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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. Soufflés, 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 make Pets
Take a pownd of Drye fine searsed [
sifted] suger, & beat the whites very wel then take off froutgh [froth] & put your suger, bye litle & litle in to it — contineually stiring it & beating it with a spoone ore laydle, and when it is exceedingly well beaten, then have some pye plates ready buttred & wipe the buter of because the lesse buter it hath the beter, then drope them upon the plate & put in to every drope a carieway seede or coriander then let your oven be very temparate and watch them with a candle all the while & if they be right they will rise and looke very white, it is good at the first to set a scilet [skillet] of water, with them in to the oven,& when they be thowrow [thoroughly] drye then take them out, you must in the mixing of them put 12 graines of muske & 12 of Abergrisse [Ambergris] which you must bruse with suger before you stire it in to the egge & suger.”

Although Lady Fettiplace and Lady Fane were contemporaries, there is nothing in the available record to suggest that they knew each other, ever met or corresponded. Their lives simply overlapped in time for 35 years. When Lady Fane was born, Lady Fettiplace was already forty three. Lady Fettiplace lived at Appleton Manor, a few miles southwest of Oxford in what was then Berkshire, and Lady Fane lived in West Kent at Knole House. Thus, they lived about a straight-line one hundred miles apart in roughly opposite directions from London. In the early years of the seventeenth century this was a considerable distance to travel.

The essential ingredients (egg whites and sugar) in Lady Fettiplace’s “white bisket bread” and in Lady Fane’s “pets” are the same and appear in the recipes in roughly the same proportion. As Hilary Spurling points out, the quantity of flour in Lady Fettiplace’s recipe, “... is barely noticeable in the final result, unless perhaps it improves the texture; ...” The enhancing ingredients in the two recipes are different and appear to reflect the personal tastes of the two cooks who used them, nothing more. In Lady Fane’s recipe, the cautionary note related to the carefully measured and metered mixing of the egg whites and sugar while they are being beaten suggests that, either Lady Fane or, since she was still of teenage, perhaps, an older, more experienced cook had learned the virtual necessity of using “fine”or “pounded” sugar, the seventeenth-century equivalent of castor (superfine) sugar.

Concerning the character of the sugar available to Lady Fettiplace and Lady Fane:

In 500 B.C., India was the first country to extract natural cane juice in order to make the first crude sugar, but sugar did not reach Europe until about the twelfth century A.D. when the first Crusaders returned home. For hundreds of years after that sugar remained a highly prized and expensive “spice” used only in the kitchens of royalty and the nobility. In 1493, Christopher Columbus took sugar cane from the Canary Islands to plant in Santo Domingo in the Caribbean and by the middle of the sixteenth century sugar’s manufacture had spread over the greater part of the tropical regions of the Americas. The first sugar refineries opened in London in the 1540s, only a few decades before Lady Fettiplace was born. Thus, both Lady Fettiplace and Lady Fane lived at a time when refined sugar was still a novel and relatively rare food ingredient. The relative rarity of refined sugar prior to the mid-sixteenth century has the further effect of suggesting that it would have been virtually impossible for anyone in Europe or England to have invented a baked beaten-egg-white-and-sugar confection much earlier than the late sixteenth century. The essential ingredients and the means and expertise for making it were not yet in place or even envisioned.

After Lady Fane and before Massialot, the record tells us that, in 1658, English cooks were still making the Elizabethan, unbaked, beaten-egg-white confection called “snow” 5 which was made without sugar. However, it is difficult to see this as a precursor to a baked beaten-egg-white-and-sugar-based meringue. This viewpoint is reinforced by the sense of an article in The Oxford Companion to Food (page 497, col. 2):

