Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dorothy L. Sayers, Oxford & Eton Mess

When I was a teenager I loved Dorothy Sayers detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. I derived a vicarious pleasure from his fictional lifestyle. At that age it was the bridge between the wholly imaginary fairytales of childhood and the delicious real and imagined pleasures of adulthood. Even the author basked in the glow of her character. Sayers’ biographer, Barbara Reynolds, quotes Sayers in How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter Wimsey:
“Lord Peter's large income... I deliberately gave him... After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubuson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.”
One would imagine the Wimsey family at a house like Longleat
Lord Peter was a man possessed of a spectacular level of refinement that reached its highest pitch in the 1928 short story The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste (Lord Peter : The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories). This tale led me down the path to exploring wine and food more than any other I can think of. Although my mother and grandmother were good cooks that enjoyed entertaining well, I did not come from a background of rarified tastes and spectacular cellars. I had never cooked in my life. At 15 I was not allowed wine. This was my introduction. I aspired to this lifestyle.
The point of the story is that 2 men, claiming to be Wimsey, show up at an appointment to obtain a poison gas formula. There is a duel of the palate that ensues to discover who is the real Wimsey. “It is not a matter of common notoriety that Lord Peter has a palate for wine almost unequalled in Europe?”, says the Comte de Rueil who devises the contest, “The bet which you won from Mr Frederick Arbuthnot at the Egoists’Club when he challenged you to name the vintage years of seventeen wines blindfold, received its due prominence in the Evening Wire”.
The two men are given wines and asked to determine their appellation, name of the producer and vintage year whilst dining on oysters, consommé marmite, poulet and confitures
After reading the story (which I know now is silly fun and rather a send-up of the Wimsey character) I felt compelled to read up on the wines that were discussed (no easy feat then, I had to go to the library!!). I read about the Chablis Moutonne (1916), Chateau Yquem (1911), Chevalier-Montrachet (1911) and Napoleon brandy and then took to trying as many as I could when I was able. I must say I have had all of them now… not of the same extraordinary age, of course, but certainly I’ve tried some at 15-20 years old which is what these would have been in 1928—even sampled brandy which was over a 100 (and held a bottle of 1811 from Josephine’s cellar but sadly was not allowed to taste it -- drat).
Dorothy L. Sayers
Why all this about Sayers??? The author of this story, Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) is connected to Oxford, you see. She was born in Oxford and her father was the Chaplin of Christ Church and she went to Somerville College in 1912.
Lord Peter Wimsey (his appearance was based on Balliol’s Roy Ridley and Sayers felt he was a combination of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster) and his lady friend Harriet Vane were both at Oxford (Lord Peter at Balliol and Harriet at the fictional Shrewbury—based surely on Sayer’s Somerville which was the first college for women at Oxford).
Balliol College (building 1868)
Balliol detail
Lord Peter first appeared in Whose Body (1923) and Vane showed up in Strong Poison on trial for murder (1930). Gaudy Night (1935), set in Oxford, has Harriet solving a mystery there with Lord Peter helping on the sidelines (and at last having his proposal of marriage accepted by Vane!).
Balliol Dining Hall exterior
Since I was attending the Oxford Food Symposium, I thought I’d share one of the dishes with you. It was an Eton Mess (Wimsey did attend Eton before Balliol~!). It is a splendid and simple dessert that was traditionally served at the cricket game between Eton and Winchester, Wikipedia tells me. It has had the name since the 19th century and was originally made only with strawberries or bananas with ice cream or cream. The meringue was a later addition. The version we had was with mixed berries and an almond meringue. It was decadent in the extreme. Antony Worral Thompson’s recipe is simple and perfect
Eton Mess
1 box strawberries(or mixed berries)
a dash of sugar
a dash of port
meringues, broken up**
cream, softly whipped
Mash some of the strawberries with a little sugar and port, toss in the rest of the berries and fold in broken meringues and softly whipped cream.
**Meringues from Kala Englnd, BBC Food
2 egg whites, room temperature
pinch of salt
pinch of cream of tartar
½ cup natural golden caster sugar
2.5ml/½ tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
. Preheat the oven to 130C/250F/Gas½.
. Butter a baking sheet and dust with flour. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form.
. Beat in 1 tbsp sugar until the mixture holds long stiff peaks when the beater is lifted. Fold in the remaining sugar, hazelnuts and vanilla. Pipe or spread the meringue into 6 forms (circles, squares-whatever you prefer) onto a baking sheet and bake for approximately 1 hour, or until the meringues are firm to the touch.
Transfer the meringues to a rack and allow to cool

