Recipe, photography & styling by Tanya Zouev.
Growing in the neighbour’s yard is an enormous mulberry bush, part of which hangs over our back fence. It spans several meters across and at least three meters high, and right now as I write this post the branches are laden with fruit. The birds are having daily mulberry free-for-alls and whilst they fill their bellies with the fruit, I’ve been wondering what I can cook with it before it all disappears for another year. The first thing that came to mind to make was an Eton mess because you simply can’t go wrong with the combination of berries, cream and meringue.
Whilst I was out picking the mulberries, I started pondering the history of the Eton mess. The name itself is so very English and I wondered where does the dish actually come from? Is it an English dessert as old as the fool or syllabub or is it a recipe with a fictional past a chef dreamt up in the Seventies because he or she needed to use up a broken pavlova they accidentally dropped en route from baking tray to serving plate?
In my research I found that even though the Eton mess isn’t quite as old as other famous English desserts, it does have an interesting history and has almost as much speculation around it as the pavlova. One article I came across stated that it is a traditional English dessert consisting of strawberries, meringue and cream and has always been served at Eton College’s annual cricket game (a boys school in England). Several articles also claimed that the dish has been known by this name since the mid to late 19th century making it around 150 years old. Another article theorised that the dessert was first served in the 1930’s at the college but only contained cream or ice cream and bananas and absolutely no meringue. This was backed up by a letter I found written by an elderly gentleman to an English newspaper claiming to have been a student at Eton College in the 1930’s. The ex-student said that no such dessert was served whilst he was there, perhaps debunking the myth that the dessert is as old as it claims to be.
I find it amusing that there is even a story that a labrador sat on somebody’s picnic basket at an Eton College open day squashing the pavlova inside, thus creating the first Eton mess. I then went on to read that the meringue was only introduced to the recipe in the 1970’s by a chef wanting to embellish the Eton mess’ original meringue-less form. I myself have eaten it in England and at various restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne whenever I’ve seen it appear on the menu. I’ve had it with strawberries, raspberries, bananas and peaches, but never before with mulberries. I do know though that whichever form the Eton mess takes its shape in, the dessert makes me think of spring time and warm weather and regardless of whether the original had meringue in it or not, I do think that the addition is here to stay.
Makes one large Eton mess, to serve approximately 6-8. Prep time: 40 mins, cooking time 1 1/4 hours.
The meringues (makes 6 large meringues).
4 egg whites
1 cups white caster sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
The cream topping
2 cups thickened cream
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
2 cups fresh mulberries
1/2 cup gin
2 tablespoons sugar
1. Preheat oven to 220˚C (approx 420˚F) and line a large baking sheet with non-stick baking paper.
2. Beat your egg whites with a mixer until they start to form peaks and add half your sugar one tablespoon at a time making sure it is well incorporated into the egg white. Add the cream of tartar, mix to combine then continue adding the remainder of the sugar until the egg whites are all stiff and glossy.
3. Place spoonfuls of the raw meringue in large dollops on the baking paper using a metal spoon. Place in the hot oven for 2 minutes, the meringues will ever slightly brown then turn the oven down to 120˚C (approx 240˚F) and bake for one hour. Turn off the oven and leave meringues inside until oven is cold.
4. Place the mulberries into a bowl and add the gin and sugar. Allow to macerate for at least 30 minutes in the fridge. (The berries will release some of their juices which you can drizzle between layers and over the top of the mess.)
5. Pour the thickened cream into a medium size mixing bowl, add the vanilla and whip until stiff peaks form. You could even add some vanilla seeds to give the cream a lovely speckled appearance.
6. Assemble the mess by first placing alternate layers of fruit, cream and broken meringues in a clear glass bowl or trifle dish. The top layer should be a little fruit with the gin-soaked juices drizzled over.
Photography and styling notes:
I wanted a set which was as loose and messy as the dessert itself. The fabric is simply white cotton found at an op-shop. The vintage blue and white plate lends the English factor to the image and I used a contemporary glass bowl by Maxwell Williams to serve the dessert. The napkin, glass bowls and spoon are all reclaimed from local council hard rubbish collections. The only light used in this image is window light. Shot on a Canon 5D Mark III with a 100mm lens.