Dating back to the 19th century, Eton mess is a landmark British dessert consisting of whipped cream, crumbled meringue and strawberries or other fruits. The dish is traditionally linked with Eton College, the venerable and wealthy boys-only boarding school near Windsor, England, though it had become more widespread by the turn of the 20th century.
For its association with the exclusive college and name suggesting disorder and dysfunction, the dessert has also been served up by political commentators reaching for a metaphor to describe the British Conservative Party and the power feuds within.
Here’s a short history of the Eton mess.
The origins of Eton mess
In 1896, the historian Arthur Beavan reported that an Eton mess was served to a royal garden party three years earlier. In attendance were Queen Victoria, her grandson Prince George and his betrothed Princess Mary of Teck. His reference to “Eton Mess aux Fraises” is among the earliest written references to the dessert.
Eton mess isn’t a singular dish. A Lancing mess is basically the same thing, but with bananas, and is served at Lancing College in Sussex. Meanwhile, Cambridge University’s Clare College professes its own Clare College Mush, claimed by Sara Paston-Williams, author of Traditional Puddings, to be “the original recipe for this traditional pudding”.
However, it’s with Eton College that the dessert is linked. The sweet’s unspectacular ingredients — strawberries, cream and meringue — aren’t what elevates it to distinction, rather its association with the elite school founded by King Henry VI in 1440.
While the word ‘mess’ may refer to the messy appearance of the dish, it might alternatively refer to a mixture of ingredients or a mixture of people eating together.
In any case, by the 1920s, a writer in The Times welcomed alternatives to “countless varieties of compôte and derivatives of the famous Eton mess.” In the 1930s, Eton mess was served at the school’s tuck shop. According to its entry in the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, this variation of the Eton mess was served with strawberries or bananas, and with ice cream or cream. It was also served at the nearby Royal Ascot race meeting in 1935.
A dropped pavlova
Its history before royalty tucked into broken up meringue and summer berries in 1893 is obscure. But clearly, the Eton mess had become a dessert with currency in the early 20th century.
Despite this, variations of a popular tale situate its origins during a picnic or cricket match which took place at Eton College in the 1920s, though possibly earlier. At the event, a pavlova topped with cream and strawberries supposedly had a run-in with an excited dog. The result was a squashed and upturned dessert, though one which the cricketers were happy to eat.
This origin story may be more fanciful than factual. But Eton mess is traditionally served at the annual cricket match between Eton and Harrow. It’s also served on the birthday of King George III at the school, in memory of the king’s relationship with Eton.
Hard to stomach
When presented with an opportunity to criticise the British Conservative Party and its internal political contests, pundits and activists have at times reached for the iconic dessert as an analogy. The imagery is used because of the association between Conservative politicians and the cloistered boarding houses of Eton, particularly during the ministries of David Cameron between 2010 and 2018.
In May 2022, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver resurrected the quip when he used the dish as an analogy for the British government’s repackaged obesity strategy, parts of which were deferred due to the cost of living crisis which began in late 2021.
The chef and campaigner staged a protest outside the Prime Minister’s office at No 10 Downing Street, where he wielded an Eton mess and told a BBC reporter that it was “symbolic of privilege, and it was symbolic of the pavlova that got dropped, that got scraped up, and put in a bowl and got turned into an Eton mess.” He described the government’s u-turn as “like that dropped pavlova”.
Oliver followed in the footsteps of Baroness Warsi, who in 2014 promoted a mocked-up front page on live television about No 10’s “Eton Mess”. This followed education secretary Michael Gove’s description of the number of Old Etonians in Cameron’s cabinet as “ridiculous”.
The wearisome quips may be hard to stomach, but the Eton mess itself, a simple, sweet and textured combination of meringue, cream and strawberries, is sure to remain a perennial favourite.