Eton Mess, The Best Boarding School Dessert
For those of you from the UK or simply of a curious and Epicurean nature you’ve probably already heard of an Eton mess, perhaps you’ve even tasted it. But as an individual who until a very short time ago had no idea, I thought perhaps there were others…out there…like me.
An Eton mess if you haven’t already gathered from the name is not a very elegant dessert. A hodge-podge of strawberries (or sometimes bananas) sweet cream, and crumbled bits of meringue. What the Eton mess lacks in propriety and decorative frills it more than makes up for in taste. When you’ve got freshly picked strawberries at the peak of their plump, juicy, ripeness, and freshly beaten sweet cream, then a crunch of meringue.There is truly nothing better.
What a Mess
Though we’re all in agreement that the Eton mess is an untidy dessert some speculate that the term “mess” does not refer to the haphazard state in which it is served but instead, was used to connote its ancient Latin root missum which simply meant “a portion of food”. French have the word mess meaning dish, and the Italians messa meaning course of a meal. Between them all “mess” came to mean a mixture of food and the term was applied particularly to sloppy food such as porridges and stews.
Another commonly unemployed meaning for mess was a small group of people (generally four) who sat nearest each other at banquets and so were served from the same pots and dishes. The Army and Navy still use the term mess to refer to the room where meals are served and eaten. Parents of young children have another more intimate knowledge of “mess” when applied to meals, the list goes on.
But let us not stray too far down the rabbit holes of nomenclature. Instead, let’s turn our attention back to Eton College, one of England’s most exclusive and competitive boarding schools for boys. Eton Mess is said to have gotten its name at the school’s biggest holiday “the 4th of June” held every year in honor of King George III’s birthday. Curiously enough it is always observed on the last Monday in May.
Eton Vs. Harrow
Every year there is a large picnic and a much-anticipated cricket match between Eton and Harrow (another prestigious boys school). The story goes that a dish of strawberries and cream (some say Pavlova) meant to be served for dessert was dropped, but rather than waste the dish it was simply scooped up and served in individual bowls to the hungry young men. Others blame the “mess” on an excitable labrador who was being transported in the backseat of a car along with the dessert and in his frenzied state, sat on it.
Whatever its true origin, the dish has continued to go by this name since the late 19th century. Clocking in at around 150 years old, Eton mess has been sold in Eton College’s “sock shop” since the 1930s where it was made with strawberries or bananas and was mixed with thickened cream or ice cream (meringue being an addition not made until the 1970’s).
Simple and delicious, an Eton Mess is the perfect dessert to make for unexpected visitors or whenever you have a surplus of ripe berries and is the perfect canvas for experimentation. Let us not continue on the same invariable traditions of strawberries and bananas forever, but instead branch out into the unknown territory of mulberries, gooseberries, and plums!
“Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.”
Strawberry + Rose Eton Mess
16 Rose Meringue Kisses
2 cups Heavy Cream
3 Tablespoons Confectioner’s Sugar
1 teaspoon Rosewater (optional)
1 ½ cups Fresh Strawberries, sliced
2 Tablespoons Sugar
3 Tablespoons Cognac (optional)
The Day Before
Make the meringues according to our post on French Meringue Kisses, using rosewater instead of vanilla to flavor them. If you have neither the time nor the inclination to make your own, you can find them at most grocery stores or bakeries.
The Day Of
Combine the sugar, cognac, and sliced strawberries together in a bowl and allow to macerate for 30 minutes prior to assembly.
Whip the heavy cream and confectioner’s sugar together until the mixture is thickened and able to hold soft peaks.
In little individual bowls or glasses, spoon in a generous amount of the strawberries, then the cream, then the crushed meringue. Repeat the process until your glasses are full. Decorate with a couple of your best meringue kisses, uncrushed of course, and your plumpest strawberries.