Eton Mess as served at Oxford Food Symposium


Fresh Local and Best said...

You must be getting excited about your trip to Oxford, or if you're there right now - having a great time. How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter Wimsey sounds likes a great read.

This looks like a wonderful light and summery dessert. I love that you added a dash of port.

Diane said...

Great post with masses of info. Diane

Ana Powell said...

Great information, loved your post.
Lovely Eton Mess.
Wishing you a great weekend ♥

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Thanks for such great information on Lord Peter and Dorothy Sayers. I, too was intrigued by Lord Peter growing up, along with quite a large cast of British detectives. They all really seemed to embrace life, and it's fascinating to learn that Lord Peter was having the experiences Dorothy wished to have. I know I've got a short story collection hidden away somewhere, and now I'll have to dig it out!

Lorraine @NotQuiteNigella said...

Eton Mess is one of my favourite desserts so I'm excited that you've made one Deana! :) And I love why Sayers gave him the characteristics that she did, talk about therapeutic!

Lazaro Cooks said...

Great post. I love Eton Mess it is probably my all time favorite dessert. Actually, I introduced it to my wife and now she is crazy about it. Yours looks quite inviting.

Sarah said...

Love your stories. You must be a voracious reader! I think that meringues are best served 'broken'. There is so much less fuss to eat them. I think that is how I will serve them from now on.

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

I really enjoyed reading the excerpt and why she gave Lord Peters his large income and how she enjoyed spending it for him. It so fun to live vicariously through others and I'm so enjoying your trip and dessert in the same way.

Linda said...

Love this post and I love Eton Mess!

Barbara said...

I loved this post, Deana, as usual. But you could never know what a fan of Dorothy Sayers I am. I've read (and still own) every single one of her books AND have seen various Peters on TV...I thought Edward Petherbridge was most like Peter. I could have cried that she stopped writing just before WWII. Although Tallboys was later, it was the only one. I guess she figured Peter was settled for life. There were a few other references to Peter and Harriet in some later writings, but not much.

I can see you are enjoying every single minute of your trip!

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Deana, I thank you so much for coming all the way from the COTSWOLDS :) to visit with me! Most certainly, our dream of a cottage is somewhere between a French country cottage and a hobbit hole...we have already such a sweet place, now a large entertainment space with vaulted ceilings, exposed beams and French doors overlooking my boxwood garden...then an office for my husband that will free up my existing studio. So many fun dreams to fulfill, and seeing how others inspire and create, well, this is what I love about blogging. I so love to come to see you as well, as FOOD is our passion as well! TONIGHT.....COQ AU VIN! It is ready now.....Bon apétit! Anita

Pam said...

Deana, I loved this post. Welcome to Oxford!
My son makes Eton Mess quite a bit. It's his favorite.
Have a wonderful trip!

Ju (The Little Teochew) said...

Great post, Deana! Balliol Dining Hall looks like a scene from Harry Potter! ;) Is Eton Mess the same thing as Ambrosia?


2 Stews said...

My family and I visited Longleat Palace years daughter actually lost her first tooth in Oxford and got pence from the tooth fairy! This was so fun to read. And the Eton Mess sounds like a nice tidy dessert to me ;-))

Great to hear about your travels!


Clarity said...

Welcome to the mess that is Eton ;) I've served it in glasses normally a tad neater than tradition allows - big hit, try it with whipped up condensed cream too.

Lovely quote from Dorothy, lets you into the mind of the writer. Never read of her hero although I should as Daddy is an Oxford man (she boasts proudly). Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe was my teen detective fix. Peace, XX

Unknown said...

