By Tal Miller
Sometimes, a moment before he falls asleep, Marcel Hess sees a new type of salami before his eyes. The beginning is not necessarily sensational. Entrecote, for example . . . but then, inside his head, the meat is matched up with the group of seasonings that has yet to encounter entrecote in this cumulative state, and Hess knows that he has cracked it.
He takes his sharpened pencil waiting beside the bed especially for these moments of inspiration, and he writes. The next day, at his plant, he begins work. Sometimes it takes months until the salami enters the world, but Hess is a patient man. One needs patience for art, and as far as he is concerned, this is what he does: art.
“It suddenly hits me,” says Hess, 63; “I start to fall asleep, and then a thought suddenly pops up: What if I take veal and add cognac and pistachio nuts to it? That is how chicken liver pâté was born, which is something extraordinary, simply perfect for a first course with seasonal fruits on the side. You need to understand—this is salami that is much more than salami. It is salami that makes a dream come true.”
He dreams his dreams in bed in Jerusalem and produces them at a small plant in Givat Shaul, and they are ultimately sold in Hess’s salami and hot-dog stores in the city. But the roots of these dreams come from Switzerland, with more than 200 years of family experience in the charcuterie business, from the time that Nathaniel Hess, Marcel’s great-grandfather, produced the first salami in 1795. Marcel himself began working in Switzerland and was also a member of the district parliament there; then he arrived in Israel and became one of the most esteemed and decorated manufacturers here, with medals from a wealth of leading international salami contests.
79 Shekels For A Slice
Of The Soul
Marcel Hess treats his salamis with the same respect and sense of mission with which he regarded his position in the Swiss Parliament. This is quite different from the approach that characterizes salami production here, those that are based on skin, bones, soy flour, potato flower, preservatives, and water. “People think that salami is grounding spices and intestines and putting it all together. They are wrong. You need to respect the meat. It is not respected here. ‘Processed meat’ is printed on everything. It is small print, and a huge catastrophe is behind it. Almost everyone here injects water into meat to increase its weight and the result is that you get a product at a much lower quality and lower net weight. With us, you will see only meat, with no water and with no supplements.
“When I had just arrived in Israel, someone from the Ministry of Health came to inspect the plant. He went through the meats and spices and then asked to see the room with the raw materials. I told him: ‘You have seen everything; there is nothing more, this meat is the only raw material.’ He didn’t believe me: ‘Where is the soy and potato flour? How do you make salami without that?’ He decided to call the Health Ministry and told the food engineer that Hess did not want to show the raw materials storage area. The engineer knew me, and she tried to explain to him that I have no raw materials. What you see is what you taste, and what you taste is meat, seasoning, and tradition—a tradition that does not include the words ‘soy flour’. Today people are more aware, but not enough; they continue to buy things that are not meat. They want cheap, and anything goes; they are willing to accept that they’ve injected water into their meat.”
“Cheap” is the key word in the local attitude toward salami. Hess has rejected it from the beginning. Although he has salami that can be bought for 18 shekels per 100 grams, most of it costs much more, up to 79 shekels per 100 grams. It was not easy to get the Israeli gourmet public accustomed to these prices, but Hess successfully built a clientele. “You need to understand,” he says, “this entrecote was five kilos when I bought it. Seventy percent of it evaporates into the air while drying, so that all the water is removed. As is the body of the beast, so is the body of a person: Most of it is made up of water, so I lose money on weight that is lost. Whoever buys it knows that the price is high, but he gets real meat. It doesn’t get more real than that.” And he adds: “I have a sentimental attachment to salami. For me it is a piece of history and tradition, a piece for which I have given my soul.”
Why four months of drying? What is the difference in taste between four months and two months? “After four months, you feel that the taste created for you here is different. And it could not be like that if you were not patient with the salami. When I eat the entrecote salami after four months of aging, if I close my eyes I feel that I am in the mountains of Switzerland. Here are the cows walking along, here are the rocks and boulders. And here is the salami that I sliced from inside the landscape. It has a taste of childhood. It is the cleanest and purest meat experience that a person can imagine.”
Frankfurt, Basel, Jerusalem
Nathaniel Hess was a cattle trader from the village of Bad Zwesten in the Frankfurt area. He began soaking beef leftovers in brine and spices and selling them as salami—kosher salami to boot, the only one in the area. “The Jews would come from Frankfurt, as well as the gentiles. It was a boutique plant and a boutique plant it will remain,” says Marcel Hess.
