By Lauren Loudon
It seems like the Eton Mess is one of the most quintessentially British desserts. It can be almost guaranteed to feature on the menu in most pubs, is proudly photographed in magazines and is an absolute must in the summertime, where supermarkets will always promote the sale of a failsafe mixture of the components for a no mess, no fuss do-it-at-home version.
It’s a very simple dessert when you break it down, consisting merely of broken up pieces of meringue, thickened cream, and strawberries. Traditionally, these three ingredients are simply mixed together and served in a glass bowl or dish and there you have it: the Eton Mess. Of course, over the years of the popular sweet dish meandering across menus, there have been known plot twists in the form of variations in the choice of fruit, coloured or flavoured meringue, different preparation methods, deconstruction of the ingredients, the simple addition of fresh mint for a pop of colour or even spiked with another British favourite: elderflower liquor.
Given the fixation with tradition in the UK, in order to truly qualify as an Eton Mess, it must be at the very least a melange of strawberries, cream, and meringue but other varieties are certainly still listed under this umbrella name.
Its popularity and appearance on so many menus sparked the question of where this famous dessert really came from. Could it be traced to the famous strawberries and cream combination that Wimbledon tennis tournament is so renowned for or is it the other way around? Did the Eton Mess bore the staple refreshment at the tennis or did this inspire the addition of fluffy but crumbly meringue? The question can be likened to the uncertainty of the chicken and the egg, though in this case eggs only being the important component in whipping up the glossy meringue to stiff peaks.
Many stories circulate relating to the origin of this delicious sweet treat, of which a favourite is the following. The summer months of the year see the school children in the UK out on the cricket pitches, dressed in their traditional whites and playing competitively against other schools. Legend has it that at one particular game of cricket at the famous school of Eton College in the South of England, a mother brought a dessert for the boys to enjoy after the game. This dessert was simply some meringue nests, some fresh strawberries, and some cream. The mother, driving to the school to watch her son with her dog in the car was horrified when she realised that the canine had trampled on her spread on the back seat of the car. While it was her turn on dessert duty and had no other option, she simply mixed together the crushed meringue with the intact strawberries and untouched cream and thus was born: the Eton Mess.
This story supposedly dates back to the 1920s, however, this doesn’t add up to the fact that the first mention of the Eton Mess in print was noted almost three decades earlier, in 1893. There is certainly a strong link with the famous boy’s school under the same name, but it is not known for sure where exactly the Eton Mess was born. It has, however, become a staple feature in the traditions of an annual cricket match against their rival school, Harrow.
The dessert is also one of the most prized elements of the English food culture and can unmistakably be found on menus up and down the country. The simplicity of the dish is key for hitting all of the spots in terms of taste, textures, and ease. Light and airy, the perfect end to any meal, the flavour pairings can easily follow a seafood dish and just as easily cleanse the palate after a heavier plate of game or meat. The winning combination within the elements spans far beyond the three components in themselves.
As mentioned already the Eton Mess has now taken on many forms: it can be elevated by means of molecular gastronomy, the traditional flavours can be tampered with or it can be kept simple adhering to the name “mess”. The dessert can even be “veganized” by switching egg whites for aquafaba and dairy cream for coconut cream proving the popularity of this winning combination. Regardless of the actual background story, the Chinese Whispers that have people naming said dog all kinds of names are a fun way to get a conversation flowing after dinner, at a picnic in the park or in between games at the tennis.
What more could you want from a dessert?