Meet the Maker
From a law career to 'Ooh La La': How confectioner's life is sweeter now
Joburg advocate Karen Schneid tells us about coming out of the courtroom to devote her full heart to her confectionary and its array of sweet treats
The inspiration behind Ooh La La Artisan Confectionery started about 10 years ago, when I was still an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar and in the middle of a high-powered commercial case. To my absolute delight, Thrupps in Illovo, Johannnesburg, had started to sell my nougat and it was amazing to see my confection translate into a product on the shelves. I would rush from the courts in my legal gown to stand at the back of a retailer together with the people offloading merchandise from trucks to deliver my nougat.
It all came to a head a little while later, when in the middle of a legal case I found myself thinking about different flavours to try for my marshmallows. It was at that moment that I realised I needed to come out of the confectionery closet and devote my full heart and soul to realising what I had thought could only ever be a dream.
I'm an unashamed Francophile and have been visiting France since I was a little girl, and I think what attracted me to the confectionery culture is the layers of history attached to much of French confectionery. I am a perpetual student, and part of what makes Ooh La La so exciting is that the field of confectionery and the scope of learning is endless.
I love all the products I make, although there are some with a particular place in my heart like our nutty French nougat, a Spanish turrón, a hard nougat, which we make covered in the finest Belgian chocolate. And our pecan pebble mixture in salted caramel is an all-round favourite. Some of the confections have become deeply sentimental - one of my homemade marshmallow flavours is smothered in a salted caramel sauce and enrobed in Belgian milk chocolate and named after my daughter Scarlett, the Scarlett Molten.
Ooh La La is about excellence from ingredient origin to production and packaging, where every single ingredient has years of research behind it. I always try and source local ingredients first, like the pecan nuts from a farm in the Vaal area, to a single-origin orange blossom honey. The liquorice root comes from a market in Provence, the mint from Piedmont and the vanilla beans from Madagascar.
I think Ooh La La Confectionery is entirely about love, from start to finish. When I think about the love that has been poured into the creation of every confection, it makes me feel that people are bound to taste that love, the research, effort and creativity in their enjoyment of the products.
The highest praise we've received about our products is something any food producer could dream of. Apart from the UK Great Taste Awards I really felt I had arrived when a woman who runs one of the finest confectionery stores, Á l'Etoile d'Or in Paris, praised my calissons, an Ooh La La speciality which is a traditional French confection of a sweet, smooth, pale yellow paste of candied fruit topped with almond paste and finished off with a thin layer of royal icing.
When I started to make them I took them to her every year for her feedback. I was so committed to getting this complex confection right that one day I took my calisson to her, she sipped water to clear her palate, sampled the product and said, "Karen, now your calissons are also one of the best."
The UK Great Taste Awards are considered the Oscars of the food industry, a trusted benchmark for any food producer, and winning this recognition as judged by a panel of top chefs is praise indeed. In the 2020 awards we achieved a first - a double gold star for two of our calisson products - the traditional and one dipped in dark chocolate which makes us the only calisson producer in the world to have received such a high ranking.
It gives me a kick to think that perhaps the very best Provençal confection in the world is actually produced by a confectioner in SA! In 2019, we received double gold for our nougat and in the 2020 awards our fig and walnut nougat brought home a double gold, a title shared with a Spanish nougat company, an accolade we as a company of 18 employees celebrate.
THE CALISSON LEGEND
During the scourge of the bubonic plague in the 1500s the people of Provence turned to Nostradamus, the French astrologist and physician, to share any remedies he had to help ward off the disease. His belief was that candied fruit was filled with healing properties.
The story goes that a chef in the town of Aix-en-Provence followed Nostradamus' advice when he combined candied melon and orange rind, mixed them with ground almonds and placed the mixture onto a piece of wafer paper, covered with a royal glaze - thus creating the calisson.
The healing confections were handed out in church at every mass, in place of the traditional communion wafer, and the priest made a vow declaring that if the people of Aix were spared from the plague they would hold an annual ceremony in gratitude to God's kindness. Sure enough, the town was spared, and every year since then, on the first Sunday in September, a ceremony called the Benediction des Calissons d'Aix is held to commemorate how the people were saved from the ravages of the plague - and the role of the calisson at the centre of it all.