meringue (n.) whites of eggs mixed with sugar, 1706, from French méringue (18c.), of unknown origin.
This morning, my friend Andrew tweeted a picture of a ‘meringue bar’ at a local Toronto restaurant, and this reminded me both of the sweet, complex, soft-crumbly sticky-sweet toothsomeness of my favourite dessert, as well as the mysterious origins of the term itself. From the French, of course, but the origins of the French word are cloaked in mystery.
1700–10; < French méringue; perhaps to be identified with dial. (Walloon) maringue shepherd’s loaf, marinde food for an outdoor repast (< Latin merenda light afternoon meal, probably feminine gerund of merere to merit, such a meal being part of a laborer’s wages), though certain evidence is lacking; association with the town of Meiringen (Bern canton, Switzerland) is solely by folk etymology
A town? a Walloon loaf? the connection to ‘merenda’ is tempting, since this reminds me of Italian afternoons at Caffe Florian in Venice, in winter of course, steaming pots of tea, gorgeous porcelains and plates of tiny, frothy confections, crisp macaroons or petit-fours cloaked in pistachio and pink icing blankets. The ‘merenda’ derived from ‘merere’ (or ‘meritare’ in Italian) – to merit or deserve – and who doesn’t deserve pillowy meringues cradling soft centres or dollops of jam?
In any case, a purely Rococo invention, but terribly complex and liable to ensnare the unsuspecting into nationalist debates about its manufacture – softly hand-beaten until slithery-silvered and shiny and barely baked until echoingly hollow (French) or the sugar-syrup cooked Italian meringue, draped over cakes or, also, heat-cradled in the aftermath of a heated oven until crisp. OR, Swiss meringue, beaten OVER heated water, barely bubbling to elicit steam, to melt the sugar and later beaten to a flossy gloss. Invented, of course, by the Swiss chef Gasparini.
Let Proust have his madeleines, I will take meringues….