Not much would have remained of the German Jewish boutique plant during the 20th century if Hermann Hess, Marcel’s father, would not have been elected to direct the Swiss Jewish community and transfer the plant to Berne. The business was almost wiped out in World War II because of regime restrictions on slaughter, but Hermann withstood that. After the war, relates his son, he sold salami very cheaply to Holocaust survivors. “Dad was not a businessman. He was a butcher. If he had an extra penny, he gave it away.”
Marcel was born in 1951, and at age 15 he had already prepared his first salami, from veal. “I started learning the business when I was 12. I took butchering courses that included one day a week at a slaughterhouse, two days a week at the plant as an intern, and two days at school. You learn to take the cow apart, clean the intestines, separate the heart from the liver, detach the bones from the meat, and learn which parts are for cooking and which are for roasting, how to cut steak, how to blend spices . . . but I did my real learning with my dad. I’ll never forget how proud he was of the first tasting. And he knew that it was in the genes. I loved the tradition and creativity. I knew that this is a true mission.”
Hess majored in cooking (among other things, at his mother’s kosher restaurant) and wines, and he studied hotel management at Cornell University in the U.S. Meanwhile, his only brother distanced himself from the field and worked in banking, and in 1974 Marcel took over the family business. “I hate the word ‘businessman,’ but business pressure demanded it of me. It is not enough to be an artist; you need to know how to do accounts.”
In 1979 he began public activity, first as a judge from the workers’ federation in the labor court, and later as a member of the Basel District Parliament from the Democratic-Liberal Party. “I thought that this is an opportunity to make a change both in my life and in others’ lives,” he explains. “One member of parliament died, and they asked me if I’d like to join their list for Parliament. I had to give a quick answer, within 2 hours, and my wife said: ‘Go, I’ll take your place in the business.’” But Hess did not leave the business. In the morning he manufactured and sold, and in the afternoon he attended parliament sessions, returned to the plant in the evening, and over the years he was also in charge of amnesty in the Basel district and served as the chief regulator for management of the private hospitals. “Swiss politics allows you to deal with things that are really close to your heart,” he says. “When everyone has another job, people don’t come to Parliament to look for a job; they come to really contribute from themselves. And yes, it’s clear that in Switzerland, relatively speaking, the problems seem less substantial.”
What did they say in Parliament about your salami? “I didn’t mix meat and politics. I didn’t try to get business through my contacts or vice versa. There was a clear separation.”
In 1988, with a sense of rising anti-Semitism in Europe, Hess left the Swiss Parliament and arrived in Israel with his wife Susan and children Doron, Dalia, and Chantal. “One time Martin Judi, the Swiss Justice Minister, visited here and met with Ehud Olmert. He asked him: ‘What is Marcel Hess doing in your country?’ Olmert answered, ‘He is a Zionist. Just like that.’ And he was right. I understood this is not our place any longer. For Jewish children in Europe, maybe the present is OK, but it is clear that there is no future. The community is shrinking—15 years ago there were 2,000 Jews in Basel; today there are less than 1,000. It is impossible to say that there is no anti-Semitism there, even if they feel it less. Even if they accept the Jews, they don’t like them, and they surely don’t like their success and the place that Jews occupy on the list of the richest people in the country. In these senses, you will always remain a stranger.”
When they arrived in Israel, they settled in Raanana first, and Hess had to adapt to quite a few things. “I’m a ‘yekke.’ Eight is eight and August 15 is not November 24. Everything should go straight, and the water should flow in the right direction, and here this simply doesn’t exist. Beyond that, in Switzerland I had a reputation for generations and here I started from scratch. It took the Israeli consumer time to realize that just as he has whole-wheat bread with nuts and raisins, he also has salami that is not a string of things that are barely innards.”
A turning point was recorded in 2002, after Hess had been the Israeli to win a medal at the Salami Olympics in Austria, and he returned with three gold medals. He was invited for a visit at the President’s Mansion and also started to build himself a political circle of customers that over the years included Abraham Burg, Gideon Saar, and primarily Ariel Sharon. When part of the transcripts surrounding the Greek Island affair was revealed in the press, it emerged that Apel and Sharon also spoke, among other things, about Hess’s salamis. He well remembers what the former Prime Minister ate—“mostly Polish and sosiso salami and pressed salami. Maybe because he liked lamb.”
