Welcome to the world of Ooh La La. My name is Karen Schneid. For many years I had a flourishing commercial practice at the legal bar in South Africa as an advocate. I loved the law and my work as an advocate; the adrenaline of standing up in court, arguing a case and even sometimes changing law. Even now my closest friends are judges and advocates from that time in my life. Back then, my work community was a cohort of individuals and eccentrics who made my life all the more interesting. And I suppose I was colorful to them too. You see I was a passionate traveler and foodie. In between court cases, I would hop on a plane to Provence or Spain and immerse myself in world cultures. When I look back, I see how fortunate I was: my career as a successful advocate allowed me to travel to interesting places around the world and feed my culinary passion. I also worked for myself which enabled me to do a very big case and then take a month ‘off’ in Paris exploring language and culture. I worked hard, I traveled hard.
The Spark: that little callison
In the summer of ’93 while traveling with my husband David in Aix-en -Provence, I tasted a confection unique to that region, called a callison. It was love at first morsel. Little did I know, but that first taste was the beginning of Ooh La La. I became obsessed with callisons. I’m talking midnight craving, #Ican’tsleeptillIhaveone kind of obsessions. Fast- forward a few years and pregnant with my first child, my obsession was at its worst. Lusting after these highly pedigreed confections, I would make bemused taxi drivers take me around Paris searching for a box of my favourites. Callisons are so specific to Aix-en-Provence that that very few chefs around France ventured to make them. Hence, they weren’t so easy to find, even in France’s food capital, especially after hours. But after frenzied midnight searches, one bite and I would melt. I lived in South Africa so my callison fetish was a little bit of an expensive habit. But, I told myself ‘I am a foodie with a law degree’. So I figured I could learn to make them myself. How hard could it be?! Little did I know that no one outside of Aix-en-Provence had ever commercially produced callisons. For me, learning to make a callison was like taking a step into another world. It required a dedication to learning that included history, culture, language and discovering the deepest love and respect for that most holy of substances: food.
So you might be wondering, what is this callison? Are you ready? A callison is a unique almond shaped confection consisting of three layers, the middle layer is a blend of freshly ground almonds, candied melon and a touch of candied orange peel, set upon edible wafer paper and topped with a thin royal icing glaze. The story of how I learned to make callisons unfolds as a kind of travel trail.I now had a husband and two children but my penchant for travel was as strong as ever. I just had to find the child friendly delights on my travels which wasn’t difficult. On my first callison mission, I took my husband, children and parents and we rented a house in a little village near Aix-en-Provence. Very quickly, I befriended the callisonniers in Aix and began to learn from their oral tradition. I see my time with them as an apprenticeship. The calisonniers were delighted to share information with me. Picture it: a South African, French speaking eccentric who has a lifelong love affair with everything French, travels to their provincial village to understand even more about their age-old traditions and to discover the secrets of their obscure if delicious, confection. Lucky, my dad Jules was with me as a safety net to catch all those highfalutin, technical French terms. The calisonniers became even more intrigued with me. A woman from South Africa determined to make calissons in Johannesburg when you could hardly find them in Paris. I didn’t do such a bad job helping in their factory either.
While learning the art of the callison, I discovered that Aix was not going to be the place where I could master the ingredients; one of the most important being the slow crafting of authentic candied fruit. This is where the travel trail gains momentum, as they pointed me to the next door village, Apt where candied fruit is a specialty and from where Aix obtains their supply. So our next family holiday was booked for none other than Apt and off I went, a brix reading refractometer eagerly in hand, to learn the highly specialized process of candied fruit. In Apt, it emerged that I would need to travel to Cavaillon, the melon heartland, to meet the melon farmers and discern the subtle hues of orange to choose the perfect melon. Only the best melons for calisson would do. On entering the gates of Cavaillon I knew I was in melon heaven, greeted, as we were, by a giant bronze melon in the centre of the town. Pause for a moment and let’s appreciate the layers of depth that go into producing this other-worldly food. Workers in Cavaillon produce the sweetest melons which are transported to Apt where artists perform the sacred duty of candied fruit which are in turn transported to Aix where producers who have been handed down generation-old recipes travail to produce this delicacy. By the way, I don’t need to bring in my melons from Cavaillon. Here in South Africa we produce the most beautiful orange melon called spanspek and at the sweetest, ripest moment of the melon season our entire factory transforms into something reminiscent of my days in Apt.
The callison is a symbol of the slow food movement: It’s the furthest thing from our fast food culture. This idea of sourcing each ingredient from the very best place became one of the foundational values of Ooh La La. There could be no short cuts. I didn’t take a simple recipe from Aix, I took a method and a culture and I relied on my own intuitive sense of taste to construct callisons in South Africa. Once or twice a year, I would bring my callisons to a highly specialized chocolate and confectionery taster called Madame Acabo who owned a little confectionery shop called A L’etoile D’or in Montmarte, near the Moulin Rouge. She was accredited by the French as being the best taster in France. She would taste my callisons. With patience and care, she would offer the most nuanced guidance, a little more citrus, a slightly different ratio of this or that. After years of taking my callisons to her doorstep and learning from her subtle tips, Madam Acabo finally proclaimed that mine was the best callison she had ever tasted. I had arrived. I think this compliment was sweeter to me than praise from the highest judge in the land.
