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From Proust to Ottolenghi via tables and websites

"How can we use food as a tool to create beautiful memories for ourselves and our loved ones? This blog is to help us to create those moments that someday, someone in our lives will be transported back to by a nibble or a whiff." Dorina/The Proustian Table

This began as one of those website posts - the website in question being The Proustian Table whose logo is shown here. It's written by a woman called Dorina who has Italian parents who first immigrated to Argentina where she spent her childhood, and then to America where she now lives. Like Proust, who has a somewhat desultory image, the posts on her website do not appear to have been very regular - perhaps every couple of months at its height, but there hasn't been anything since July 24 2021, so I guess we can assume it is now dead. She did not persevere like Proust. In fact, having now browsed a bit more I see that for a while the posts were two or three a month, until mid 2020 and then we just have the last one a year later. There are not actually that many because I think the earliest may be February 2019. There are Facebook and Instagram sites too, but they too are just as old in terms of input. There's a story there somewhere. I wonder what.

I do not now know how I came across it, but the title intrigued - being a fan of Proust - even though I have only read the first, second and last volumes of his magnum opus. And I really, really should have a go at the rest of its because his writing is so limpid, so evocative - so much like the Impressionist painters - but in words. Proust is all about memory of course, and by now you will have realised I'm a tiny bit obsessed with memory myself. I even wrote a mini thesis on memory in children's literature once. And as Dorina, and many, many others say, food is inextricably linked to memory, in so many very different ways. So it's a good title for a website.

It's a rather beautiful site - heavily illustrated with rather beautiful photographs that I'm assuming that she took herself. Moreover the text and the page is not littered with ads. So this is not a career attempt I'm guessing. Just something to play at. A recipe plus some ramblings that the recipe evokes. A bit like me, except that I can never restrain myself and get into lists of recipes.

So I decided to look at one of her recipes - Spiced home-made tagliatelle/Comfort in Chaos. All of her recipes have a subtitle which is an indicator of her 'ramble' of the day. In this case it was about COVID lockdown and the comfort of making pasta at home. And what do you know? - it's an Ottolenghi recipe - Saffron pappardelle with spiced butter which made me realise that you can't read many food sites without sooner or later coming across Ottolenghi, as in the 'old days' you would have encountered Julia Child or Elizabeth David and so on.

It's a recipe from his book Plenty, and seemingly pretty popular with various bloggers who rave about it. You don't have to make your own pasta, although you may find it difficult to buy saffron pasta. No problem says Ottolenghi - just bung some saffron in your pasta cooking water. It's one of those recipes with a longish list of ingredients which might put you off, but which in fact is super easy in terms of the sauce because you basically just cook your butter with a whole lot of spices and then top the whole thing at the end with some herbs and pine nuts. I'm going to try it soon, And I will make my own pasta because it looks so beautiful. I do have a machine, but, as he says, it's pretty easy to roll your pasta out thin enough.

Whilst googling the saffron pasta, I, of course, came across another, even more popular Ottolenghi recipe Saffron pasta with chipotle shallots and pickled chillies which I would also love to have a go at, but probably won't because of the chipotle and the chillies. They would not be popular in this house. Both of these recipes are pure Ottolenghi in the unexpected combinations of ingredients, that cause his admirers to rhapsodise - e.g.:

"there are several layers of deliciousness in this dish. Namely, fresh pasta, crispy shallots, pickled chiles and creamy ricotta. Within each and every layer, I can write chapters and verses on its special attributes. However, any explanation is prone to fall short on the actual experience of how superbly delicious the saffron tagliatelle comes together as a whole. You’ve got to make it to taste it." Ever Open Sauce

You would think that there would be many different versions of saffron pasta, and there are a few out there, but honestly not as many as you might think - mostly it was all Ottolenghi - plus at the really extreme end, one from El Bulli of molecular gastronomy fame in which the pasta was actually made with jellied consommé. Interesting - well in an academic kind of way - but not tempting enough to try. You can find the recipe for Saffron tagliatelle of consommeé on a website called Molecular Recipes. Pretty, but tasty? I wonder.

And just to prove that Ottolenghi is everywhere I decided to check out one of Dorina's sweet recipes - Apricot compôte with green almonds/At the core - mostly, it has to be said because the green almonds revived a memory of my own - of Simone, my young French exchange student who used to eat the green almonds from a tree in the garden of the village town hall in which she lived. I couldn't understand why she would do that, and declined her offer to try. I was not an adventurous teenager.

I don't think this is a recipe you will be able to make here in Australia unless you have an almond tree in your garden, because I don't think I have ever seen green almonds on sale here. Dorina does, of course, say you can use ordinary flaked almonds instead, but it won't be quite the same. Inspired by the fact that Ottolenghi had already come up I wondered if he had done anything with green almonds - and yes, of course he has!

"Almonds picked at this time of year are often raw and green. They consist of an inner core, which turns into the familiar dried almonds, and a fuzzy outer skin that comes off later in the season. In the eastern Med, green almonds are eaten in their entirety. They are intensely sharp and really wake the tastebuds. You can eat them as they are, just dipped in salt, but I prefer them sliced and added to salads." Ottolenghi

Firstly I just found an Instagram picture and a throwaway couple of lines from the man himself:

"Playing with green almonds today. Here, simply with lamb's lettuce, garlic and lemon juice. #testkitchen

And then I found the recipe for Green almond salad in The Guardian. He says you can substitute ordinary almonds but I really don't think so in this case. I mean they are the whole reason for the salad aren't they?

I wonder if Ottolenghi's moment in the sun will go into the shade? Will he and his team run out of ideas? Will somebody else replace them? I confess that every time I make something from one of his books - something that happens with increasing frequency I find - I almost feel guilty for being unadventurous, even though, of course, the reason I turn to him and his crew is for exactly that sense of adventure and originality.

Dorina does offer us recipes of her own - like the apricots, and she also references other cooks other than Ottolenghi, but it is interesting how many of us are so influenced by the man. Which is not to say that he can do no wrong. Of course he can - I have had a couple of disappointments along the way.

As for Proust - his influence continues to crop up in all manner of places. This is a Proust side table, although what makes it distinctly Proustian I have no idea. Well the designers justify it thus:

"Marcel Proust once said that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”, and so we’re calling it “Proust”! Texeira Design Studio/Bēhance

I will leave you with this wonderful photograph of Proust dining alone at the Ritz. Totally alone. He looks as if he has commandeered the entire restaurant and its staff just for himself.

Singular - like Ottolenghi - and a little bit like a short-lived website called The Proustian Table.

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