Flavours in Jars: Talking 'feel good food' with Esther Lewis

Jar of pickle against a blue wall.

Esther’s food production kitchen and her “flavours in jars” grew from requests from customers across Wellington.

When it comes to making her Esther’s range of live fermented food, relishes, jams, jellies and almond butters, Esther Lewis gets ideas from everywhere — on the day we catch up, she’s rushing around preparing catering for 100 people according to a “Dr. Seuss food” brief. Her menus spring from art, form and colour; or from herbs, gardening, the New Zealand quarter-acre dream, and books on holistic nutrition. At home, her shelves hold titles like The Tassajara Bread Book, Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions, and the classic Edmond’s.

No other toast in town is as visually or texturally fun to eat. The live krauts and pickles tinged with hues of beetroot or turmeric; glistening jams and jellies; and rich, melty almond butters are stocked at Commonsense Organics as well as her online store.

Esther’s food production kitchen and her “flavours in jars” grew from requests from customers across Wellington who started asking to take her product home after trying them heaped onto thick slices of Shelly Bay Bakery toast at Peoples Coffee.

“I knew that if I was going to do this, as a brand, I needed to do it properly,” Esther says. She casts around for what’s in season and then uses her imagination to see what she can come up with, making everything herself in a commercial kitchen on Ghuznee Street, and bottling them in jars with crispy blue and white labels by Hannah Howes. Esther knows she still comes off a bit bougie — “not being branded ‘bougie’ is hard when you’re making $16 almond butter!”

If you’re breakfasting at Peoples Coffee on Constable Street or in Lukes Lane, order toast. Say it’s late February — you’ll get Shelly Bay sourdough spread with deep umami turmeric almond butter, sliced avocado, a crunchy technicolour fennel onion pickle and scattered with the warming spice of toasted dukkah. If you’re feeling a second course, order another long black and a piece of toast with chocolate almond butter glistening with an enormous drip of rhubarb rose jelly or orange marmalade.

Esther’s menu revolves regularly in close collaboration with the cafes she works with. When she’s coming up with a toast menu, her artist’s sensibility comes into play. She has a fine arts degree from Elam. Often, a toast combination will come down to the needs of the cafe — “the tighter the parameters, the more creative I can be, in a way. It’s responsive and customised to what the cafe’s customers might like. What produce they can access? What’s cohesive and easy to build?”

Great relationships with organic suppliers mean that Esther’s food is truly the best quality she can get. At one point in our interview she raves about organic cinnamon — “it has this absolute glow to it, the fibrous texture, it’s just. So. Good.” Trade Aid chocolate and sugar go into her chocolate almond butter and jams, while Ceres Organics is the source of her beans (she makes a fantastic pinto bean spread) and spices, and Chantal Organics provides her produce.

Esther is creative and joyful about making great things people love to eat. “I eat my food. I make it for the people I love,” she says. It’s a pretty wonderful reason for being. “Healthy food, to make you feel good.” It’s just that simple.

Check out Esther's at www.esthers.co.nz.

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