I started Cloud Nine a year ago after coming across an American recipe for natural, handmade marshmallows, having had no idea that that was possible. Perhaps it’s because some of my sweetest memories are the sugary ones that I take such pleasure in restoring this long-bastardised confectionery to its origins as a delicacy, and in sharing the discovery of how sumptuous they can be.
In the Seventies, my father, a poet, had cans of Coca-Cola delivered by the case, and would chain-drink them at his desk at home as he wrote. My mother, in those days a tightrope-walker and singer, was always frugal in her tastes, but occasionally splashed out on a Bounty bar. Whenever I visited friends whose parents kept a jar of sweets in the kitchen, I marveled at the very idea.
My birthday picnics took place every June on the top of Parliament Hill in north London. The head designer of the Doctor Who monster costumes was a family friend and braved the heat to don tentacles and chase my hysterical friends and me around the heath. The other highlight was our customary party food: two tubs of ice cream from Marine Ices nearby, cones, and a date and chocolate birthday cake, baked in a film can and topped with my name in yellow marzipan. Other than that, baking and sweets didn’t figure in my everyday childhood.
Our fridge in Islington was a small, basic number, and is still humming away there four decades on. We watched a particularly stark Samuel Beckett play on TV one night. There was little speech and the stage directions seemed to consist mainly of: ‘Goes to door. Opens door. Nothing…. Goes to window. Opens window. Nothing.” It became a running joke at home: ‘Goes to fridge. Opens fridge. Nothing.’
When I was eight, I was given an Instamatic Polaroid camera in a sky blue vinyl case for Christmas, a thing of wonder in its heyday. I ran around my aunt’s house in France, wondering what to snap with my precious ten self-developing exposures. I still have the fading first shot, held down with clear adhesive corners in a scrap book: it was of the inside of my aunt’s gleaming, gigantic and, most importantly, full fridge.
So when my mother decided to incorporate sherbet flying saucers into her performance I was keen to assist. At various festivals, she walked a low rope, stripping off a rainbow of Velcroed costumes down to a nude-painted bikini. I, in my Indian mirror dress, ran around beneath her, gathering up the flying saucers she scattered. I also collected her discarded layers, wishing she would put them back on again, and dreading the final one. It was a psychological battle every time: should I save my mother’s modesty and throw back her clothes, or gorge on as much sherbet as possible, sherbet I knew was intended for the spectators?
The memory that still bears a heavenly glow is of a daytime party held on the roof gardens above the Biba department store in 1975, a swansong to mark its last days. My mother was wearing a shredded silk wedding dress and reading from a book of Rimbaud poems as she walked her rope, parasol in hand. I wandered off like Alice. It was a hot afternoon, and there were surprises down every vine-covered walkway: dancing fountains, a flamboyance (for that is the collective noun) of pink flamingos, a strongman ripping a telephone book in two. And then I saw it: a sweet stall. But this was a special, magic stall, as, miracle of miracles, everything was free. Not only that, but there weren’t many other children there, so I had it to myself. What happened next at this end of the rainbow dreamland, without my parents at my side, has vanished from my mind, but I have a good idea the dentist was involved.
Was it my parents’ culinary asceticism that led to my indulgent ways? In later life, I jumped at any chance to bake a cake and co-erced friends into making our feasts from scratch on camping weekends. In How to Eat, Nigella Lawson writes of being “unhelpfully obsessive about children’s parties: by that I mean I like to cook all the food myself. It gives me pleasure: it feels important.” That became a mantra for me when I had my own children, and I was crestfallen when my eldest requested sausage rolls, hula hoops and Mr Kipling’s Bakewells for her 10th birthday, rather than the lovingly made cheese stars, meringues and strawberry tarts she was used to.
It was probably a blessing, as the past year has seen me catering to what feels like a nation of Cloud Nine converts, and daily home-made meals are now a distant memory. The path that led to Cloud Nine is historical too. I am not the first in my family to turn a sweet tooth to a profit. In the 19th century, when Napoleon placed an embargo on British goods entering the continent, the lack of West Indian sugar cane paved the way for a thriving French sugar beet industry, making my forebears their fortune. Later on, my great-great grandmother Henriette-Felicite Deneufbourg owned a distillery and would distill alcohol from the beet in the Picardie village where my mother now lives. Like her, I have combined booze and sugar to make alcoholic marshmallows, Champagne and Strawberries, for instance, or Crème de Violette, made with a delicate French Violet liqueur.
The closest I have come to the utter freedom and astonishment I felt on the Roof Gardens that day is at Port Eliot Festival, now in its tenth year, and, luckily, on my doorstep in Cornwall. Inspired by Roald Dahl’s classic story, I am launching a draw this week for a Golden Ticket, to be found in any packet or jar of Cloud Nine marshmallows ordered online. Whoever finds the Golden Ticket will gain free admission for themselves and a friend to this July’s Port Eliot Festival, where we will be running a Cloud Nine stall. And guess what, we’re giving out free samples.