“... European cooks discovered [in Medieval times] that beating egg whites, for example, with a whisk [made] of birch twigs (in the absence of any better implement), produced an attractive foam. At first the technique was used to make a simple, uncooked dish called snow, made from egg white and cream. However, cooking such a foam would not have resulted in meringue, for any fat in the mixture, as represented by the cream, prevents the egg whites from taking on the proper texture [for a meringue]. ... Even if the cream had been omitted, there would have been technical problems. The presence of any particle of sugar larger than a tiny speck causes absorption of moisture and the problem known as ‘weeping’ [the presence on the surface of the meringue of] drops of sticky syrup. The sugar has to be ground very fine and added gradually. Furthermore, the light texture of meringue makes it such an efficient heat insulator that anything more than the thinnest layer of meringue must be cooked very slowly — more dried than baked — or the centre remains raw and collapses in a gummy mass. ...”

François Massialot, the first chef of Louis XIV (1638 - 1715), published the recipe for a baked beaten-egg-white-and-sugar confection he called meringue in a cook book published in 1692.6 In his book, Massialot dubs, what he calls “... a little sugar-work, very pretty and very easy ... can be made in a moment ...”, meringue. Massialot’s book was not translated into English until 1702 and the citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the first use of the term meringue in English is 1706. Although Massialot’s recipe for a baked beaten-egg-white-and-sugar confection was not the earliest, it appears that the name he chose for it is embedded firmly in French and English and phonetic variations of it in other languages (Sp. merengue, Ger. meringe, It. meringa).

Finally, there is the much-disparaged legend that meringue was named after the Saxon town of Mehringyghen, where the Swiss pastry cook Gasparini supposedly invented it in 1720. The fact that the term meringue was mentioned in John Kersey’s 1706 edition of Edward Phillip’s dictionary, The New World of English Words, casts considerable doubt on this story. Further to the point, The Oxford Companion to Food, states without equivocation, “Legends to the effect that the origin of the name [meringue] is connected with the activities of a Swiss chef in 1720 may be disregarded.”

The diary-like style of Lady Fettiplace’s and Lady Fane’s handwritten recipes do not suggest discovery or invention; both recipes are written in the style of someone simply making a record for herself and her friends on how to make a confection she had made many times before. The recipes of Massialot and Gasparini were published formally in cookery books, but neither of the recipes were couched in language suggesting they were crying “Eureka!”. However, it is possible, perhaps, even probable, that an as-yet-unknown English or European cook invented or, in a serendipitous manner, discovered the essential ingredients and method for making a meringue before 1604, but, if this is true, it is not in a record available to us today.

The vaguely defined beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth century made for “interesting times” in the culinary world:

By the seventeenth century the kitchens of the royal and noble families in Europe and England had access to a relatively wide variety of foods and the royal chefs and their assistants were striving for new ways to prepare and serve them. As a result, gastronomy, in general, and extravagant epicurean foods, dinners and practices, in particular, were of interest to the royalty and nobility and those who served them. Prior to the seventeenth century, cookery books, whether they were in manuscript form or set in print, were written by professional chefs for other professional chefs. This is noted by Gilly Lehmann in her book, The British Housewife: Cookery Books, Cooking and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Prospect Books, 1999). However, for whatever combination of reasons, beginning in the early-seventeenth century, interest in cookery burgeoned at all levels of society and a cluster of new authors emerged, some of them housewives, some of them cooks and some of them servants employed in the manors of the minor nobility. In general, they were enthusiastic amateur cooks, rather than professionals, and wrote to a broader, newly aware audience of housewives and others interested in improving what appeared on their tables each day.

Kathryn Hughes wrote a review of Gilly Lehmann’s book which appeared in The Guardian for 6 August 2003. In the review she captures the ambience of the time about which Lehmann writes and in which Lady Fettiplace and Lady Fane lived. In particular, she says,

“Fine dining was a competitive sport in Georgian England [the time period from 1714, when George I was crowned, to 1837, when Queen Victoria started her reign], at least among those who could afford it. The Whigs — aristocratic, vaguely internationalist— were particularly keen on buying up the best French chefs. ... Running alongside this discourse of the exquisite [in the culinary arts] was another more homely strand of cooking and eating. As the 18th century progressed, bourgeois tastes, buoyed by an influx of cash and confidence, began to assert themselves not only as delicious but a time, there was something unpatriotic about smacking your lips over all those rich and complex flavours, especially since they were probably designed to disguise meat that was less than fresh. Instead, it made sense to look back to the 17th century — or at least a mythic version of it — in which English gentlewomen led the way in preparing food that was simple, truthful and close to home (no manor house was complete without a still room from which issued a stream of jellies and preserves, the products of a well-stocked kitchen garden).”

