A Passover Primer

OU Kosher Staff

Any traditional Jew will tell you that the most pivotal time of the kosher year is the Festival of Passover. But it is also the most intense period of the year for the many food companies who try to offer their products to the kosher market. This is because kosher keeping Jews are spending a lot of time and money buying food for Passover. In fact, according to one estimate, forty percent of all kosher products are purchased during the six weeks prior to Passover.

There are a number of reasons for the pre-Passover shopping sprees. First of all, Passover is the most celebrated holiday of the entire Jewish calendar (making the market share even larger than the rest of the year). The seder—a family-centered ritual celebrated on the first two nights of Passover and organized around food and wine—is the most commonly observed ritual of the entire Jewish year. While food is central to the seder, it is also pivotal to the rest of this eight-day festival. In fact, according to some Jewish thinkers, how we eat on Passover reflects how we eat the rest of the year.

Just as significant is the fact that Passover requires re-stocking the entire kosher kitchen. Foods containing five grains (wheat, oats, barley, spelt, and rye) and their derivatives are completely forbidden (unless they are in the form of matzah, unleavened bread). To top that off, Jews of European descent refrain from other grain products (like corn, soy, rice, beans, among other staples) as well. Even foods that do not contain these ingredients are frequently processed on equipment shared with them (also prohibited according to Jewish law). This means that the vast majority of items found in the year-round kosher kitchen are unacceptable for Passover use. Entire pantries must therefore be repurchased, from condiments to snack foods, to oils. Between Passover’s popularity, the centrality of food to the Passover experience, and the many food restrictions special to the holiday, it is no wonder that so much food is purchased for it.

Because of the many food restrictions on Passover and the association of many Jewish foods with “tradition,” it is understandable why many think that the Passover diet consists of matzah, brisket, gefilte fish, horseradish, matzah balls, and syrupy-sweet wine. To whatever degree that these stereotypes were ever true, they are certainly not true now. Within the past few decades, the kosher palette (to borrow the title of a popular kosher gourmet cookbook) has grown much more sophisticated. The kosher market is now looking to and borrowing recipes from Italian, French, Asian, Southern, and other cuisines.

The same is no less true for Passover. For these reasons, even a “kosher” brand like Gold’s is producing Passover-certified duck sauce (and a good one, I might add) in addition to the horseradishes with which the brand is commonly associated. While there will always be a place for matzah balls and macaroons on the Passover table, there is also room for beef bourguignon.

The tastes of the Kosher market are not only expanding but also becoming more refined. The market now has much higher culinary standards than it had, for example, forty years ago. This greater sophistication has also shaken up the Passover market. Two perfect examples are the standards of cheese and wine.

It was not long ago that Passover cheese was thought to be bland and heavily processed. These days, many Kosher for Passover cheeses are meeting a higher standard. One example is the artisanal Israeli cheese maker Barkanit. While they make an assortment of sheep and goat cheeses, one of their best is Gilboa hard sheep cheese. Those with a desire for authentic Italian cheese can now purchase scamorza, provolone, and fresh mozzarella cheeses from the Italian brand Yotvata. Recently, the gourmet cheese maker Cabot has also taken the Passover plunge, adding their sharp cheddar to the market.

The Passover wine market has experienced an even greater revolution. For the past two thousand years, wine has been integral to the Passover holiday. At the seder, Jews are obligated to drink four cups of wine to celebrate their freedom from Egyptian bondage thousands of years ago. Forty years ago, the only options consisted of overly sweet wines. But with the greater desire within the kosher market for sophisticated dry wines, the options have multiplied such that there are now hundreds of great tasting Kosher for Passover wines from all over the world.

Take your pick of styles and varietals, and it is very likely that there is a kosher equivalent. Not only are there many authentic Kosher for Passover Bordeauxs, but also Cote du Rhones, Asatian Rieslings, Burgundies, Sauternes, and more. And that is just among French wines. Among Italian Kosher wines, there are Barolos, Chiantis, Procsecos, Pinot Grigios. The list of varietals and regions featuring kosher wines goes on and on. While there are always new kosher wines on the marketplace each Passover season, one notable addition this year is a line of Alsatian wines—Gewirtzteminer, Riesling, and Pinot Gris—from a special kosher production of the winemaker Willm.

Even those within the kosher market who have kept their sweet tooth for wine are looking for more sophisticated options like Bartenura’s popular Italian Moscato, Herzog Select’s Late Harvest Riesling and Late Harvest Gewirtztiminer. For those who really want to splurge for a sweet there is the kosher production of Chateau Guiraud Grand Cru Sauternes. Passover wine has certainly come a long way.

So what would it take for a company join in on the Passover trend? The process of getting a product certified for Passover is similar to that of approval for other new products, though (like everything involving Passover) much more intense. Companies interested in Passover approval submit forms detailing their products and ingredients to our Passover department. These ingredients are carefully reviewed. Should a company have trouble finding an acceptable Passover ingredient, the Orthodox Union—as part of its mission of superior customer service — tries as much as possible to help identify the appropriate ingredient or to suggest alternatives.

The fee for Passover certification is assessed based on the time (broken down in eight-hour shifts) and expenses needed for a rabbinical field representative (RFR) to oversee this special production. Because of the special significance of the laws of Passover and their many differences from the rest of the kosher year, the vast majority of products require this on-site rabbinic presence to become certified for Passover.

Once the formulas and facilities are approved, the actual production can begin. The RFR first kosherizes the product line to purge it of anything unacceptable for Passover. Manufacturing can then take place, overseen the entire time by the RFR. As long as everything goes according to plan, the resulting foods can bear the OU-P, the trademarked symbol indicating that they meet the Orthodox Union’s high standards for Passover use.

The time, effort, and fees (though it is not as much as you might think; ask your rabbinic coordinator for a price quote) involved in certifying products for Passover has frightened many away. But think of it as an investment, just as one would for any other new product being developed. In fact, a well-made Passover product by a respected brand is very likely, if not guaranteed, to gain sufficient market share for the Passover investment to pay off.

Every year, new Passover products are coming on the marketplace. Last year, the brand Health Gardens came out with a Passover-certified xylitol for those on sugar-free diets. Kedem introduced a sparkling pomegranate juice. Savion introduced a line of Fireman’s Frenzy sauces. Season introduced Moroccan sardines. This year also features many new and exciting Passover products. Among them is the gourmet Jane’s Crazy Mixed Up Salt. Shkedia is adding to its delicious Passover confection line with Chocolate Covered Citrus Peels, Chocolate Covered Coffee Beans, and Chocolate Covered Nuts. The specialty brand Sonny and Joe’s is coming out with Passover certified babaganoush and Eggplant Matbucha. Reisman’s and Lilly’s are each adding to their line of Passover baked goods.

This all begs the question, what will the next enterprising and forward-thinking company come up with for Passover next year?