Why Britain’s Best Dessert Is A Mess Fit For A Fool

Ow. Ow. OW.

I lean over carefully, almost but not quite reaching over the bramble thicket’s angry thorns. 

OW!

It’s always this way: by September, the easy-to-pick wild berries have vanished, snatched by the people out for an evening stroll with their dog or cycling to & from work along countryside paths like these, or pecked to sticky oblivion by birds. Now only the least accessible remain – but because they’ve been untouched for months, they’ve had the time to swell in the sunshine, growing juicy and sweet and swollen until they’re almost falling off by themselves. They’re literally ripe for the picking (if you can even reach them)and ready to turn into the best dessert you can eat in Britain.

One of the joys of going for a countryside walk in the UK at this time of year is how incredibly edible everything is – if you’re wearing the right clothing to protect yourself from its natural defences, of course. 

Depending on which part of the islands you’re in, you’ll be able to pick a few bucketloads of fruit and veg that will keep you nibbling and cooking all week – and while it’s not quite the wild foraging jamboree you’d have when out walking earlier in the year, you’ll find rose hips (the seed pods of roses, delicious when turned into jam), beech nuts, the odd wild strawberry, and of course miles and miles and miles of blackberries.

Rose hips, are not only tasty but also benefit our health
Rose hips, are not only tasty but also benefit our health

But it really does depend on your clothing. To get the good stuff, you’re going to have to push inwards, through thorns that will rake your body, past nettles that will empty their histamine-filled stings into any exposed flesh to leave you with an itchy, dermatitis-like rash that bothers you for hours. It’s not easy – but it’s well worth it. (As long as you’re careful not to damage the plants as you push them aside, so someone else can enjoy a similar crop next year.)

With luck, you’ll be rolling in fruit. But if you come up empty, the supermarkets or local fruit-farmers will come to your rescue. Berries account for over 20% of the UK’s fruit market, representing around £1.4 billion (around $1.75 billion) in turnover every year. And that’s a remarkable steady turnover too: while most wild berries usually flower and fruit over less than a dozen weeks, cultivated varieties can be kept going for almost half a year, producing a more or less steady flow of fruit into our shopping baskets all year round. (The rest of our off-season blackberries come from Mexico.)

So either you’re out picking all day, or you’ve been shopping. Either way, now you’re tired and you just want to nap. Who can be bothered making dessert in this state?

This is where our British talent for efficiency comes in. And by that I mean: bone-idle laziness. Unlike our friends on the European continent, we are so very, very good at casting aside aesthetical concerns and the pursuit of beautiful-looking food, in favour of something delicious but terrible-looking. Something that looks like you’d find it puddled in a corner on a building site. Something slapdash, lackadaisical, visibly thrown together without a plan, amateurish-looking and even shambolic.

In fact, many of our best dishes are like this. Don’t judge them for their design value (for they often have none) – appreciate them for how they taste.

If you’re on our garden-appreciating tour of England and France next year, you’ll be dining in and around London – and that means you can appreciate the mess we call dessert. This isn’t a slur on English chefs: it’s a signature dish that’s literally called a Mess. The most famous example originated – or perhaps was made famous by – the famous independent boarding school of Eton in Berkshire in the early 20th Century, and as befitting a dessert made for boys, it’s just a delicious splat of fresh, sugary ingredients. (I almost feel guilty describing it in such a disrespectful way, but – a well-made Eton Mess is simultaneously a tasteless joke for the eyes and a symphony for all the other senses.)

Eton Mess, a traditional English dessert
Eton Mess, a traditional English dessert

What we’re talking about here is strawberries – usually strawberries, occasionally raspberries or even some banana – divided up and flung into a bowl on top of a few pieces of light, crunchy meringue, and then you pour some whipped cream in and halfheartedly stir the whole thing a couple of times. That is it. That’s the whole thing. (And don’t be misled: it tastes fantastic.)

In many ways, it’s a somewhat new spin on a classic Fruit Fool – an English delicacy that dates back at least as far as the 17th Century. But in other ways, it’s so much more alarming. There’s no attempt to blend the cream with the fruit by purée the latter. The aim of a Mess is not a calm, orderly uniformity of colours and layers. The aim is zero-effort, schoolboy-grade chaos. 

Yet maybe it’s honest chaos, too. It’s a dessert that throws your full attention back on the ingredients (by way of presenting you with absolutely nothing else of value whatsoever).

But if you’re looking for an altogether classier take on an English Mess, get yourself northwards and over the border into Scotland. It’s here that you’ll find what’s been nicknamed ‘the king of Scottish desserts’, something so rich and filling that it’s almost a meal in its own right – which is partly how it started out. Go back hundreds of years and you’d find Scottish smallholders and crofters breakfasting on crowdie – a blend of soft cow’s-milk cheese with toasted oatmeal, cream and honey.

Cranachan, the king of Scottish desserts
Cranachan, the king of Scottish desserts

Skip forward to the present and this breakfast has moved to the other side of the menu to become Cranachan (‘KRAN-ekkan’, from the Scottish Gaelic word for “a kind of churn”). Instead of (or along with) honey, there’s now a splash of whisky (ie. Scotch) to warm the whole thing up, and that cheese has been replaced with whatever seasonal fruit is available, usually raspberries. It’s become the most popular dessert for celebrating Scottish berry harvests of all kinds.

This makes Cranachan the perfect recipe to make with your just-foraged berries straight from the wild, as it works just as well with blackberries, strawberries, whisky- or rum-soaked raisins, even chocolate. It’s still simple enough to prepare – but if you layer the oatmeal, cream and fruit a bit as you assemble it, it’ll looks far more elegant than any graceless English Mess.

So that’s my advice. A Mess is fine, a Fool is worth a gastronomic flirtation or two, but a full Scottish Cranachan in all its multi-layered glory is this type of dessert elevated to its ultimate form. It’s definitely what our berries are grown for.

Experience the mighty Cranachan for yourself on Wheel & Anchor’s privately chartered cruise through the heart of the Scottish Highlands in 2024, amidst epic sights like Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness and the Isle of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides. Get the details here.

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