Simply food

PERFECT PAVLOVA PARFAIT

This meringue concoction may have been named after the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova, who toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s, and which both claim to have invented the dessert, still popular there.

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Oundle School has been co-ed since 1990

I have a deeper interest, because a few years ago at a school reunion in Toronto, I wanted to create something unique for the menu to impress the new lady head of Oundle School, Sarah Kerr-Dineen. Together with the chef of The Albany Club, last bastion of the conservative elements in the city, we came up with a parfait based on the Pavlova and the similar Eton Mess, named after the top public school in England. It may sound messy, but mess is just an old English word used to describe a dish of food, from the old French mes, now mets. Eton Mess has red berries whereas our Oundle Mess has blue berries and, because it’s being served to adults not children, a touch of booze. It was well received.

Last year, an invitation to a touching memorial service for an old school chum in the Wren Chapel at the Chelsea Pensioners’ Royal Hospital in London, led me to the sad fact that my contemporaries were an ever-diminishing crowd. Attending with another old friend from Oundle School, we realised that if we didn’t have a gathering soon, there might not be any of us left. A small group of us had a good discussion of what we might serve at a reunion dinner, with a plea not to include any of the ghastly dishes we were fed at school! The inclusion of my new Oundle Mess was widely approved. Because of the world-wide pandemic, sadly our reunion has yet to happen. However, all the plans are in place and as soon as we can safely gather, we will revive them. Stay tuned.

The Oundle story

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Oundle is one of England’s largest co-ed boarding schools

Oundle School was founded by the Grocer’s Company in 1556; some say as late as 1573, but I was there for the quatercentenary (400th anniversary) in 1956, so I’m sticking by the earlier date. The school is not as well known in North America as some more famous schools like Eton (several Prime Ministers), Gordonstoun (Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles), Harrow (Sir Winston Churchill), Rugby (invented the game) and Wellington (Christopher Lee, George Orwell). It ranks at merely number 30 in the top 100 UK private school exam results, behind it’s better known contemporaries such as Eton (8th), Cheltenham Ladies’ College (13th) and Marlborough (26th), but far ahead of its sporting rivals Rugby (59th), Uppingham (72nd) and Harrow (not even on the list). Oundle has been co-ed since 1990. It was named Public School of the Year at the Tatler Schools Awards in 2018. With more than 1,100 pupils, it is one of the largest boarding schools in England. The school is now divided into eight boys’ houses, five girls’ houses, a day house, a junior house and a junior day house.

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Meringue, fruit compote, whipped cream equals Pavlova

Since my contemporaries and I attended during the late 50s and early 60s, I believe the education we received and the standards we were held to have reflected beneficially on us for the balance of our lives, in spite of the spartan accommodation, the awful food and a few less than pleasant schoolmasters. There were enough benefits to overcome these setbacks and enable us to stand on our own feet. Oundelians consider themselves very self-sufficient; those from School House particularly so. Because one of our potential attendees said he never goes to reunions since he doesn’t know anyone, we concentrated on chaps from our own house and our own era. Despite failing memories, we all still remember each other, mostly kindly. In spite of the times, the only ladies at our reunion will be spouses and partners, as School House is still boys only.

The Pavlova story

Anna Pavlova is most recognized for her creation of the role of The Dying Swan and, with her own company, became the first ballerina to tour around the world. She visited Australia and New Zealand in 1926, and both countries claim to have created the dessert named after her. The ethereal quality of her performance (and her frothy swan tutu) was reflected in the light clouds of egg whites and sugar, topped with berries. However, further research shows that a similar dessert was much enjoyed by the Hapsburgs in Austria in the 18th Century, exported to America by European immigrants. With the invention of the hand-cranked egg-beater in the late 1800s, meringue recipes gained favour with American housewives, where Strawberries Pavlova was named in 1911. The dish most probably came to Australasia on the back of an American instant dessert package in the 1920s.

Pavlova

Shopping list

Meringue

pavlova x

Egg white nests await the oven

  • 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar OR 2 tsp white vinegar (adding an acid component)
  • 1 1/2 TBSP cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 cups icing sugar
  • 6 large egg whites at room temperature
  • Salt

Topping

  • 1 cup fresh or frozen berries (strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, blueberry or a mixture)
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup (35 per cent) whipping cream
  • Vanilla essence

Preparation and cooking

  1. Preheat the oven to 135°C / 275°F. Prepare a baking sheet with a lining of cooking parchment.
  2. Make a fruit compote with the berries, wash or rinse them and leave damp. Mix with sugar in a pan and simmer for 5 to 10 mins. Remove from heat when the berries soften but before they fall apart. Set aside to cool.
  3. Make sure the eggs are at room temperature and the bowl for the whites is extra clean, grease and moisture free. Mix the corn starch and sugar and set aside. Separate the yolks from the whites. (TIP: Save the yolks to use in a CUSTARD recipe.) Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites. If you are adding cream of tartar as your acid component, mix it in with the egg whites OR if you are using vinegar, mix it with the vanilla and add later. With your electric mixer on low start whipping the whites. After 2 to 3 mins, soft peaks should form.
  4. Increase the speed of the mixer to medium and start slowly adding the sugar and cornstarch mixture. As the mixture starts to form stiff peaks, increase the speed to full and add the vanilla (and vinegar if using). After 4 to 5 mins, the mixture should seem quite glossy and smooth. TIP: Don’t overbeat, or the mixture will collapse. As soon as it is really stiff, stop!
  5. Spoon the meringue into about eight 3 in rounds on the lined baking sheet. Make an indentation with the back of the spoon to hold the fruit when the meringue is baked. Leave room between the nests for expansion.
  6. Place baking sheet in oven and reduce oven temperature to 120°C / 250°F. Bake for 50 to 60 mins. After 25 or 30 mins check on the meringues and turn the pan around in the oven to even out any inconsistencies of heat. If the meringues look like they are beginning to brown, reduce the heat by a further 10°C / 25° When done the meringues should be crispy and dry to the touch on the outside and chewy on the inside, like a marshmallow. TIP: If the meringues have become soft after baking, return them to the oven at 105°C / 225°F for another 10 to 20 mins, watching carefully to ensure they don’t brown. Then turn off the oven and let them cool for another hour.
  7. While the meringues are cooling, whip the cream, adding a few drops of vanilla essence for flavour.
  8. Gently lift the meringues off the baking sheet with a spatula and cool completely on a wire rack. Store extra meringues in a tightly sealed container at room temperature for up to a week.
  9. Serve Pavlovas topped with strawberry, raspberry, blackberry or blueberry compote, and freshly whipped cream.

