Here on Cloud Nine
Only my daughter Silver had an inkling of my new life as 2012 came to an end. For some reason, her nickname for me had always been 'Ma Ma Marshmallow'. I liked the softness it suggested, but it was a bit unwieldy and, beyond tossing a couple of bags of supermarket marshmallows into the trolley in deep winter and high summer, I felt no particular connection with them. Then I came across a recipe for something really out there: Honey and Lavender Marshmallows. It was a revelation. Not only could you make them with natural ingredients, but they could be flavoured too. Something fell into place. I have always been a stubborn champion of home-made food. I made petit fours and raspberry tarts for my mother's art openings in at her house in France Chateau de Sacy when I lived there, I bake an abundance of cheese stars and meringues for my children's birthday parties, and at the summer camp we organise every August by the Port Eliot boathouse, I corral our friends into chopping rosemary and hulling strawberries around the campfire rather than buying our feasts ready-made. It is always worth the effort.
'I've got it! I told my family. 'I'm going to make marshmallows, natural ones with luxury flavours.' I went straight out to buy a candy thermometer and borrow a KitchenAid food mixer, the only equipment needed. The following day we attempted our first marshmallows. They were a Pepto Bismol pink super-sweet disaster. My son Jesse burned his finger roasting one over the flames. "You have to put some chemicals in them!" he wailed. Within two days, the day-glo cubes were rock solid.
The more I researched them, the more I was intrigued by marshmallows. They have impressive lineage and a natural original ingredient: the ancient Egyptians combined extracts from wild marshmallow plants with honey and nuts to make a confectionary reserved for Pharaohs. The modern marshmallow is a French creation, as am I, being half French. In the early-19th century, Parisian confectioners hand-whipped the marshmallow sap with egg whites and sugar, and it became Paté de Guimauve, a prized delicacy. Marshmallows then crossed the ocean to find their mass market in America, when in 1948, a new process revolutionised production. There is, I was tickled to discover, even a word for the fear of marshmallows: Althaiophobia.
Our friends Lil and Jo Lanyon had converted the old school in our village, St Germans, into a beautiful gallery and tea rooms The Long Gallery, and were due to open in mid March to coincide with the annual opening of Port Eliot to the public. This could be the perfect place to sell my wares. I spent the next six weeks bookmarking recipes, experimenting with ratios and invert sugars (crucial for preventing crystallisation), trying out flavours and getting extremely sticky. The kitchen became a science laboratory, hastily cleared for meals. My boyfriend Louis Eliot, never a fan of shop-bought marshmallows, was an exacting taskmaster and encouraged me to get the texture just right and make the flavours irresistible and gourmet. Whenever he took two bites I knew I was getting there.
Eventually, I got the go-ahead from Lil and Jo. I was tempted to be there on their first day of business, just in case any marshmallows were sold, so I could hug the customer and photograph the occasion. Lil called at the end of the day: "We sold seven bags! It's working already!" Within weeks, Cloud Nine Marshmallows were on sale on some of the best counters in the county and I was whipping up a storm. or should I say cloud. The feedback was wonderful: "That was amazing – first time I’ve ever enjoyed a marshmallow", wrote one customer. "I think you will do what Ladurée did for macaroons to the humble marshmallow! Bravo!" said artist Gavin Turk's assistant Dominic Berning.
I took samples to my not unwilling friends for tasting sessions and sought advice everywhere. Alan Porter at Speciality Foods, Serena Rees, co-founder of Agent Provocateur, and Victoria Hull and Tom Hodgkinson at The Idler were patient, generous and invaluable. The next thing I needed was some proper packaging, rather than my home-printed labels. I first met Gavin Pretor-Pinney when we worked on Toby Young's The Modern Review magazine, and then later when he was designing The Idler magazine. He has an inimitable style, reassuringly old-fashioned with a modern, witty twist. More recently his Cloud Appreciation Society, inaugurated at the Port Eliot Festival, has become an annual marquee-filler, which led to his best-selling The Cloud-Spotter's Guide. When Gavin said he would design my packaging, I cracked open the Champagne. I am also indebted to the gifted Dirk Lindner, a veteran of our summer camps, who took time out from his usual gigs photographing pop stars and architecture worldwide to turn his lens on my dainty fluffcubes for this website.
There is nothing more satisfying for me than converting a marshmallow snob, as I was, to its possibilities. The look of surprised relish as people try one is as rewarding as first introducing my daughter to ice cream. I am trying out new flavours all the time, hoping for my fussy family's thumbs up. If there are any althaiophobes out there, please have your people call my people.