I’ll never forget the first time I experienced Yotam Ottolenghi’s divine house of lusciousness in London, Islington.
I can’t call it a café because his is a seduction. Ottolenghi doesn’t prepare salads, he creates temptations laid bare upon painted ceramic platters staggered at differing heights and depths to induce the feeling that this is not lunch we’re considering, but some kind of culinary rite of passage:
A sand-fine cone of couscous plumped with pumpkin and feathered with fresh herbs; the dramatic sheen of pomegranate seeds topping charred sprawls of eggplant; jewelled chunks of pink grapefruit kissing up to rocket, roast beetroot and pistachio-sprinkled feta.
And the breads! Rosemary topped. Garlic infused. Brioche puffed and plump.
Ottolenghi handles food like Botticelli painted nudes – with a connoisseur’s eye and a sensualist’s hunger.
There were desserts there, too, from stacks of his signature powder-puff meringues to petite Alice in Wonderland-style tartlets topped with everything from raspberries to delicate lemon curd meringue. But the fact these last treats were made with sugar and butter and flour was by the by: in Ottolenghi’s world, these foods are simply offered as a celebratory full stop. The “ta-da!” element, as he describes, to round out a joyful meal.
To read Ottolenghi’s first column for the New York Times is to understand what maturity and nuance can contribute to our understanding of current discussions around sugar.
"Admitting to a sweet tooth these days seems rather illicit, what with sugar cast in the role of Public Enemy No. 1. But here is my confession: I rarely go a day without a slice or bite or square of something sweet," he wrote. But it's not just for the sugar, he explains. "Rather, it’s the comfort, surprise and delight that dessert, or any food, can bring, that ideal match of the right dish and the right moment."
His is a sophisticated view in an arena where the aggressive arc of the pendulum’s return allows for little in the way of subtlety.
When I was young, Mum and Dad made our nightly meals from scratch. Of course we never talked about the benefits of this approach because ‘from scratch’ was the norm. Dad’s Kashmiri sabzis. Mum’s lasagne. Though both exceptional cooks neither were bakers and so dessert – and we had it nearly nightly – was normally a small bowl of Peter’s vanilla ice cream.
I cook from scratch but I also bake. My kids appreciate something sweet in their lunchbox and I appreciate something sweet after dinner – it’s a win-win.
My current list rotates between a diving Dutch butter cake, a super moist chocolate and zucchini cake, ad hoc Anzac biscuits (made with whatever’s in the cupboard), and a tooth achingly sweet batch of chocolate Christmas balls whose recipe came in to our lives courtesy of my eldest son’s participation in his schools Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program.
My kids know about food but they also know about sweetness. They can deftly (well, almost) roll out a chapatti with the same care and attention that they direct toward pulling together the ingredients for their favourite cake.
To read Ottolenghi’s column is to understand how complex and yet how separate the relationship of sweetness to culture and sugar to health.
Sweetness to culture is the memory of Grandma’s ethereal sponge cake filled with homemade strawberry jam and fresh whipped cream served as Sunday afternoon tea following lunch of homemade sausage rolls and her signature chicken chow mein.
Sugar to health is the chocolate Freddo frog I grab at the supermarket register and eat while pushing the shopping trolley to my car.
These are not the same things.
Ottolenghi and his words firmly support the former.
The World Health Organisations warnings and directives concerning sugar consumption (primarily in the developed Western world) refer to the latter.
Establishing that nuance is important because it allows an alternative idea to emerge. That being, it’s not that our society has a problem with sugar, but that we have a problem with consumption. And that this problem is not with that we consume, but with what consumes US.
Work. Screens. Success.
This is not me standing on a soap box, this is me standing on the chocolate box we all want to open when we get home – late, stressed, too tired to cook – after another stressful day.
Ottolenghi combines salty and sweet in this delicious cheesecake with cherries and crumble
When Ottolenghi writes and speaks about food, he does so from a space that supports self-nurture and the nurture of those we love as being of greater significance than the desire to advance ourselves socially, commercially or fiscally.
And yet his is not an economic equation, but a cultural one:
Returning to Melbourne after years spent living in Paris, the greatest shock for me was not having to drive everywhere or the absence of a good lunchtime dessert, but the change from living in a culture where making time for food and connection was intrinsic to the notion of what constituted a good and productive life.
The type of cooking to which Ottolenghi and his dessert column subscribes is a type of cooking which requires this kind of consideration. A consideration that allocates time so that we may think and prepare and consider what we’re hungry for. What we need. What will generate connection to those with whom we’re eating. And – because we ARE talking about food – what will bring us a healthy kind of pleasure.
The debate over sugar needs this perspective. I know that, for my part, acknowledging the cultural and philosophical difference between sweetness and sugar means that – just like Yotam Ottolenghi – I can happily bake my cakes and continue to eat them, too.
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It all starts with a sweet orange syrup and then these ricotta and soft goat's cheese fritters get a dusting and a drizzling. The amount of pork lard that goes into a real ensaimada makes my version seem as wholesome as kale salad. Don’t be fooled though; this is a luxurious treat you can serve warm (it heats up well) at the end of a meal, alongside lightly sweetened Greek yoghurt with some grated orange zest folded through.
It all starts with a sweet orange syrup and then these ricotta and soft goat's cheese fritters get a dusting and a drizzling.
The amount of pork lard that goes into a real ensaimada makes my version seem as wholesome as kale salad. Don’t be fooled though; this is a luxurious treat you can serve warm (it heats up well) at the end of a meal, alongside lightly sweetened Greek yoghurt with some grated orange zest folded through.