raves about La Bienfaisante’s texture, too. “Their shape gives it a sturdiness that keeps it from shattering, like all other matzos. They would be a great vehicle for toppings ... even brisket,” he writes.

Curious to know this unique matzo’s provenance, I scanned the box and found the slogan, “Made from methods used in Algeria.”

The company Biscuiterie Agenaise was founded by Franco-Algerian brothers Simon and Joseph Bitone in 1962. Caroline Rebouh, the daughter of one of the Bitone brothers’ partners, gave me more backstory on the phone. “They started a small matzo factory in Algiers,” she explains, telling me how the capital city had a large Jewish community. “First, they made them by hand. Then, they ordered a special machine to fulfill the high demand.” La Bienfaisante, which means both nutritious and charitable in French, was made especially for Passover.

In 1962, Algeria’s independence from France forced the brothers to leave. They moved to Agen, a town between Bordeaux and Toulouse in southwestern France. Biscuiterie Agenaise was launched in a former cookie factory. After cranking out matzo for 60 years, they sold their company to their local banker, Stéphane Chézal.

Chézal invited me to visit the factory, and I arrived just in time on the last day of production before Passover. He led me to the second floor, solely dedicated to the making of this most particular matzo. There, a machine the size of a football field noisily whirred and thumped. Lined with a mix of knobs, wheels and dials like a Rube Goldberg contraption, the dough fed into one side of the machine was magically transformed into golden-brown matzo on the other end.

“We’re part artisanal, part industrial,” explained Chézal, as more than a dozen workers and two rabbis loaded dough, checked quality, tinkered with the machine and boxed the matzo. Ironically, the air smelled like toasted bread.

Matzo is also called the “bread of freedom” for its link to the liberated Jews. And I can attest, with one taste of these Algerian-born beauties, you can escape Passover’s no-bread shackles.

Where to buy: La Bienfaisante is sold in kosher shops across France, but 5 per cent of their sales are in Canada and Israel. The brand’s matzo can be found in Toronto at Kosher City Plus (online shipping available) and in Montreal at Cité Cachère or IGA (Cavendish, Van Horne, Côte St. Luc).

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly implied that the two rabbis blessed the matzo preparation and added dough to the machine; they oversaw the preparation. It also included an incorrect definition of kosher; it requires the observance of strict production rules. This article incorrectly referred to the candelabra design on the matzo's packaging as a hanukkiah. It is a menorah. This version has been updated.

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