‘I Added Hot Spices’
Son, Doron Hess, dreamed of being a veterinarian. He got over it. Today, at 28, he is also into salami. “Dad always told me that I have a choice, that I don’t have to be in the business, but I have that option if I wish. And I was attracted to it at a young age, I wanted to take part. One sister is a fashion designer, and another sister works with me here in sales, and I produce.”
There wasn’t any kind of vegetarian revolt? Or simply a desire never to see salamis ever again in life? “No. If I had had enough of one salami I would switch to another salami for a time. I love it.”
Today, this skinny guy says he eats at least 1.5 kg of meat per day, most of it produced by him. “I eat the first salami at five or six in the morning. I get up, heat up some water, put the salamis in the water, go back for a shower, get organized, take the salami out, and eat. It’s like that every day.”
Yet, within the boundaries of salami, he rebelled. “I’ve always wanted to produce on my own, but Dad didn’t want me to. He was afraid that we would need to throw large quantities of meat into the garbage. My mom was stubborn and told him that he has to give me one time, and if I make a mistake that is the price of learning. When I was 26, he agreed on condition that I write down on paper the full process of what I was going to do and he approves it without deviations. I said OK, but it wasn’t exactly like that. One day I took 30 kilos of meat out of the freezer. I decided to do something by myself. I wanted to make salami, but something different, a spicy salami that would suit Israeli tastes. I started to season, taste, and add more seasoning. Two weeks later, Dad came into the plant and saw a salami that he didn’t recognize in the refrigerator. He got really upset and started screaming. He was sure that we’d now have to throw out everything. He said to me: ‘You’ll destroy our reputation.’ I told him: ‘Dad, we can always throw it out. Let’s try selling it, what do you care?’ Two-and-a-half weeks later, everything was sold out. Afterwards he asked me about the recipe. This salami, Hungarian salami, has been our most successful salami to date.”
“I believe that whoever likes spicy food should season it himself. I don’t like tasting the spices first and then the meat,” the father said, trying to explain his opposition. “But listen, this is a new generation that needs to get its own way, and I don’t mix in.” Marcel is getting used to it. Among other things, he accepted Doron’s desire to close the restaurant that they opened in Jerusalem. “We were the first deli in Jerusalem, and afterwards all kinds of places were opened,” says Doron, “But it didn’t suit us. I love eating salami, love making salami, and love sharing what I make with others. At a restaurant, you experience that less; there are many other things keeping you busy.”
Doron wants to “open a farm, make salami, and sell it in a big house with guest rooms and a live animal area. To live as we once did, from what the earth provides.” Marcel would like to feed “King Abdullah of Jordan, with his wife, for dinner. He is a model democrat with European opinions and education who knows how to appreciate culinary culture. I would be happy for him to eat my salami.”
They say that they do not feel expanding veganism. “It doesn’t affect us,” says Marcel. “The market is headed in this direction, but also simultaneously in the direction of strictness about the quality of salami and meat, and that is to our benefit. Whoever would buy salamis of other companies might go in the vegan direction, but whoever buys from us is a faithful client. And even a few vegetarians who had a stroke and had to start eating meat have come to us—it’s easier for them to eat salami rather than steak because of its shape and form.”
What about the health issue? “For anyone with a cholesterol problem, meat is not healthy. But all we have is meat and spices, not skin and bones of ground chicken, and we have no more than 9% fat. So my salami is indeed healthy salami. And my personal cholesterol condition is excellent. It’s genetic; my dad would eat meat with 30% fat, and he had no problem. True, I had gastric band surgery, but that’s because of the quantities of carbohydrates and mayonnaise that I ate. Meat is not fattening; the additives are fattening.”
They are both members of the Butchers Guild in Switzerland, the occupation’s hall of fame, which had already been founded in 1248. Until 1900, it was closed to Jews, and today there are only 70 members, including both Hesses. Over the years they have accumulated 30 medals from prestigious salami contests in Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Austria, and others, and Marcel Hess is satisfied overall. “I’m sure that my ancestors are proudly watching the plant from paradise,” he says.” “They would have been proud to know that he is continuing to produce and prosper, and no less important, that he is doing this in Israel. I would like to see the place continue growing under Doron. I am counting on him to succeed and trust that he will also have a generation of successors.”
Somehow, they always have a generation of successors. “We don’t force anyone, and somehow, everyone eventually comes in. Call it family democracy. Everyone gets a choice—and chooses to stay.” v
This article originally appeared in Calcalist Supplement, July 24, 2014. To learn more, visit www.hess1795.ch.
By Tal Miller