Eton mess – the last of the summer strawberries



Nick and I once met somebody at a party.  He seemed perfectly well mannered, well brought up and civil and was clearly well educated.  But once he had established that we were from South Africa and had clearly not attended any school or university that had ever registered on his radar, he proceeded to talk to the rest of our group and ignore us completely, as if we didn’t exist!  I just thought "rude bastard!" and later mentioned it to somebody else who was there.  They responded "oh, pay no attention to him, he went to Eton" – as if that explained everything. 

For those of you who perhaps don’t know, Eton College is the creme de la creme of English public schools, beloved of the Royal Family (Princes William and Harry both went there).  And when you look at the Glossary link on the school’s main page and discover that their academic calendar is referred to as Abracadabra, their cricketers as  dry bobs, their rowers as wet bobs and that they have fields called Mesopotamia and Sixpenny – it’s a wonder they can reintegrate into regular society with the rest of us Great Unwashed at all, much less deign to make conversation 😉

Maybe it’s this underlying current of British eccentricity that also dictates the naming of their foods.  The general rule is "the weirder, the better", or so it would seem.  How else would you explain things like cullen skink, rock cakes, faggots and spotted dick?  So it should have surprised me not one bit to learn that Eton mess referred neither to the school dining room, nor to the litter left behind after a big school sporting match, but rather to a delicious (if aesthetically questionable) dessert.  The name apparently springs from the fact that it is traditionally served at the School’s prizegiving day on 4 June each year, and of course the "mess" part is quite easy to decipher.  Pavlova has strawberries, meringue and cream in perfect structure.  Eton mess looks… well, a mess!

At its simplest, it’s whipped cream, strawberries (at one stage also bananas, but strawberries seem to have won the day) and meringue stirred together and served in a messy swirl, but there is considerable leeway for creativity.  Alcohol can be used to macerate the strawberries; low-fat alternatives like Greek yoghurt can be used instead of creat;  raspberries can be substituted for strawberries; and a strawberry coulis can be made to swirl through the mixture.  I happened to have homemade mini-meringues in on hand, but the best part is that ready-made meringues are perfectly OK: they just get crumbled anyway, and nobody notices their inferior consistency 😉  Plus it’s a great gluten-free dessert. And the fact that you’re challenged in the gorgeous-food-plating-department (like me) matters not one bit!

As mentioned in my slow-roasted tomato post, we popped into the Queen’s Market a week or two ago to get tomatoes.  I also could not resist a punnet of tiny but sweet strawberries, which is how I ended up making Eton mess twice in the last fortnight.  For the first attempt, I extracted all the berries from the bottom of the punnet that had been slightly squashed, sliced them thinly and then heated them with a little water and sugar until they were soft enough to mash and the liquid had reduced to a syrupy consistency.  Once the dessert was assembled, I poured this coulis over it and stirred once or twice to swirl it through.  I preferred both the taste and the look that this gave, but sadly the pictures were just a mess, so the pictures on this page are of the coulis-less version.  I do, however, highly recommend this bit of extra effort.

ETON MESS (serves 2)20070920_eton_mess2


200g strawberries
200 ml whipping cream (or Greek yoghurt)
caster sugar to taste
about a cup of crumbled meringue


Wash and hull the strawberries.  Slice each in half (or into thick slices if very large).

Whip the cream with a little castor sugar if desired, until it just holds soft peaks.  Don’t whip it till it’s rock hard! Crumble the meringue.

Fold the meringue and strawberries into the cream, stir in some strawberry coulis (if using) and serve immediately – otherwise the meringue goes soggy.

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  1. says

    I made this to my nephew when he was visiting me in Scotland in 2005, and he absolutely adored this! Sadly, strawberry season seems to be much shorter here (ending in early August, I believe), so he will have to wait until next summer before getting any again.
    But thanks for bringing back lots of lovely summery memories!

  2. says

    The last of your strawberries when we’re just tasting the first of ours. we’ll be making pavlova soon, but if I drop it I now know what to do with it!
    Etonians don’t really recognise anywhere but Eton as socially acceptable anyway, never mind a foreign country!
    We had plenty of weird school puddings: frog spawn, drainpipes, spotted dick, gunpowder, chicken food…the list goes on and on – must be something to do with English boarding schools!

  3. says

    J, this is one of my alltime favourites. Precisely because it is just so darned messy. Sometimes I add icecream as well, strawberry or vanilla. Sometimes I make it with a cooked and chilled berry compote and sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly anorexic (not) I serve it with warm choc fudge sauce. Miles away from tradition – but oh so good!!

  4. says

    Hi Pille
    Your lucky nephew :) And how sad abotu your short strawberry season! In August in the UK, the strawberry supply is still pretty constant – so you’ll just have to plan a late-summer visit next year to share our bounty :)
    Hi Kit
    Ah, yes, the 2-second rule. If the pavlova is off the floor in less than 2 seconds, the fall never really happened and you can say you were planning Eton Mess all along 😉 And what an array of oddly named puddings! Frog spawn I know, but drainpipes?? Chicken food???
    Hi Suganya
    That’s the best part. Once the meringues are made, it’s a super-quick dessert to whip up!
    Hi AV
    Oooooh, now you’ve got me thinking. The chocolate sauce idea is so decadent its probably banned in some states. I’m sure Etonians all over the world are shocked at the mere thought :O) I LIKE IT!

  5. Cherie Thomas-Wood says

    We have a very similar dish here in the USA called Strawberry Shortcake and depending on individual taste’s made a number of different ways. You can have a
    spongecake, shortcake cookie like biscuit/roll but we in my family use a baking powder biscuit made with extra sugar. Add strawberries and whip cream on top. My mouth is already watering just thinking about having one!

  6. Rae Walker says

    Also lovely with boysenberries and I sneak in a few tiny pieces of chopped marshmallow too, a sort of cross between Eton Mess and Ambrosia, call it Kiwi creativity.