Here’s a surprise. After her 10-year involvement as expert commentator in the “pavlova wars” between Australia and New Zealand, culinary anthropologist Helen Leach says the answer to who really invented the creamy confection doesn’t really matter – because there is no definitive answer.
Recipes, she points out in The Pavlova Story: A Slice of New Zealand’s Culinary History, are not created, but evolve. The real importance of the pavlova is not who first made or named the dish, but its lineage from the Davis Gelatine Company’s “tremulous multi-coloured jelly” pavlova, through Rose Rutherford’s bite-sized coffee and walnut pavlova novelties, to the sumptuous pavlova cake that we celebrate today as a national emblem.
Tossing parochialism aside, the rather retro-looking hardback book sports a green cover (admittedly almost a perfect match with the Kiwi-made Shacklock coal range), with gold endpapers and ribbon marker. Aussie colours.
Leach is a professor of anthropology at the University of Otago. True to her -academic background, she advances steadily through her story, meticulously citing correspondence, cookbooks and recipes and formulating a spreadsheet – drawn largely from her own -substantial -reference library of New Zealand–published cookbooks – filing 667 pavlova recipes from more than 300 sources.
She provides dates and details – rather too many at times for a casual reader, but invaluable to the serious inquirer – particulars of the sleuthing required to amass her evidence and some engaging tales of her own culinary adventures.
There’s a refreshing democratisation of sources, too. The 1928 idea of Auntie Lil from Dunedin of poking holes in the top of pavlovas and inserting cream and half a cherry gets equal consideration with French chef François Massialot’s 17th-century suggestion to fill hollow meringue centres with preserved fruit. The North-East Valley Presbyterian Church’s Dainty Recipes enjoys as much gravitas as Massialot’s Le Cuisinier Roial et Bourgeois. Pavlovas, Leach says, “are a product of the people” and their story shows just how “adaptable, practical, generous and disrespectful of authority home cooks can be”.
Half of Leach’s 1200 or so New Zealand cookbooks are modest affairs, published to raise funds for churches, kindergartens, schools and sports clubs. She found, contained within these covers, most of the recipes that tracked the progress of the pavlova. Without realising it, the authors of these community fund-raisers had documented, along with their recipes, the conditions and values of their times.
Leach is firmly in charge of her plethora of scholarly information and confidently leads us down the side roads of associated social history, including wartime rationing, the demise of afternoon tea, the influence of kitchen appliances and the introduction of metrics. The text is enriched by images of old cookbook covers and advertisements, hints for making pavlovas and 12 classic pavlova recipes updated, tried, tested and photographed by Mary Browne.
Questions are asked and answered on our behalf. Why “pavlova”? Because it was common once to name dishes after famous people such as the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who visited Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s. What’s wrong with the gelatine pavlova? Out of fashion and time-consuming to make. Is cornflour necessary? No. Do you need vinegar? Yes, or some other form of acid. Are soft centres necessary for good pavlovas? Apparently not.
And the answer to the biggie – which we must ignore, and rightly so – is backed up by all currently available evidence and tucked into the timeline towards the back of the book. Considerations of parallel evolution aside, the first Australian pavlova cake was developed in Perth in 1935 by Bert Sachse, the chef at the Hotel Esplanade. However, a recipe for a two-layered pavlova cake filled with cream, nuts and cherries, and contributed under the nom de plume “Festival”, was printed by the NZ Dairy Exporter Annual, in 1929.