“Leading this revival of British cookery in the 18th century was a clutch of women who knew a good market when they saw it. For centuries mothers and daughters had swapped ‘receipts’ in a haphazard way: now it made sense to fix that wisdom in print and charge for access to it. The authors of these new cookbooks with brisk titles such as The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy by a Lady (end note 7), London, Printed by the Author, 1747, were either female chefs who had worked in the kitchens of the gentry, or else harried housewives with a keen sense of what was really needed. These women wrote endless new editions for money, pilfering recipes from earlier authorities and bringing out endless new editions if it looked as though the public would pay.”

Hannah Glasse also wrote The Compleat Confectioner and The Servant’s Directory, both published in 1770.

Michael Barry makes a similar observation in the Introduction to his book, Old English Recipes, (Jarrod Pub., 1995). He, too, mentions the contemporary published works of Hannah Glasse (end note 7) and, in addition, those of John Farley (end note 8) and Eliza Acton(end note 9).

Further, Barry expresses the opinion that, parallel to these formally published works, “... a second more private [and informal] tradition of recipe collection was in operation.” Many of these recipe collections were in manuscript form and were not published in a formal sense, but they make an interesting and personal record of what was happening in Georgian kitchens that were less than royal. The collection of such documents at the Centre for Kentish Studies in Maidstone, Kent, ranges “... from individual pieces of paper to fully bound and carefully annotated [manuscript] books of recipes, herbal receipts, nostrums and chemical formulæ for producing everything from dinner to the cure for a sick horse. Their age ranges from the beginning of the 17th century, when the Stuarts were newly on the throne of England, through to the middle of the 19th century, when Victoria had recently begun her reign. ... There [are] thousands of recipes and directions reflecting a world where there were no convenience foods unless you had made them yourself some time before. ...”

In The British Housewife written by Gilly Lehmann, she offers a comment about Massialot’s book: “Of the French cooks who followed La Varenne, ... the most influential, especially in England, was Massialot, whose Cuisinier roïal et bourgeois was published in 1691. Massialot’s book showed the full-blown French ‘court’ style of cookery [presumably based in Service à la Française; however,] his book is much more royal than bourgeois (the author’s [Massialot’s] disdain for more modest readers appears clearly in his preface).”

Concerning the French court style of dining: Service à la Francaise captured the essence of the fabulous feasts of the aristocracy two centuries ago. It was a virtual deluge of food served all at once. The tables of the nobility groaned with the sudden appearance of four soups, four fish dishes, four grand roasts, thirty-six side dishes and a dozen desserts, served in one mad rush. After the Revolution, in 1789, however, the great French chefs saw their client base shrink precipitously, forcing them to look for work elsewhere in Europe. By early in the nineteenth French chefs had landed in England, where a still intact, relatively wealthy upper class could afford to avail themselves of their culinary ministrations. Throughout the nineteenth century, fine dining in England remained a heavy affair. Dinners lasted five hours. Tables groaned under the same heavy French-inspired menus, only now served à la Russe — that is, in an organized fashion, appetizer through dessert. Escoffier codified Service à la Russe for the first time in writing, so that chefs everywhere could copy the French model. His efforts quickly spread French food throughout Europe; and her wines, served alongside this opulent fare, became the gold standard.

