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susan jane white

Meet the health nut who's changing Ireland's kitchens, one tart at a time

We spoke to the bestselling cookbook author about her latest desserts book.

SUSAN JANE WHITE considers herself a professional nut. A ‘nut’ritional cook, that is.

The tongue-in-cheek name is a hallmark of her devil-may-care fruity approach to food writing (she ‘tumbles’ hazelnuts and ‘parachutes’ goji berries), but it is also a nod to the fact that her food choices have often made her feel, well, a little weird.

After a spell of illness in her 20s, White turned to a nutritional expert to help her overhaul her diet. It was a bit of a last-chance saloon, but eschewing white sugar, bread, and evils like margarine helped restore her back to full health.

It wasn’t just because she was no longer tucking Kit Kats into her handbag, but because she had replaced her sugar-laden diet with wholegrains, fresh fruit and vegetables, free-range eggs, and other goodies.

Front Cover high res

In person, White (married to Trevor White, of the Little Museum of Dublin), is fizzing with energy. She’s the perfect advertisement for her own way of life. Her weekly Sunday Independent column and blog are popular, but her first book, The Extra Virgin Kitchen, was a surprise mega-hit for the Dubliner.

Now comes its follow-up, The Virtuous Tart, full of “sinful but saintly recipes for sweets, treats and snacks”.

Flick through the pages and you’ll spy a chocolate Guinness cake; vegetable crisps; honuts (healthy donuts); a peanut butter and chocolate shake.

Taste the difference

But wait. Move over white sugar and milk: beetroot powder, coconut flour, cacao (raw cocoa) powder and coconut oil feature in abundance here. They sit alongside supermarket-friendly staples like dates, dessicated coconut, and nuts. Lots of nuts.

White describes making a virtuous dessert as like ‘alchemy’. She’s used to having people look at the ingredients list of a raw cake and turn their nose up at it, afraid of what cacao butter and avocado might do to them.

Feeding them a concoction is her answer. She brings a raw, espresso-laced torte to to prove the point. It’s later described by one avowed sugar-lover as ‘an experience, not a cake’.

I always see the same reaction on everyone’s face: ‘Hmm, this is actually really nice!’

One thing that isn’t in White’s vocabulary, it appears, is deprivation. “I didn’t need to do a book – I am just incredibly greedy,” she laughed, detailing how she likes to treat herself every day.

If I can treat myself with something that gives me a nutritional hit, it’s so much better.

Invite her to your house and you can be confident that she’ll eat whatever is put before her, but when it comes to her everyday routine, White is steadfast.

Jamie Oliver's Drinks Tube / YouTube

The Extra Virgin Kitchen

She was “flabbergasted” by the success of her debut cookbook, but talked it down to having “no competition”. Then her first royalty check flew through the letterbox, and after a phone call to her publishers, she discovered that, no, they hadn’t gotten things wrong, and she was one of the best sellers of 2014.

That was when White realised it might be “more than just the diabetics, the coeliacs, the fussy kids” who liked her recipes.

White describes herself as “not as po-faced as all the other cookery writers, who are so dogmatic”. Instead, she tries to make it more fun, “taking the mickey out of things, and myself”.

“I think if people want to eat healthy, they will find some way,” she said. “My goal then is to keep them interested, and that’s what I try to do with my column.”

Last year was a particularly fruitful one for the healthy cookbook market, with top sellers in the UK including books by the Hemsley sisters, and blogger Deliciously Ella. Now we have bigger names, like Jamie Oliver and Gizzi Erskine, piling in for a slice of the sugar-free pie.

White is interested in how this situation pans out:

Not only how they sell but what their next book will be – is this just a trend? Because there’s a huge difference between [some] books and [the books by] people who have been cooking this way for 10 years, and I think readers will really know that.

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What sort of differences? White said to keep an eye out for those who use margarine rather than butter, honey in all their sweet recipes, or don’t have many sweet recipes at all.

“You can’t just change the sugar quantity for a liquid, or white sugar for coconut sugar,” she pointed out. “It takes me lots of practice. This is a book of 10 years’ experience.”

At the same time, she recognises that having big names associated with healthy eating is a boon for her. 

It’s not this crazy lunatic woman who’s trying to get you to eat healthier. Suddenly it’s mainstream, so I don’t have this hassle to try to convert people to thinking differently. That’s brilliant for me.


Where next?

White insists she’s not interested in world domination, and loves caring for her two rambunctious young boys, so handing them over to a nanny isn’t on her agenda. She writes at night when they’re in bed.

But she did make a foray into getting her name out there by featuring on the Jamie Oliver Channel on YouTube. “I’m really happy to get the thumbs up from him,” she said, joking that on screen she comes off “as a female Austin Powers”.

“It’s not that I lack ambition but I’m very happy where I am,” is how she summed things up. She admitted she will “probably look at lots of other girls and guys cantering in and going ahead of me” and wishing she was them, but “such is life”.


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A fellow cookbook author is Rosanna Davison, who was recently at the centre of a wheaty storm when some of her comments about gluten raised eyebrows.

“I felt very sorry for Rosanna because if it was anyone else who said that, it just wouldn’t get picked up,” said White. “It’s probably a very good lesson to learn in the beginning for everyone. It’s mainly media and the Twitterati being fairly cruel and I feel very sorry for her.”

White doesn’t have as strong opinions about gluten, but finds it interesting that (aside from those with coeliac disease), “a small protein that’s found in wheat, rye, barley and sometimes oats is making people reassess their diet”.

That is the catalyst for change. So I actually welcome it because people are reassessing their diet. If you give up the gluten, you end up giving up the junk food, because most junk food has gluten in it.

‘When you’re really ill, you don’t have a choice’

She is able to empathise with people who’ve had to overhaul their diets because a decade ago she had to do the same thing.

“I think my situation was much easier. When you’re really, really, really ill, you don’t have a choice; when you’re in bed and you can’t move, you don’t have a choice. I was leaving it to the last moment to give up butter and bread.”

“I have more energy now than I had in my early 20s,” said White, who used to think it was ”normal to have four double espressos and nap late in the day”.


She places part of the blame for not realising how bad her health was on the boozy lifestyle she and her peers led at the time, and hopes her sons will be able to make the most of their future lives without being slaves to hangovers and kebabs.

“I don’t like to say I regret it because I think every experience you have in life makes you the person you are today. And if I didn’t have that experience, I wouldn’t have this experience.”

What Susan Jane White would like to see, though, is more of an effort to think differently about tackling obesity in Ireland. She thinks that taxing sugary drinks is absurd (mainly because it would push artisan producers out), but that taxing the advertisements for these products would be the key to change.

She has faith that things will continue to improve – and that soon we’ll all be eating a slice of the raw torte.

You’ll find even in cafes there’s a vegan section, there’s a paleo section. It’s like this enlightenment. It is: this is an enlightenment in the food sector.

Read: This Irish cook has been mixing it up ‘like a pro’ as part of the Jamie Oliver empire>

Read: Watch: How ‘a girl’s best friend’ and ‘nature’s sting’ can spice up your Valentine’s dinner…>

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