THE FINAL WORD
Desserts should be treated with disdain, says Tony Naylor. Order another starter instead – chefs will thank you
Our columnist Tony Naylor says it’s time we ditched dessert for something classier
Like the birth of a child or surviving a near-death experience, the first time you muster up the courage to order a second starter, instead of dessert, is – well, for we foodists at least – life-changing. I vividly remember the first time I crossed that Rubicon, at the Old Bore near Halifax, a pub sadly no longer with us (note: falling pudding sales were not a factor in its closure). My request for welsh rarebit rather than panna cotta was met with surprised, murmuring satisfaction by staff. They got it.
This bloke knew his own mind. He would not be fobbed off with the frivolous razzle-dazzle of pudding.
It felt liberating. A new maturity pulsed through my veins. I refuse to accept the bourgeois convention that I must order a dessert after my main – and what of it, world? Who can stop me? Well, chefs can, if they are cleaning down the kitchen and pastry is the only section still working. But generally, kitchens happily accommodate my requests for a late-night scotch egg or cheese soufflé.
Why? Because many chefs share my dessert disdain. Desserts, they will tell you, lack the savoury realm’s complex flavours and potential for self-expression. They are an easy, sugar-laden win. Making them is, whisper it, a bit girly. Some of that is true, some of it (sexist) nonsense. Pastry is actually a highly technically demanding discipline and as Gareth Ward’s treacle tart at Ynyshir in Wales proves
(it is made with miso, wagyu beef fat, blackened breadcrumbs), dessert can be seriously, gastronomically ambitious. But do I ever order one? Almost never.
Crap desserts have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In restaurants, the responsibility for pastry is often given to younger staff or handled, grudgingly, by someone who would rather be cooking the glamorous proteins. Naturally, quality suffers. Even when kitchens take pride in their desserts, they cannot get past the in-built restrictions of the form. Desserts operate in a relatively narrow spectrum of both flavours (how far can you take chocolate and cherries?) and textures (all those creamy dollops, from crème brûlée to Eton Mess). They lack the resonance and evolving interplay of savoury courses.
That’s why pastry chefs spend so much time on the visual aspects of their craft: ornate sugar work, endless layers, edible gold. It is classic misdirection. In this case from the fact that their work, as we say at Naylor Towers (usually about doughnuts), ‘is not worth the calories’.
Arguably, we have simply evolved past pudding. In 2017, we crave light, zippy, contrasting flavours. Who wants to finish a meal with sticky toffee pudding?
Interestingly, a significant minority of new restaurants offer just one or two simple dessert options (tiny pastel de nata, say, or scoops of good ice cream). London’s Thai barbecue restaurant Kiln has ditched dessert entirely. Modern diners are not that bothered.
Personally – the glories of a fine cheeseboard aside –
I crave a revival of the savoury course, those salty, curried, on-toast snacks, such as scotch woodcock, that were served instead of dessert in 19th-century gentlemen’s clubs. When contemporary chefs have revisited the savoury course (RIP Will Holland’s hot cheese tarts at Ludlow’s La Bécasse), it has been amazing.
Until then, I can only urge: join me. Order a sausage roll for dessert. Defy convention. It tastes incredible.