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Sweet or savoury? Why not have both…

Sweet or savoury? Why not have both…

by Clare Gazzard 24 July 2015

We’re very used to eating our foods in a certain order, the sweet must follow the savoury, and yet there are many foods and dishes out there that buck the trend and bridge this gap. Are our courses merging into one? When there’s a sorbet on your starter, and soy sauce in your dessert, it’s sometimes hard to tell.

The idea of blurring the lines between sweet and savoury is actually nothing new, although it does seem to be the dish du jour for many top chefs, restaurants, pop ups and producers around the world.

Let’s start with bacon jam; bacon is salty and meaty, jam is pure fruit and sugar. On paper the two are clear opposites, but you know what they say, opposites do attract. The Americans have been serving their bacon stacked high with pancakes and smothered in maple syrup for years. Our traditional breakfast brown sauce is heavily sweetened with brown sugar, molasses, dates and other fruit; and surely a chutney is just a savoury form of jam as well…? So, really not that revolutionary after all.

Continuing on the breakfast theme, London restaurant Duck & Waffle is famous for just that, a confit duck leg served with waffles and mustard maple syrup. Perhaps not such an unusual pairing when duck naturally pairs well with sweet flavours, such as the classic Duck a L'Orange, or with other fruits such as cherries or passion fruit, while maple syrup and honey are commonly used to create a sticky glaze on anything from vegetables to salmon, and cod to gammon.

With honey-roasted carrots in mind, this vibrant veg has its finger in many sweet and savoury pies; or cakes to be more precise. A carrot cake is one of the staples of any bakery display, while in Indian cuisine, it forms the basis of several classic desserts, including the sugary, cardamom-fragranced fudge, gajar halwa. Courgette and parsnip cakes are now also a common site, and the earthy combination of beetroot with chocolate, in brownies, cakes and desserts, is positively old hat. Avocado is having its sweet moment, as the go-to luxury ingredient for many vegan, or health-inspired desserts, lending its creamy flesh to anything from parfaits to mousses, and cheesecakes to ice creams. The ice factor is applicable to many vegetables, with sorbets and ice creams adorning both sweet and savoury plates. The vibrancy of a beetroot or carrot sorbet is something hard to miss.

Taking the other half of nature’s bounty, fruit often finds its way into savoury dishes, and has been doing so across the world for centuries. Here we don’t bat an eye at serving apple sauce with a pork roast dinner, cranberry sauce at Christmas, or figs or quince with cheese; while in America, the traditional dish of Maryland chicken is baked with bananas. A traditional North African tagine nearly always includes dried apricots, and matching couscous dishes are often adorned with dried fruit and jewel-like pomegranate seeds. In the Caribbean, 'green figs' (not actual figs, but rather unripened bananas) are a national treasure and staple ingredient in anything from salads to pies. Exotic pineapple and mango salsas often adorn freshly grilled fish and meats, while mango chutney is the classic accompaniment to an Indian curry, as is the sweet, coconutty Peshwari naan.

Asian cuisine in general holds one of the fundamental keys to the careful balance of sweet and sour flavours, where they put a lot of emphasis on the combination of the five different aspects of taste: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. To take a commercial condiment, sweet chilli sauce is a classic mixed example, with sugar, vinegar, salt and fish sauce being key to bringing the balance – too sweet, and it’s really just a sticky red syrup. Many dishes are finished with a hit of lime juice to add a sour tang, while palm sugar may be added to pastes to imbue sweetness. Soy sauce adds a hit of umami and a saltiness all in one, and thus is often used in cooking, or served as a dipping sauce alongside.

Whether you’re prepared to go as far as a Roquefort doughnut or a chocolate and mushroom mille feuille, or if a Hawaiian pizza is more your limit, it seems as though savoury sweets, and sweet savouries, are part and parcel of exploring our culinary past, present and future.

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