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.
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.