Back to the origins of meringue: We have four claims of precedence for the first recorded recipe of meringue to consider:

• the recipe of Lady Elinor Fettiplace for a baked beaten-egg-white-and-sugar confection in a manuscript cookery book published in 1604,
• the recipe of Lady Rachel Fane for a baked beaten-egg-white-and-sugar confection in a manuscript cookery book published in 1630,
• the recipe of François Massialot in a cook book published in 1692 and
• the recipe of Gasparini in a cook book published in 1720, the only copy of which was destroyed in World War II.

The original and singular combination of beaten egg white and sugar inspired generations of pâtissiers to create hard (Swiss) and soft (pie) meringues and variations such as Italian meringue, poached meringue and stand-alone, meringue-based confections, such as, baked Alaska, dacquoise, japonais, progrès, Schaum torte (in Austria and Germany), succès, vacherin, and, of course, pavlova.

From what we understand of the social and cultural milieu of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is reasonable to presume that early interest in meringue was confined, in the main, to a relatively small segment of European society, a society where the ostentatious elegance of Service à la Française, a kind of sitting buffet, was the norm and the only table flatware furnished a diner was a spoon. Every gentleman already carried a sharp-pointed knife to cut and spear meat for himself and his lady companion. The knife with a rounded end and the multi- tined fork, designed specifically for table use, would come later.

Closure

In 1604, Lady Elynor Fetiplace put her recipe for “white bisket bread” — read “meringue” — in her manuscript receipt book. It is doubtful that she gave any thought to the possibility that four hundred years later someone would read her recipe and note that it was the earliest documented record of an airy confection she had made many times before. Yet, what was a commonplace event for her was, for me, the delightful, capstone event in a relatively long research effort. Lady Rachel Fane’s entry for “pets” — again, read “meringue” — in her manuscript receipt book only two decades later serves to emphasize that neither she nor Lady Fetiplace considered making their versions of meringue unusual events. To them, the recipes were routine entries in their receipt books. Massialot’s “... very pretty and very easy ... little sugar-work ...” he dubbed meringue is noteworthy simply because he chose the name by which we know Lady Fetiplace’s baked beaten-egg-white-and-sugar confection today.

 

END NOTES

3 Elynor Fetiplace’s Receipt Book, 1604, the manuscript book inherited by John Spurling was sold to a Japanese collector and, thus, is no longer available.

4 John Spurling produced a three-volume, typescript transcription of Lady Fettiplace’s book which was published in that form by Stuart Press, Bristol, U.K., 1994.

5 “Snow: A dish of cream that resembles a tree blanketed with snow. Take a quart of cream not too thick, beat it with a birchen rod with whites of Eggs in it, take off the snow as it rises till you have enough of it for a dish, boil some cream for the bottom, set a penny loaf [a small loaf of wheaten bread that weighs about 61⁄2 ounces] in the bottom of it with a rosemarie sprig set in the midst, strow [sprinkle] your snow at the top of it.” Source: A manuscript entitled: Archimagirus Anglo-Gallicus (Excellent and Approved Receipts and Experiments in Cookery), 1658.

6 François Massialot, Nouvelle instruction pour les confitures, les liqueurs et les fruit, Paris, Charles de Sercy, 1692.

7 The “Lady” of the title page was Hannah Glasse. In 1747, when it took between £40 to £80 per year to support a family and a common laborer earned about 15d per day, the price of the book was 3s 6d, a goodly sum.

8 John Farley was the principal cook at the London Tavern, from about 1768; Farley hired Richard Johnson to ghost write the book, The London Art of Cookery, for him; the book was published in London in 1783, and by 1804 was in its Tenth Edition.

9 Eliza Acton (1799-1859) wrote poetry but is better known for her book, Modern Cookery for Private Families, London, 1845, which was probably the first basic cookbook written for a housewife rather than a trained chef. In her book, for the first time ingredients, were listed separately, rather than in the body of a recipe.

 

please read part one the origin of the pavlova and part three the basic rule for a traditional pavlova

and the original articles:first pavlova article
a history of the pavlova
the debate rages on...

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