View Full Version : Why a Swiss Village Makes Halal Pastry

Sunday, September 14th, 2008, 07:53 PM
A Swiss village is churning out puff pastry that adheres to strict Islamic food guidelines and is exported half way across the world. It's all part of the growing global demand for halal food products.

Walter Leisi is holding two rolled cylinders of dough in his hands, each wrapped in glossy foil, one labeled in French and the other in Arabic. Each package contains the same puff pastry, a concoction of 196 layers of flour, margarine, butter, water and salt -- the same, but for one difference, a tiny but decisive difference: one is preserved with alcohol and the other with potassium sorbate.

They taste the same, but they smell somewhat different. The dough preserved with potassium sorbate smells "slightly more cheesy," says Walter Leisi, 63, a jolly Swiss man wearing a purple short-sleeved shirt and a gold watch. Leisi is the director of a Nestlé plant in the Swiss town of Wangen bei Olten. He is also the inventor of Leisi-Quick, the world's first ready-made puff pastry, which is packaged on baking paper and sold in refrigerated, but not frozen, form and is thus ready for baking. The factory produces more than 41,000 tons of freshly made dough a year, an enormous quantity.

But in the case of Leisi-Quick, the real issue is not taste or smell, but God's will.

More and more Muslims are choosing a devout lifestyle, and this includes strict observance of the dietary restrictions in the Koran, which classify food as being either "halal" or "haram," allowed or forbidden. Pork, blood and alcohol are haram. This sounds straightforward enough, but in an era of modern food production, observing these restrictions is anything but easy. Forbidden foods are hidden in products like bouillon, gelatin and spice mixtures. Many preservatives are made with alcohol, the glue used in packaging can contain animal fats and pig bristles can turn up in production equipment. The alcohol used in puff pastry is haram, and although it evaporates during baking, a small residue is left behind.

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I wasn't expecting to hear this, giving in to Muslim customs, about Switzerland too. It seemed a little more conservative.