Ticking off the holy trinity of sugar, salt and fat – salted caramel is the class A drug of the confectionery world, says Nigella Lawson.
I am in the middle of a love affair with salted caramel. It’s heady, it’s passionate, it may – like the stalker’s obsessive focus – not be entirely healthy, but I take the view that few in this world have the luxury to be blasé about pleasure. There’s simply not enough of it about for us to gainsay what gifts are offered up for our enjoyment. True, for many, self-denial has its own exquisite agony, but I am not among their number. For me, a “more is more” kind of a person, I don’t want merely to experience pleasure, I want to wallow in it – gloriously and gratefully – while it lasts.
And this salted caramel thing has lasted. I am moving beyond the personal here. The history books have yet to be written, but all evidence points to the birth of salted caramel as being in late Seventies Brittany. The soon-to-be-trademarked (1981) Caramel au Beurre Salé made perfect geo-culinary sense, as salted butter from Brittany was a long-established speciality of the region. At this stage, however, salted caramel existed predominantly as a piece of confectionery, however exalted. But fast forward a decade, and Pierre Hermé, the French pâtissier known as “The Picasso of Pastry”, had created the salted caramel macaroon and there has been a sticky drip-drip of salted caramel ever since.
My first taste of this elixir was in the form of one of the liquid-centred, wafer-thin chocolate Os from L’Artisan du Chocolat quite a few years ago. In fact, they could be said to have started the salted caramel trend here, producing their first in 2003. Now they sell 50,000 boxes a year – more than any other chocolate on their production line.
Not since the first ever infant suckled at its mother’s breast had a food – it felt – had so much instant impact. If I’d been in a cartoon, my eyes would have bulged, stars would have emanated from my head, and I would have been licking my saliva-spurting lips wolfishly. It’s not a pretty picture, but I’m afraid an all-too-accurate description of what was actually the case. The best way I can describe this glory is that it was like an After Eight taken to some definitely grown-up and more heavenly arena: the chocolate casing consisting of two spheres, pressed together, dark and bitter, and trapped within not some sweet and sticky mint fondant, but a fierce golden trickle of a substance at once sweet, smokey, salty and utterly, indescribably beguiling.
But if salted caramel came upon me like an epiphany, in truth I’d discovered the fatal lure of the sweet-salt axis some time before.
I’d always said to people that I didn’t really have a sweet tooth, but a salt tooth; given the choice between a chocolate cake and a whole baguette slathered with deliquescent, almost spookily saline blue cheese, it would be the savoury latter every time. Not, though, that I believe the realm of eating should be an either/or universe. But then I discovered something better than sweet, something better than salty. It was the two of them together. And not just the two of them, but one extra, indispensable ingredient: for what makes salted caramel, and its ilk, so irresistible is not so much a pairing, but a rapturous ménage a trois. Nothing, but nothing, can beat the holy trinity of fat, sugar and salt. It is Aristotle’s Golden Mean in food form.
Detractors point out that when sugar, salt and fat are ramped up in combination with another, the foodstuff in question has an effect on the human brain rather like drugs. In a heady combination, they stimulate neurons, which release dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure centre, which in turn makes us want to eat more. There is an explosiveness to this combination that does get the pulse racing and the adrenaline flowing. Part of this is down to the immoderate intensity of the flavours: the combination is somehow so surprising, and yet so compelling.
"I don't merely want to experience pleasure, I want to wallow in it"
It’s not all physiological either. Seeking balance is one of the mantras of our age, and there is something thrilling about having this somehow subverted. Yes, there is balance, but it is in the most nutritionally unacceptable way possible: instead of banishing or even reducing these demons of the age – sugar, salt and saturated fat – we choose to have them in bold and loud harmony; they are all present and incorrect. Eating this Class A foodstuff in the form of a handful of salted caramel truffles, a slab of sea-salted milk chocolate or, another heady favourite of mine, a turtle sundae (think vanilla ice cream, salted syrup-sticky pecans, caramel and hot fudge sauce) is not so much breaking the rules as spectacularly flouting them.
That is not the only reason you will be told it is to be disparaged. Nutritionists are hardly going to recommend it, but we’ll come back to that later. No, I’m afraid that there are some stars of the food firmament who will be perhaps just slightly sneery. And what’s the problem? They got there first.
FOOD FOR THE SOUL
There is something inescapably snobbish about the ebb and flow of food fashions. Take for example, right now, the hushed reverence for ingredients both local and seasonal. There is nothing wrong in this, in and of itself. In fact, it is so self-evidently laudable as almost not to be worthy of examination. But when out-of-season foods were expensive luxuries available only to the rich, these recherché delicacies were thought to be signs of refinement; only peasants were restricted to foods of the season that were grown locally. Now that supermarkets supply the exotically unseasonal to the masses, the elite must regroup. What seems to emanate from ecological concerns is all-too-often anti-egalitarianism in action.
