ackie Butler finds out how a sweet idea has completely taken over Murphy Williams’ family kitchen in Cornwall.
Cloud nine... it's an expression of blissful happiness, an emotion that seems entirely appropriate when faced with Murphy Williams' heavenly marshmallows.
Divine little pillows of fluffy, flavoursome nectar, I can vouch that these handmade treats are the food of the gods, and a million miles away from the sticky, over-sweet, mass-produced pink and white puffs we have come to expect as standard.
Unsurprisingly, just months after she first concocted her exacting recipe for the perfect marshmallow in her family's kitchen in Cornwall, and having sampled them at the local dog festival under a wobbly gazebo, they are selling like the proverbial hot cakes.
She is currently cooking up six distinctive, yet subtle, flavours, all created using the finest ingredients; for example, she makes her own lemon curd and meringues for the tangy lemon meringue variety and sources crystallised violets from France for the fragrant creme de violette.
Initially Murphy was peddling her wares at local events like Rock Oyster Festival and Saltash Regatta, welcoming the feeling of being a little like Juliette Binoche in the film Chocolat. She knew things were getting serious when she sold out in just three hours at the Open East event at London's Olympic Park in July. Cloud Nines are now being stocked by prestigious retailers like Selfridges in London and the Eden Project shop, as well as selling direct by mail order through her website.
To backtrack a little, it was almost inevitable that Murphy, who lives on the Port Eliot estate at St Germans with her boyfriend, music maker Louis Eliot, and their two children – daughter Silver, ten, and son Jesse, seven – would end up making marshmallows. Silver clearly has some visionary gifts – she has always called her mother "Ma Ma Marshmallow" for some reason.
Murphy, a London-based journalist who moved to Cornwall in her mid-30s to have children, is a steadfast champion of home-cooked food, quality ingredients and natural flavours. Her mother is a French artist, and her marshmallow knowledge was of the more traditional Gallic variety, on which she has based her own gluten and dairy-free recipes.
"The first time I tried to make them they were a day-glo pink super-sweet disaster. Jesse burned his finger roasting one over the flames," admits Murphy. "Next day they were rock solid. I wanted them to be as light as a feather landing on a pillow."
So, she soldiered on with what became more of a science experiment using her candy thermometer and food mixer, adjusting the balance of invert sugar until the marshmallows were exactly the right texture; then it was time to work on gourmet flavours.
"I tried some from other makers and I felt I could improve on them," she says. "I wanted to put fresh fruit, nuts and alcohol in mine. And I wanted them to reflect the finer things in life, as well as living up to the Port Eliot connection."
There have been a multitude of suggestions from friends and family; Murphy's own choices were usually inspired by her favourite puddings. The half-dozen varieties she has settled on for the time being – the other four are pistachio and white chocolate, Pimms and strawberries, stem ginger and Madagascan vanilla and double raspberry – are the result of meticulous tasting sessions, with Louis as chief critic. The poor man is currently selecting an alcohol-steeped Christmas special edition.
"He is very fussy, and that's great," says Murphy. Singer songwriter Louis also came up with the name.
"We sat around with the kids thinking up ideas; Jesse came up with Squidge Factory and Silver's was Marshmallows of Wisdom, but Cloud Nine was just perfect."
The right logo design was vital too; for this Murphy called upon her old friend, the designer and writer Gavin Pretor-Pinney, who came up with the classy typeface and scalloped edging that defines the label now gracing cellophane bags tied with white-stitched black ribbon.
She also contacted Plymouth College of art to invite students to design a special label for her glass presentation jars, which are ideal as gifts. Briony Cloke's intricate mono landscape – including colourful clouds – came up trumps. Images by artist Gavin Turk and photographer Martin Parr will appear on limited- edition seasonal jars.
Reverse labels on each bag give an irresistible serving idea; for the lemon meringue ones, for instance, it says "try with fresh raspberries and creme anglaise for a marshmallow ile flottante". Sounds like a plan.
Murphy is fast outgrowing her own kitchen; she's made and sold around 1,000 bags to date – at a push she's producing 50 100g bags a day. The family's garage is being converted into a dedicated marshmallow-making space.
Addiction warning: I have eaten a whole bag of Lemon Meringue marshmallows while writing this...