It’s amazing how something as simple as whipped egg whites and sugar, otherwise known as meringue, can capture the imagination!
Meringue. Sensuous, billowy puffs of pale, glistening, almost ethereal matter, that melt gently on contact with the tongue to provide a wonderful sensory experience, revealing a delicate sweetness.
A substance so light and fragile, yet one that can be shaped in all manner of whimsical forms, and when baked (or more precisely, dried), is strong enough to hold delectable, flavoured creams and fruit, such as in Pavlovas and Vacherin (a meringue basket usually filled with cream, pastry cream, or both, and fruit).
As a small child of three, one of my greatest pleasures was when my mother would buy me a meringue swan as a special treat. This pretty confection was composed of two large, white meringues shaped like the swirly teardrops of a paisley motif, sandwiched with rich whipped cream to form the body, in which there was a long, graceful meringue shape decorated with chocolate to form the neck and head. Later, I remember my mom making all sorts of wonderful meringue-based desserts and sweet confections, such as seafoam candy and divinity fudge ~ fabulous treats dating back to the 30′s, which are based on cooked meringue.
I had been making more meringue-based treats and desserts when I wrote this article than I normally would, and it got me thinking about a time long past, when, during grand, festive occasions, tables would be loaded to bursting with all sorts of meats, vegetables, fruit, and of course, sweet confections! Of how the crowning glory of any such table must have been the whimsical-looking towers of meringue, cream and wild berries you sometimes see in ancient engravings. In those days, of course, such desserts would have been the privilege of precious few, such as royals and nobility! In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone apart from royal chefs and the cooks of the wealthiest nobles as having had the means or inclination to dream up such extravagant creations, or for meringue to come about by chance in their kitchen (as is the case with many great culinary inventions)!
But imagine what an awe-inspiring moment it must have been, all those centuries ago, to realise that a mixture of beaten egg whites and sugar, so soft, light, and airy, could be slowly cooked (or dried, in fact) so as to create a fairly sturdy, solid confection! And, that this unusual preparation not only tasted wonderful, but that it could be shaped and baked into a myriad forms, and that it also had long-keeping qualities! It would have been enough to launch any creative chef’s imagination into overdrive! The question of when and where meringue was actually invented had piqued my curiosity for a long time ~ and all this thinking about tempting meringue-based desserts pushed me to research the subject. To my surprise, I discovered many contradictory sources of information, some pointing to the Italians as the inventors of meringue, some to the Swiss, some to the French, and still others pointing to the English! Dates also varied from as early as the 16th century to the 17th century.
One thing is for certain ~ in order to make meringue, a certain amount of sophistication would have been needed, as well as the knowledge of preparation and cooking techniques! Basic elements that would have been essential include: quite finely ground sugar; some sort of whisk and the knowledge that the sugar needed to be added very gradually to the egg whites, with lengthy beating in between (particularly as this would have been done manually); the knowledge that any trace of fat would ruin the final result; and the ability to bake the preparation at a very low temperature. I can only imagine that “sweet meringue”, in other words, the meringues that would have been used for making elaborate concoctions such as vacherins and those we know now, were probably a long process of trial and error. It’s impossible to know the precise date of when this first happened, because very few people were literate in those days (in particular women), and recipes, rather than being transcribed, were mostly handed down through word of mouth and experience, with young fledglings learning through lengthy apprenticeships. However, the combination of these requirements makes it highly unlikly for meringue to have been invented prior to the mid-16th century.
After a lengthy search on the web, the best source I was able to find was an extensive, well-documented piece written by Douglas Muster, on the website called inMamasKitchen.com. I discovered that his work was one of the prime references on the subject in Wikipedia. Sadly, other potential sources, such as FoodTimeline.org and cuisine.larousse.fr (the online counterpart to the Larousse Gastronomique), had precious little or no information on the origin of meringue.
Like many I’m sure, I had assumed that meringue would have been invented (or created by chance) by a pastry chef from France, Switzerland, or Italy. But it would appear that this is not the case, although there is no irrefutable proof! Muster’s research surprisingly points to England as the country of origin, contrary several other sources I was able to find. Muster, following lengthy investigation into the subject of Pavlova ~ a meringue-based dessert ~ discovered that two ladies from aristocratic backgrounds had written the earliest known recipes for a type of basic meringue, although their recipes had different names, neither of which was “meringue”.
Lady Elinor Fettiplace (c. 1570 – c. 1647) provides the earliest written evidence in what was described as a small bound manuscript, dated 1604, with a short recipe for what she called “white bisket bread”, made with a pound & a half of sugar, & an handfull of fine white flower, the whites of twelve eggs beaten verie finelie, proportions which are still in use today! The quantity of flour is so small that it could be compared to the addition of cornstarch in some of today’s recipes.
Lady Rachel Fane (1612/13 – 1680), who lived quite a distance (given the period in question) from Lady Fettiplace, provides a similar recipe for what she called “Pets”, a name still occasionally used to refer to meringues in the Loire region in France.
By all accounts these women, who were born 43 years apart and lived in different parts of England, would not have known each other. Despite having been written in the vernacular of the day and being referred to by different names, these two recipes can easily be understood and currently constitute the earliest known, documented proof of meringue being prepared. Douglas Muster writes “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.”
However, it was sometime later that the commonly used term “meringue” was adopted. According to Douglas Muster, this occurred sometime after Louis XIVth’s (1638 – 1715) first chef, François Massialot, published the recipe for a baked beaten-egg-white-and-sugar confection he called “meringue” in a cookbook published in 1692. Quoting Muster, “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. Again, according to Muster, what stands out is that none of these sources proclaims to be the “inventor” of meringue.
So, in a nutshell, it would appear that chefs and amateur cooks have been devising recipes with, and based on meringue for the past 400 or more years!!! Naturally, for the first few hundred years, meringues and baking them was clearly the preserve of royal chefs and of a very small, elite minority, fortunate enough to be able to afford such rare luxuries as refined sugar; however, today, anyone can make these delightful confections! All that is needed is a little time to make some of the most delicious meringue treats.
Growing up in a family of food lovers and gourmet cooks, and having had the opportunity to live and work in Europe for over 21 years, it’s no surprise that over the years I’ve discovered literally hundreds of fantastic meringue desserts.
I’ve created the Section called Heavenly Meringue-based Desserts (under the main magazine Section called “Epi’s Food Passion”) to showcase my meringue-based creations as well as some of my favourites from various sources. It’s my pleasure to be able to share the How-To’s for making some of these here on my webzine ♥