“I’m addicted,” says Tara Wigley, cook and food writer at Ottolenghi, as the sweet smell of charred aubergine fills her London kitchen. “I make my baba ganoush every third morning and I have it with everything.” A real batch cook - “Why wouldn’t I char two aubergines, instead of one?” - Tara’s approach to food is rooted in the reality of a busy family life. She believes this is her value added at work, as the in-house writer of team Ottolenghi. She's led on the writing of seven Ottolenghi books, as well as the writing of The Guardian's weekly column and a monthly column in The New York Times, which she co-writes with Yotam. “A lot of chefs who write books are great at what they do, but they don't always have much home cooking experience,” she says. “They’re not 45-year-old mums. Most people feel as though they're smashing it if they’re on top of the laundry, let alone that amazing new recipe.”
Calling out the reality of life - laundry, commutes, childcare - is what led Tara to pen her first solo book after co-authoring multiple-award-winning Ottolenghi triumphs like Simple and Falastin (co-authored with Sami Tamimi). “People have five meals on rotation and if they cook one new dish, that’s an achievement,” she says. “Life is overwhelming so we hold on to the comforting and familiar.” How to Butter Toast is a joyful collection of memorable rhymes - not poems, nor recipes - that solve common kitchen conundrums. From how to make the perfect cup of tea and the best way to boil an egg, to serving a classic martini and dressing a staple salad, the book is an accumulation of Tara’s wealth of expertise, and, distilled through her playful lens, aims to prove that there’s simply no right or wrong in the kitchen.
The book’s spirited form - which seems effortless but belies Tara’s rich knowledge and research - evokes the oral history of cooking. Most of us learn how to make scrambled eggs from watching our parents at breakfast, or by squeezing into small kitchens with housemates, not from reading a recipe book. How to Butter Toast takes us back to that pre-internet age, when the quirks, flourishes and secrets of recipes were communicated via storytelling, not Google algorithms.
“The move to online really fascinates me,” she says. “When following a recipe, whether Ottolenghi, Nigel Slater or Nigella, I find it really reassuring to hear one voice. Then I’ll go online to check how to cook a soft-boiled egg and get completely spun out. Cooking should block out the noise that the world brings, not add to it. We’re all overwhelmed, yet none of us knows how to do the simple things like poach an egg or cook a steak because we think everyone else’s is better. Do I like my roast potatoes? Then that’s all that matters.”
For Tara, the appetite for food was always there, though it was only after ten years in publishing that she took the leap into cooking. After a stint in Sarajevo, she returned to England to have her twins, and realised that it was time for a change. “I’m quite an introvert,” she says. “There are so many lunches and evening events in publishing and I wasn’t able to get my energy from that.” She applied to Goldsmiths to study English but came to a poolside realisation that she wasn’t interested in reading any of the canonical texts her girlfriend had brought on their holiday. Later, when preparing dinner for her parents’ anniversary party, her friend turned to her and, exhausted, posited, “Can you imagine doing this every day?” to which Tara emphatically replied, “Yes! I love it.” Her Goldsmiths acceptance letter was left unopened, and she found herself on her way to Ballymaloe Cookery School, 18-month old twins and Bosnian dog in tow.
Situated on a 100-acre organic farm in County Cork, Ireland, the ethos of Darina Allen's Ballymaloe is “don’t have a plan, give your all to everything and shoot in all directions." Upon returning to the UK, Tara started working in restaurants, until she quickly realised that there were no other young mothers doing the same. While working at Moro, the Moorish restaurant in Exmouth Market, she recalls cycling along Upper Street past midnight after a long shift. “It was snowing and I was so hungry and the kids were going to be waking up in a few hours - and I just thought, What am I doing?” While interviewing at the newly-opened NOPI, executive chef Sarit Packer, who now heads up Honey & Smoke, asked her the very same question. “The food world is a generous place and full of good people,” Tara says. “So many gave me that hour when they didn’t need to.” Taking a much-needed pause, cycling around Soho was swapped for filling fridges in Stoke Newington.
The first call from Ottolenghi that Tara received, she presumed to be a joke. “He said, ‘I hear you used to work in publishing, you’re into cooking and you’re a mum - you sound exactly what I’m looking for.’ I said, thinking it was my husband, ‘This is a horrible joke, what are you doing?’ Because Yotam was my absolute hero.” He gave her his address and before long they were cooking in his pantry - “the size of the back of an aeroplane” - before moving to the test kitchen as their culinary operation became more established.
Having spent the last twelve years accumulating knowledge while immersed in the world of Ottolenghi, the spark for the book made her realise that she was still intimidated by the basics. “I had an existential crisis that I didn’t know how to whip up pancakes for my kids; I felt like everyone had their own recipe up their sleeve,” she says. “When I realised that it was quite literally one, two, three - 100g of flour, 2 eggs and 300ml milk - the first rhyme was written.”
A world away from the collaborative alchemy of test kitchen writing - “it’s like putting on a theatre production, you don’t know what the magic is until opening night” - Tara’s writing process for her first solo-authored book featured a quiet nook on the top floor of her Clapham home, noise cancelling headphones, and a pen and paper. Understandable, given the host of hungry mouths downstairs. Tara’s parents bought the magnificent south London house in the early nineties when she was 15, and now occupants include Tara’s husband and three children, her brother and his family at the bottom of the garden, her parents in the adjoining barn and Molly the dog. A friend of the family who trained at the Chelsea Physic designed the flowerbeds, while another who crafted boats built the maritime ceiling of the kitchen.
The house has many stories to tell, from teenage parties to weddings and the annual fireworks night festivities, but unsurprisingly, the kitchen is where Tara spends most of her time. “We do tend to eat all together, though I gave up the idea that we’d all be eating the same thing a long time ago,” she says. “That’s based on an anachronistic model - the reality is that there’s always a thousand things going on. So at breakfast it’s cereal for the kids and for me, post-lido swim, eggs, cottage cheese, avocado, tuna and always, always baba ganoush.”
Smoked Aubergine Creme
Serve as a dip or spoon over salads, roasted vegetables, grilled fish or meat. This keeps well in the fridge for a week.
100g Greek-style yoghurt
50ml lemon juice
1 garlic clove, crushed
4 tsp Dijon mustard
100ml olive oil
Salt and pepper
- There are two ways to char your aubergines. The first is to put them directly on top of a flame on your stovetop and leave for 15 minutes, turning throughout, using long tongs so that all sides get charred. The second way is to put a griddle pan on the stove top and, once smoking hot, pierce the aubergines a few times with a small, sharp knife and then place them on top. Either way, char for about 40 minutes, turning throughout, so that all sides get charred and collapse.
- Once charred, transfer the aubergines to a colander set over a bowl. When cool enough to handle, slit in half lengthways, scoop out the flesh and set aside to drain for about half an hour. The skin and stem can be discarded.
- Transfer the flesh – it should weigh around 400g – to a food processor with all the remaining ingredients for the sauce, along with ½ teaspoon of salt and a good grind of black pepper. Blitz for a minute, until completely smooth.
- Allow to cool before serving.
Interview by Georgia Murray.
Photographs by Safia Shakarchi.
Tara wears our Herringbone Cotton Dungarees and serves her smoked aubergine creme in the Casa de Folklore Horezu Bowl. Tara’s daughter, Scarlett, left, wears our Garment Dyed Cotton Herringbone Jacke. Tara’s mother, Suzanna, right, wears our Fayre Stripe Organic Poplin Shirt Dress.
How to Butter Toast is out now (Pavilion Books).