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The Origins and History of Meringue

(Part 2 of The Origins and History of Pavlova)

by Douglas Muster

muster

The Origins of Meringue:

(Considering the origins of pavlova in a broader context)

Meringue is a versatile and uniquely appropriate ingredient from which to make a pavlova; it is the single ingredient that gives pavlova both function and an æsthetic beauty. It does this through its ability to be made into a relatively hard, shaped structure with considerable strength and with an almost ethereal beauty because of its airy lightness, its interior softness and its pleasing paleness of color.

We shall see that the innovative creation of meringue in the seventeenth century was a seminal event, highly original, influential and containing the potential for future development. Thus, the creation of pavlova three hundred years later, with meringue as its principal ingredient, was a derivative event. Without doubt, pavlova is an outstanding confection; it has visual and an almost sensual appeal, nevertheless, I believe it can be argued persuasively that the seminal antecedent of pavlova was the baked beaten-egg-white-and-sugar foam, we call meringue. A beaten egg white can foam to eight times its original volume. Souffl├ęs, angel food cakes and meringue all make use of the exceptional foaming powers of beaten egg whites. Thus, the local debate among the chefs and in the kitchens of Australia and New Zealand is about precedence related to a derivative recipe stemming from the much earlier seminal recipe for meringue, its principle ingredient.

Lady Elinor Fettiplace and Lady Rachel Fane:

The earliest documented recipe for a baked beaten-egg-white-and-sugar confection is the handwritten recipe for “white bisket bread” by Lady Elinor Fettiplace (c. 1570 - c. 1647) in a manuscript book, dated 1604 3. She lived at Appleton Manor in Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire) a short distance southwest of Oxford with her husband, Sir Richard Fettiplace, and their family. When she died in 1647, she left her book to her niece. Through a long chain of inheritances and marriages, more than three hundred years later, the book finally came into the hands of John Spurling. His wife, Hilary, used the book in the family kitchen for ten years before she wrote, Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book — Elizabethan Country House Cooking, 1986 (Viking Salamander, London).

In the Forward of her book, Hilary Spurling describes Lady Fettiplace’s book as “... a small, stout, handwritten book, bound in leather and stamped in gold, with end papers made from odd scraps of mediæval Latin manuscript, and an inscription at the front: ‘Lady Elinor Fetiplace. 1604.’”

In 1604, England was still recovering from the seven decades of religious turmoil associated with the personal vendetta between King Henry VIII and Pope Clement VII that culminated in Henry breaking with Rome and declaring that he, as King, was the sole supreme head of the Church of England. The Spanish Armada had been defeated less than two decades earlier, Queen Elizabeth had died the year before and William Shakespeare was at the Globe theater in London.

Hilary Spurling sets the social and cultural context of the book more intimately by remarking, “Compiled at a time when very few women could read or write, Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book marks the start of a tradition which still lives today, with many recipes that we now think of as standard English fare — orange marmalade, rabbit pie, bread-and-butter pudding — as well as a number which are surprisingly close to the modern cuisine of France and the Mediterranean, among them spinach tart, roast mutton with claret wine and orange, and a recipe for meringues which predates by almost a century the date usually given for the invention of meringue in Italy or France.”

 

The recipe for what Lady Fettiplace called “white bisket bread” is given without comment in Volume 1, page 23 of John Spurling’s transcription of Lady Fettiplace’s manuscript.(end note 4)

“To make white bisket bread.
Take a pound & a half of sugar, & an handfull of fine white flower, the whites of twelve eggs beaten verie finelie, and a little annisseed brused, temper all this together, till it be no thicker than pap, make coffins with paper, and put it into the oven, after the manchet is drawen.”

The same recipe is cited in Hilary Spurling’s book (on page 118) embedded in two pages of interesting and useful comments related to the contemporary usage and meaning of the terms “bisket” (originally, the word meant hard, dry, durable army rations, a far cry from meringue), “temper all this together, till it be no thicker than pap” (means beating the mixture until it is stiff enough to form peaks), “paper coffins” (the modern equivalent would be open boxes made of baking parchment) and the phrase “after the manchet is drawen” can be used to estimate the oven temperature (Manchet was the finest wheaten bread molded into small loaves, round and flattish, or into rolls, thicker in the middle than at the ends. Manchet was put into the brick oven when it had cooled a bit from the greater temperature needed to bake coarse household bread, say, at about 350° F. Thus, when Lady Fettiplace says “put it into the oven, after the manchet is drawen”, in all probability, the temperature of the oven was 250° F or less and, as the oven cooled even more, her white biscuit bread was more dried than baked, just as our meringues are today.)

In 1630, a recipe for a baked beaten-egg-white-and-sugar confection is given in a manuscript of collected recipes written, by Lady Rachel Fane (1612/13 - 1680). At that time, Lady Fane was single, eighteen and living in West Kent at Knole, one of the largest private houses in England, and, since 1566, the home of Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, and his descendants who have lived there ever since. The recipe by Lady Fane appears to be the second earliest recorded recipe of a baked beaten-egg-white-and-sugar confection. It is reproduced here in the figure below with the kind permission of the Centre for Kentish Studies in Maidstone, Kent, U.K.,

meringue

A facsimile reproduction of Lady Fane's recipe for meringue

where it is archived. An annotated transcription of the recipe follows the figure. The recipe is cited in Michael Barry’s book, Old English Recipes, (Jarrod Pub., 1995) (p. 64 - 65).

Recall that Lady Fane and Lady Fettiplace wrote their recipes almost four centuries ago. Yet, a surprising amount of the language in which their recipes are written can be understood today without difficulty. In order to clarify the nonobvious meanings of some of the Old English terms used in Lady Fane’s recipe for “Pets” (read “meringue”) shown in the figure, I have taken the liberty of annotating a few explanatory notes in the transcription which follows.

“To ma