Can we just say “from the English-speaking peoples living south of the equator” and leave it at that? Because lordy, this has been a point of contention between the Aussies and the Kiwis for about 40 years now. I hesitate to dip my toe into these shark infested waters, but what the hey. My tea is strong and my resolve is up.
What no one disputes is that pavlova is a sweet named for a ballerina, one Anna Pavlova, a principal dancer in the Imperial Russian Ballet in the last years of the 19th century. In 1905 she left the Imperial Ballet and formed her own company, with whom she toured the world until her death of pneumonia in 1931. During the twenties she toured Australia and New Zealand at least twice. Her skilled and sensational performances engendered honorifics of all kinds, many of them edible.
Some were little gelatin desserts. Others were tiny coffee-flavored meringue cookies dotted with nuts. Still others were large meringue cakes consisting of a single large layer of meringue covered with whipped cream and fruit. Of course the latter versions have come to be accepted as the definitive pavlovas. But where were they first created? In Australia or New Zealand? And by whom? That’s been the rub for decades, and as with so many long-standing arguments related to food, there’s still no absolutely final answer to the question.
The reason: because both the Aussies and the Kiwis were making and eating meringue cakes decades before they’d ever heard of Anna Pavlova. Some of them were large, some small. Some had two layers, some had only one. Some had cream on them, some had fruit, some had both. Indeed the antipodean regions were something of a brew pot of meringue desserts in those days, which only stands to reason since baked meringues had been popular in the English-speaking world as far back as the mid-1700’s.
However that didn’t stop an Australian chef by the name of Herbert Sachse from claiming he invented the particular meringue cake called the pavlova in the year 1935 while he was working at the Esplanade Hotel in Perth. That claim, made in 1973, would lead to an international tiff lasting decades. Cries of protest went up in New Zealand almost immediately. And indeed in fairly short order a recipe was produced for a single-layer meringue cake called a “pavlova” which originally appeared in a New Zealand cookbook, Daisy Basham’s Daisy Chain Cookery Book, published in 1934.
At first that seemed to settle the issue, but soon Australian diehards began to complain that true pavlovas contained ingredients (fruits, vinegar, cornstarch or whatever) that Basham’s pavlova didn’t have. While she may have put a thick meringue layer and the name “pavlova” together, too many essential components were missing to award Basham the prize of Official Inventor of Pavlova Proper.
Then in the 1990’s the smoking gun was finally found: a book called The Rangiora Mother’s Union Cookery Book of Tried and True Tested Recipes. In it were complete instructions — supplied by one Mrs. W.H. Stevens — for a full-on pavlova including a meringue layer, whipped cream and fruit on top. The place of publication, New Zealand. The year of publication, 1933. Which completely ended the debate.
It had no vinegar, it was baked in a form, etc., etc.. I’m not going to render judgement here, for it seems to me that it makes very little difference who first put the name “pavlova” on a type of cake that had been popular (in various forms) on both sides of the Tasman sea for decades before Anna Pavlova was even born. Clearly, the pavlova — like most of the world’s enduring foods — is a cultural invention that both nations can claim credit for. Or am I just being too wimpy-PC about this whole thing? Please, no extended comments as life is short.