England has a bad reputation for two things. Can you guess? I’m sure you can. The first would be its weather, by which I can more specifically say, the rain. The second, its food – for which there is no specific: all of it, according to most, is bad. England is a rainy miserable country with horrible food. That’s what people say.
I’m not sure I can entirely defend Britain against the first allegation – except to say, that a sunny day here is probably more wonderful than a sunny day most anywhere else I can think of. And yes, I’ll say it — I like the rain. So maybe I’m a tad biased anyhow.
But as to the second, I must put my foot down right here, right now. Because in my opinion, when it comes to food and eating, the Brits have their priorities straight. These are the people who invented the roast. Who dedicate an entire meal to drinking tea and eating cake. Who created the apple crumble and the Victoria sponge, Eccles cakes and Mince pies. Who love breakfast so much they have an official national breakfast that could make the faint hearted weep. No, their food might not be elegant, intricate or artistically conveyed. But this is precisely what I love about it: it’s unpretentious, simple and pared down to the heart and soul. So if anyone thinks, for one minute, that the Brits don’t know anything about good food, you can just stop thinking that right now. They know exactly what’s worth knowing.
Which brings me to Eton Mess.
Eton is a prestigious all male boarding school in England. It has educated the likes of George Orwell, Alduous Huxley, various Earls, Viscounts, Princes and Prime Ministers since 1441 when it was established by Henry VI. The Eton Mess is a dish said to be invented at Eton and served at the annual June fourth cricket match. It includes strawberries, whipped cream and broken meringues all stirred together into a lovely mess. Do you see what I mean? Unpretentious. Un-fussy. No one is organizing flower petals with tweezers. Just a trio of delicious ingredients mashed up together in a dish. Done.
This version is made with rhubarb, vanilla scented Greek yoghurt and pistachio studded meringues – so slightly amended from the original. But still retaining the messiness. I think its just the sort of thing to be eaten on the first warm and delicate days of spring, when you can almost sit comfortably outside in the sunshine. When life feels soft and sweet and billowing as whipped cream and the clouds in the blue, blue sky might as well be meringues. Some people pare food with wine. I pare it with emotions. So don’t go eating this when it’s blustery and snowing, or when you yourself are blustery. It just won’t be right. Blue skies. Gentle sun. Sweetness. If you have all three of these, out your door and in your mind, then by all means proceed.
- 4 large egg whites
- 1 cup superfine sugar
- pinch of salt
- 1/8 cup pistachios, chopped
- 1 cup plain Greek yoghurt
- scraped seeds from 1 vanilla pod
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup, agave or runny honey
- ½ cup water
- 3-4 tablespoons sugar (depending on how sweet you want it)
- 1 lb rhubarb, chopped into 1.5 inch segments
- 1 teaspoon cardamom powder
- 1/4 cup pistachios, chopped to garnish
- Preheat your oven to 140 degrees F or 120 degrees C. Line a large baking tray with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites with the salt until you have stiff peaks (ie you can hold the bowl upside down over your head with no egg white falling on you). Slowly whisk in the sugar and keep stirring until you have a shiny mass of white the consistency of thick marshmallow (it took me about ten minutes, so keep going). Fold in the chopped pistachios.
- Plop spoonfuls of the mixture into blobs on your baking tray, leaving a good space between them. Make them as large or as small as you like, but note that the larger they are the longer they will take in the oven - I chose to divide into 16 blobs. Bake for 1 hour, or until firm and hollow sounding when tapped.
- While the meringues are baking, combine the Greek yoghurt, vanilla seeds, vanilla extract and sweetener in a bowl. Mix well, checking for sweetness, and put back in the fridge to chill.
- Also, make your rhubarb. Bring the water and sugar to a boil over medium heat, add the rhubarb and cardamom, and reduce to a simmer for about ten minutes. You want the rhubarb to be on the verge of falling apart, but still retaining some shape (although if you go too far and it all dissolves, no harm done). Check the mixture for sweetness, as some rhubarb is more tart than others (and some like it more tart than others), adding a little more sugar if you think necessary. Then place in a bowl in the fridge and chill.
- Once the meringues have cooled, assemble the mess. Place 1-2 meringues in the bottom of your dish. Top with a generous spoonful of the vanilla yoghurt. Ladle the rhubarb over the top so it spills down the sides and looks lovely, and finish with a sprinkling of chopped pistachios. Enjoy immediately.