Founder of Cloud Nine Marshmallows on sweet experimentation
Gourmet marshmallow-maker Murphy Williams conjures up culinary clouds of decadence
The clue that there was much more to marshmallows was there all along, in that yielding, mysterious name. Marshmallows have a long history. Some 4,000 years ago, ancient Egyptian doctors first concocted them by squeezing the sweet white sap from the root of the dainty marshmallow plant (Althaea officinalis) that grew wild along the River Nile – hence ‘marsh’ mallows. It was then added to a mixture of egg whites, sugar, nuts and honey, and used for soothing sore throats. The confectionery soon became so popular that it was reserved for the pharaohs and their families.
My urge to make marshmallows fit for royalty was cemented when I came across this quote, from Pliny the Elder, writing in 77AD: ‘Whoever swallows daily a spoonful of the juice of any of the mallows shall that day be free from all diseases.’ So I determined to make the kind of marshmallows I would seek out: decadent, luxurious treats made with love, care and the finest natural ingredients. This approach, it turned out, was in keeping with their next development, in France, during the 19th century, when Parisian confectioners replaced the medicinal plant extracts with gelatine. Pâté de guimauve was flavoured with vanilla, rosewater and orangewater, which were precious commodities back then.
In my experiments, chocolate, fresh fruit, nuts, edible flowers, alcohol and edible gold all enter the fray. My starting point is to think of the puddings I really relish: ginger cake and custard became stem ginger and Madagascar vanilla marshmallows; Charbonnel et Walker’s violet creams inspired my alcoholic crème de violette, doused in a violet liqueur from Dijon. The most successful flavours are those that undercut the marshmallow’s inherent sweetness – sharp flavours such as raspberries and lemon curd are perfect for this.
Apart from the althaiophobes (those with a fear of marshmallows) out there, what people respond to most is the texture – lighter than a feather landing on a pillow. In Cloud Nine’s outhouse, I feel like a cross between the Juliette Binoche character in Chocolat, providing customers with a blissful confectionery escape, and Walter White in Breaking Bad, working all hours to a precious formula in my would-be laboratory. It’s all worthwhile, particularly when the last, smallest label goes on the packet: the one with a gold star from the Guild of Fine Food that reads ‘Great Taste 2015’.