From the callison, I started making confections in my kitchen. I maintained my law practice by day, but at night you could find me in my kitchen, carefully crafting delicacies to perfection. As my interest grew, I snuck off from my day job at every opportunity to travel abroad where I studied advanced confectionery at the Culinary Institute of Lenotre and Lecole Ritz Escoffier and I also took separate courses in the history and chemistry of sugar. I visited the French Biblioteque to study Nostradamus’s mystical theories on sugar, written in his original manuscripts, heavy, dusty, tinged with gold. Yes, he is more well known for his eccentric predictions to the world, but I am indebted to his earlier work as an apothecarist. My ghostly sugar muse, Nostradamus provided me with a foundational knowledge of sugar, a most powerful ingredient, that has given me the freedom to create confections without needing recipes. I sat in a huge, quiet room, the pages illuminated by a library lamp, my one hand on Nostradamus, the other tightly on my French dictionary, taking high-school French to a whole other level. I was very excited to discover that we share a birthday.
Books were one thing, but it was also in the conversations that I acquired a hidden oral tradition, which initiated me into the highly skilled world of French and luxury European confectionery. For example I learned the value of using only single origin honey from one of my teacher’s at Lenotre, called Francois. I have acquired a deep love and respect for bees and their hangouts. Bees in lavender fields will produce lavender honey, bees in chestnut fields will produce a warm, chestnutty honey. You need to choose your flavour honey for your confection. We at Ooh La La are very fussy about our honey, only pure orange blossom honey will do for our nougat, macadamia honey for our caramels and a wildflower honey for Ooh La La’s marshmallows. I remember Francois opening a bottle of pine-cone honey, smelling it and proclaiming ‘Nectar of the gods’.
Life was busy. But one day, in between my demanding law practice and my sweet night time habit, I had a revelation. I was appealing a very important case in front of the Appellate Division of South Africa. The appeals court is definitively one’s moment of professional ‘arrival’ in South Africa. You present a case in front of five pre-eminent judges and the outcome is always law changing. I was loving every second of my career, at the pinnacle of my work, enjoying much success. Yet, that day, as I presented my argument, I realized that my mind was preoccupied with a particular marshmallow flavour combination, Tonka bean and Belgian chocolate. Like a lovely but uninvited visitor, nuances of this flavour combination kept entering my mind. Luckily, I had a good record of winning my cases and not even tonka bean and Belgian chocolate could alter my winning streak. On the flight home, staring out the windows, I realized that as much as I loved the law, my heart had been overtaken by artisanal confectionery. This was a big admission to my self. I had been hiding it for a while. On plane rides for court cases, I would secretly pore over recipe books while my colleagues read the Economist. The marshmallow incident was my chief instigator in deciding to come out from the confectionery closet.
Giving my self more time and freedom to experiment, I started developing other confections; traditional French nougat, gourmet marshmallows, a range of caramelised-nut Pebbles (which quickly became a hot favourite), Turkish Delight and high-end chocolate infused with intriguing flavours. French flavours informed the food and my love of French design inspired the packaging. With French history as my muse, I started dreaming of little characters and stories linked to each confection. The confections were not just a sweet to be eaten but a story to be told, a fantasy to unfold. Ooh La La became not just a product but a world. For example, too young to run the country, Louis the IX stayed in the royal kitchen licking nougat bowls while his mother signed treaties with foreign powers, Napoleon curtailed wars because he longed so greatly for his Pecan Pebbles which he hid behind his signature hand in his breast pocket. Louis the fourteenth implored his wife to share her marshmallows with the people who banging against the gates of Versailles, but she was prepared to let the revolution take its course rather than part with a single marshmallow. And a little chef down south in Provence, developed a confection called the callison for the King of Provence’s unhappy wife which made her smile. These little characters accompanied me through my confectionery creation and have stayed with us inspiring the taste, design and whimsical fun of Ooh La La.
As our reputation grew and the orders came in, we moved from my home kitchen to a factory designed by my husband on our farm style property. Our new little factory felt like the realisation of a dream. It was just as quaint, magical and filled with character as the little family-run confectionery businesses I had fallen in love with during my travels through French villages. If I think about it, it was coming full circle. From those summers in Aix-en-Provence where my family had good-naturedly followed me to learn about a little known confection, I now have a Provencal style factory on my property which is built on all the lessons and all the experiences I’ve gained along the way. If you’ve read this far, you probably love taste, art, story and aesthetic detail as much as I do. This is the story of the origins of the Ooh La La universe.
If you pass by our little factory on any day, you will be drawn in by the sweet smells of bubbling caramel and melted chocolate, the sweet scent of orange blossom honey and the heady aroma of precious vanilla beans as they are scraped from their pods. You may even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of your favourite characters as they whisk around the factory, tasting, testing, encouraging and infusing bits of magic into every confection. When I think back, I feel so grateful to my husband and daughters who have come with me every step of the way, with just a few more smiles than eye rolls.