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Interview: Terri Mercieca, pastry chef

Terri Mercieca is a chocolatier and pastry chef consultant, and is founder of Happy Endings, a luxury artisan ice cream business.


What place does sugar have in your world?

I make sweet things! We use different types of sugar to make out products yummy. It's a fundamental ingredient, we can't make anything without it.

What is the most interesting thing that sugar does?

Sugars act as an agents for change, transforming food into different things . Sugar can crystallise, or it can retard crystallisation. For example in a cookie, sugar creates texture, brown sugar can make it chewy, white sugar can make it crunchy. Moisture content in sugar is really important in baking. It can change the mechanical properties, the crumb structure and texture of the bake, how it freezes, softness, chewiness, rise, and the chemical reaction between other ingredients. It's a preservative; you use glucose in long life products. But not all sugars are equal, you need to use the best tool for the job. There are so many technical sugars - isomalt, dextrose, mannitol, trimoline.

It also changes colour - you can take caramels from pale to dark brown. Visual perception is very important in food; we eat with our eyes first. It's also a seasoning, it brings out or enhances other flavours and balances acidity in food. However, sugar is not the same as sweetening power. The perception of sweetness on the tongue can come from sugars within food too, like lactose in dairy or the caramelisation of sugars in meats or vegetables. The right sugar content for something is variable - you might need to cut it out or add it according to different cultures or palates. For example, when I worked as a pastry chef in Doha, Qatar, the desserts were expected to be sweeter than they are in London. And when I use recipes from the USA I tend to lower the sugar considerably, but not by too much or the recipe wont work structurally.

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How does sugar relate to power?

It's powerful stuff. It's also addictive. I guess it can overtake you a bit, it can make you feel happy but it can become problematic. It can give temporary gratification by making us feel energised and naughty but also can make us tired and grumpy when we're addicted.

Sugar still has a powerful role in societal structure. Its social history is awful and deeply saddening, there's a power imbalance which continues today; wealth, status, health etc. There are ethical problems with sugar, which we all have a responsibility to research for, ask questions to the companies making sugar, where it is sourced, the working conditions of the people along the whole supply chain and the environmental impact and most importantly to take action as consumers.

Does your knowledge of sugar affect how you buy or use sugar in your work?

Yes. We will try and buy vegan, Fair Trade organic sugar to use. We try and track back the company history to get more info on their staff and how they treat their employees, right back to the growers. But who makes the industrial products like trimoline? Tracing it to the source is almost impossible. Plus, there's no market (yet) in organic trimoline for example, the reason we have and are able to use these technical sugars is because Big Food manufacturers use it as a preservative. It's an industrial product. Pastry chefs don't tend to think enough about raw materials as the ingredients are so refined and removed from their original state, but this is changing all the time.

You mentioned vegan sugar – isn’t all sugar vegan?

No, it's not. I think they use bone char to filter it.

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Does your knowledge affect what you eat day-to-day?

Yes, I won't buy it if it's not Fair Trade. I am a bit of a sugar addict so I have cravings for it when I'm not at work. It's my job so I have to eat a lot of it. Well I don't have to actually, but in practice I do end up eating a lot.

How do you feel towards sugar?

I feel a little confused at the moment about it. I'm unsure about what's happening in my body and how I should change what I'm doing in the sense of practice, and what I consume myself. I don't know yet. I'm trying to figure it out.

Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?

I feel like it's vegetable-mineral. The way it's processed makes it like a chemical; mineral-like because of the granular texture of it.

Where does sugar happen?

It the fields, and in the home, in our blood - food turns to sugar. it kind of happens everywhere.

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