Now, no-one could even begin to couch any conversation about trends in confectionery in ethical-philosophical terms, but even so, I can’t help noticing that when you had to go to some recherché French chocolatier for your salted caramel, those who raved about it felt that it reflected well on their refined and recondite tastes. There’s a certain embarrassment about their enthusiasm now that Tesco boasts sea-salted caramel melting puddings and Asda offers salted caramel yoghurt. But my feeling is that those who are anxiously after the next trend now that their little salted caramel secret’s out, don’t deserve it anyway. Or rather, let them fuss about fads, as long as I can be left with the food.
And maybe it was never quite right to posit this particular salt-sweet combo as a novelty act in the first place. What we do know is that all animals, us included, have an instinctive drive towards the sweet, the salty and the fatty. It is built into our tastebuds as a matter of survival – salt is essential and we can’t generate it; sweetness tends to be a signal that a foodstuff is edible. We need fat to live.
What is interesting in such flavour combinations as salted caramel is that you taste the saltiness, taste the sweetness, taste them together and yet experience them separately: these two opposites do not actually co-mingle; they tingle away in conjunction. True, the salt balances the bitterness you might otherwise get from the caramel, in a dovetailed way, but that aside this is more like some sort of molecular gastronomy magic than cooking.
Salt-sweet combinations have been a staple ever since people cooked: this was a flavour conjunction favoured by the Romans, the Ancient Chinese, the Moors and so on for the whole of human history. Nowhere is this more apparent than in that great contemporary taste-maker, America. It might well be that salted caramel started in rural France, but it is in America that it really took off.
"Let them fuss about the fads - as long as I can be left with the food"
Once Starbucks offers a seasonal special Salted Caramel Mocha (made with espresso, steamed milk, mocha sauce and toffee nut syrup, topped with whipped cream, a caramel drizzle), – as it started doing some years back – you know this has hit the big time. It’s now a bestseller.
I first experienced America’s passion for mixing sweet and salt in a diner some decades ago when I ordered the pancake stack topped with crisp bacon and maple syrup. From there on in, my tastebuds were taken. When my children were small, our family idea of a treat was the three of us lying in bed watching a DVD, each of us with a white chocolate Magnum in one hand and a packet of tangy salt and vinegar crisps in the other. More recently, I have encountered chocolate-covered bacon and, in turn, countered that with some badass bacon brownies of my own. In truth, these sound odder than they taste. Think deep, dark fudgey chocolate flecked with caramelised salty shards.
To some extent, I admit that here the holy trinity (or unholy trinity, in most people’s eyes) of sugar, salt and fat is not at its most elevated. I do try and keep the cocoa-content high and the flavours full-throated, but I am all too aware of what made my cameraman once call my sweet and salty peanut crunch bars “the crack-cocaine of the culinary world”. It’s known as “hyperpalatability” in the junk food trade. That’s to say, if you tweak the sweetness, the saltiness and the fattiness that supplies “mouth-feel” to just the right (high) levels, food does something alarming to our brains, something that neuroscientists can register, that turns pleasurable hunger into destructive addiction. If you get it just right, you reach what is known as “the bliss point”.
I feel this is the point I’ve reached. But here’s the deal. I don’t deny my baser tastes, but for me the true lure of salted caramel is that it’s so very distinct from the mass-produced confectionery that mixes sweet fatty hardly-chocolate with bath-scourer salt. I am aware that a certain amount of salt-snobbery has become prevalent, and some swanky New York restaurants have been known to employ Salt Sommeliers, but much as I hate to number myself among the superiors of the salt-cellars, I’m afraid I must. The quality of the salt makes all the difference. A lifelong Maldon girl, who more recently fell for the rosy charms of Australian pink Murray River salt, I am now a card-carrying member of the French Fleur de Sel party. No other salt has the right combination of gentleness and pronounced definition, or the exactly perfect size and shape of crystal to add oomph with swagger but nonetheless elegance to an oozing melt of chocolate or an amber, molten pool of caramel.
Despite the rogues’ gallery of ingredients, salt, fat and sugar in the right mixture, of the right quality, has such intensity of flavour that you can’t eat too much in one go. Think proper Italian espresso versus bog-standard instant coffee, and you’ll appreciate the difference. If I’m addicted to salted caramel, it’s no less true that I have no desire to binge on it. But then, no self-respecting hedonist would want to.
And while this particular hedonist wants to make her own salted caramel, the sheer rapturous joy of it is that it’s as much, indeed more, of a treat for consumers than for cooks.
Photography: Matthew Shave