Johannesburg-based confectioners Ooh La La scooped up four gongs at the Great Taste Awards, which took place in the UK on Monday. This comes in the wake of their 2014 Eat Out Zonnebloem Produce Awardin the confectionery category earlier this year. Sarah Graham caught up with Ooh La La owner Karen Schneid-Liberman.
I didn’t quite know what to expect from a conversation with Karen, the highly qualified advocate turned confectionery queen with an intimidating double-barrelled surname and cover-model looks. I certainly didn’t expect to be utterly enchanted by her energy and passion for what she does.
From the bar to candy bars
Karen’s journey began with a trip to France in the summer of 1993, in a story that reads much like a modern-day fairytale. In the summer sunshine she fell in love with one of the famous Provençal delicacies, the calisson, and decided that she’d like to learn to make them. Karen tackled the challenge with all the determination, perfectionism and meticulousness of an advocate. She enrolled in the very best pâtisserie schools in France, and learnt everything and anything that there was to know about the craft – and chucked in French lessons for good measure. Soon, Karen found herself so wrapped up in a world of exquisite artisan confectionery that it overtook her life at the bar, and so Ooh La La was born.
Awards and gold stars
Karen very generously shared some of her treats with me, and when I opened the beribboned box I fell hopelessly in love. I was astounded by the pecan pebbles (pecan nuts set in salted butter caramel) and melt-in-the-mouth pistachio and rosewater Turkish delight. You really can taste Karen’s perfectionism and passion in every bite.
No wonder, then, that Ooh La La took home the 2014 Eat Out Zonnebloem Produce Award in the confectionery category in April. All the judges were impressed, with judge Deena Naidoo gushing, “The entire range is delightful. The salted caramels are perfect and the marshmallows really deliver on taste.”
Most recently, Ooh La La took home prizes at the prestigious Great Taste Awards in London. This is one of the UK’s largest food competitions, with 400 judges who tasted over 10 000 products over a period of 50 days. Four out of four of Karen’s submissions were awarded gold stars, with her Spanish turrón nougat claiming a double-gold star.
In addition to the new logos from Great Taste endorsing her products, Karen will also supply the very discerning London store Harvey Nichols – and can hardly make and ship her products fast enough.
Behind the scenes
So how does a new product develop? “It finds me,” Karen says, all beguiling and sincere. “I wish I could stop or slow down, but the inspiration is endless.”
Her work also involves a fair amount of moving around. In between taste-testing and running the show at her Joburg headquarters, Karen also travels extensively with her daughters Saffron and Scarlet in tow, visiting artisan confectioners and honing her knowledge and skills.
The latest stop on their hit list? Japan. Watch out for her brand-new Japanese white chocolate infused with matcha (a very pure and flavour-rich form of powdered green tea) coming to Ooh La La outlets soon. Karen reckons it’s the best thing she’s made to date, and I can’t wait to taste it.
So what does Karen eat when she’s not savouring sweet treats? Her favourite simple supper is roast chicken – but it has to be proper roast chicken, of course. Over the past few years she’s visited 19 out of 20 of the top restaurants in Paris that claim to serve the finest roast chook.
That’s Karen for you: if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. She’s a relentless alchemist who will stop at nothing to create her perfect confections.