The Eton Mess story

Eton Mess was first mentioned in 1893, so apocryphal stories of the dessert being created at a cricket match at Lords in the 1920s, where cooks dropped a strawberry Pavlova, scooped it up and served it to the boys, or as a result of a dog sitting on a picnic hamper during a cricket match at Eton and crushing the dessert, are to be taken with a pinch of salt. One Old Etonian rages that at school the dessert was simply called ‘strawberry mess’ and was very popular in the tuck shop. It is only outside Eton that the school’s name has been added. A similar ‘banana mess’ is credited to Lancing School in Sussex, which I suppose could be called Lancing Mess. It sounds delicious, but truly, the origin of these names is unknown.

Eaton Mess

Shopping listMESS 1

  • 4 meringues, roughly crushed
  • ½ cup strawberries, washed, rinsed, hulled and halved
  • ½ cup raspberries, washed and rinsed
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 cup (35 per cent) whipping cream
  • Vanilla essence

Preparation and cooking

  1. Prepare the meringues in advance as above. Crush them with a rolling pin, or if they are a bit marshmallowy, tear them, leaving some big and some small chunks.
  2. Save a few perfect berries for decoration. Make a fruit compote with the remainder of the berries, wash or rinse them and leave damp. Mix with sugar in a pan and simmer for 5 to 10 mins. Remove from heat when the berries soften but before they fall apart. Set aside to cool.
  3. Whip the cream until it is stiff, adding a few drops of vanilla essence for flavouring.
  4. Take half the cream and half the compote and mix together roughly, so that the fruit streaks through the cream.
  5. In individual parfait glasses, place a layer of mixed fruit and cream in the bottom, layer on some compote, followed by a crumble of meringue, followed by a layer of mixed fruit and cream, followed by a layer of compote. Top with whipped cream, more crumbled meringue and a few individual berries.
  6. Keep cool in the fridge until ready to serve.

The Oundle Mess story

About 125 years after Eton Mess was invented, I claim the creation of this similar parfait, made with blue rather than red berries, and the addition of sherry. I have passed the following recipe on to Hayden Miles, Executive Chef at Oundle School and trust my friends, school mates and (less the booze) generations of Oundelians to come will enjoy it.

Oundle Mess

Shopping listMESS 3

  • 4 meringues, roughly crushed
  • ½ cup blackberries, washed and rinsed
  • ½ cup blueberries, washed and rinsed
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 2 TBSP sweet sherry (or Sauterne)
  • 1 cup (35 per cent) whipping cream
  • Vanilla essence

Preparation and cooking

  1. Prepare the meringues in advance as above. Crush them with a rolling pin, or if they are a bit marshmallowy, tear them, leaving some big and some small chunks.
  2. Save a few perfect berries for decoration. Make a fruit compote with the remainder of the berries, wash or rinse them and leave damp. Mix with sugar in a pan and simmer for 5 to 10 mins. Remove from heat when the berries soften but before they fall apart. Set aside to cool.
  3. Whip the cream until it is stiff, adding a few drops of vanilla essence for flavouring.
  4. Take half the cream and half the compote and mix together roughly, so that the fruit streaks through the cream.
  5. In individual parfait glasses, place a layer of mixed fruit and cream in the bottom, layer on some compote, followed by a crumble of meringue, followed by a layer of mixed fruit and cream, followed by a layer of compote. Top with whipped cream, more crumbled meringue and a few individual berries.
  6. Keep cool until ready to serve.
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Featured image: Delicious Pavlova meringue dessert

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This is Nigel’s 280th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. Here is the link to Market to Table: The Cookbooka bargain at $11.50. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook is now live, even better priced at $9.99 or £9.99.

3 replies »

  1. Having the blessing of being a current member of the Oundle School staff, and of having been in Toronto for the grand unveiling, it was wonderful to see this most fascinating and multifarious story.

    As to the founding of the school, I’ve never heard the 1573 date I don’t think, but my guess is that’s when all the legal challenges to Laxton’s codicil were dropped. Sir William Laxton endowed the School thereby just before his death in 1556, but I know that it rumbled through the courts for a very long time before being finally settled.

    Of course, we Oundle staff regularly trot out the obviously syllogistic line that “Laxton founded the School that he went to(!) in 1556”. Only a moment’s thought is needed to see the problem in that. He actually REFOUNDED it, or, perhaps, “endowed” it [qv] although the governance and structure changed extensively as a consequence. It existed as a “Guild” school connected to St Peter’s Church, or more specifically its chantry, from roughly 1485.

    Like

    • Thank you for the updates. I took the 1573 date from the Country Life article on the Head (linked in the story) and the School, where it says “After a legal challenge from other heirs, the school opened in 1573…”

      Like

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