I have only recently tasted eton mess for the first time and I simply adore it. With good sweet strawberries, its just divine. Thank you for the recipe.
*kisses* HH

Mary Bergfeld said...

While I love your dessert its your story that got to me today. I am in awe of the amount of research that you do. You have hooked me and I'll be back overe and over again. I hope the day treats you well. Blessings...Mary

Deana Sidney said...

FreshLocal>A day back and I am still heady with recipes and memories. It was fun and I made the dessert... MMM good!
Food fun> I just had to share Peter Wimsey... he sort of stood for Oxford for me!!
AnaPowell> I just love the name, don't you... It is a mess but a glorious one!
TW>So good to find other Sayers lovers... she really was a great read and I loved the PBS series!
Lorraine> I think making yourself feel better is the best medicine for the blues... hers was great because she shared it so well. She invented her perfect man.. all of the good things and none of the bad. Close the page and he was gone!

Deana Sidney said...

Lazaro> I love it too... the port was a great idea (not mine)!
Allourfingers> I used to be before I started blogging.. now all I do is research! My meringues came out perfectly, wouldn't you know it? Almost a shame to break them up!
Savoring> I am the same way when I read blogs about enjoying other lands... some are so great you feel like you took the trip too!
Linda> Thanks, Linda... it is the easiest thing to do... especially if you skip the meringues!
Barbara> YOu sound like me, a died in the wool Wimsey fan. I even bought a copy of the stories at Oxford in the wonderful Blackwell's Bookstore... seemed the thing to do!
CastlesCrowns> I really did think of you when I was in Bibury.. it was heaven!
Gypsy Chef> Thanks, it was a grand trip!

Stella said...

Hey Deana, I think a lot of people's childhoods were a lot like that of Sayer's. I can completely understand her inventiveness in coming up with her characters...
This Eton Mess looks super wonderful and healthful, and the older version sounds great too actually.
p.s. that tofu dish isn't quite as refined and wonderful as a lot of the foods you post about, but it really hits the spot and is filling while also being super low fat & healthful. I think you'd like it...

Gemma said...

I like this "Eton Mess"!
Strawberries, meringues and cream is a exquisite combination. It is sweet but refreshing simultaneously...

Tasty Trix said...

I love your selection from Lord Peter re: the wine, it's so hilarious! I used to take all that sort of thing quite seriously - when I was a kid I insisted on having buttered bread and tea when I read Sherlock Holmes or Through the Looking Glass. How spoiled! I just heard of Eton Mess when I saw it made on, I think, "Last Restaurant Standing," a fun BBC show. I want to hear more and more about your trip!!!

Deana Sidney said...

Ju> they shot some of harry potter there...eton mess can be anything you want but not usually pineapple which ambrosia has.
2stews> Longleat is fun... the lord is mad as a hatter and his art is very... jarring in the great house... but it's his so... good for him.
Clarity> fun to whip condensed milk... will try. You should read peter if you dad went there... so much history.
HH>it is great fun to eat.. I just loved it
Mary> wimsey is glad you enjoyed it!
Stella>it was great she shared her dreams with us... so sweet as is the dessert.
Gemma> It's great to eat and easy to make!
Trix> I was the same way. I took it very seriously... now that I am older it seems clear dorothy was being mischievous!!!

tasteofbeirut said...

Eton mess sounds like a very English-humor type name for this dessert; would love it any old day especially with English berries which are the best I have ever tasted ; you sound like a real Anglophile, you should have met my cousin!

Jacqueline said...

I wish my messes looked and tasted like this. This is just the perfect summer dessert. Nice to meet you on FF.

Anonymous said...

Deana, I'm glad I came across your site via Foodbuzz (congrats on your Top 9 there!). You have a charming, historic, and engaging approach to food and history, which I really enjoy.



Lynne @ CookandBeMerry said...

I would love to read your post, but your site wouldn't stay in English, and English isn't one of the choices to translate to. Sorry. But your photos are very interesting and beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook? It's a lot of fun.