Pavlova is an iconic summer dessert with a contested history
“I’m not sick of baking meringues yet,” says Annabelle Utrecht, who has spent the past five years researching the history of the pavlova, and recreating just about every recipe she’s ever found.
“I delight in finding long-forgotten recipes, attempting them, and sharing the results,” she says.
The pavlova — a mountain of meringue that’s often topped with cream and fresh fruit — is a summer favourite in Australia… and New Zealand.
As to which country invented it, that’s something the two countries have tussled over for almost a century.
According to David Burton’s book New Zealand Food and How to Cook It, both countries nominated the pavlova when asked by Samoa to bring a national dish to a 1985 fundraiser.
“The fury resounded in the national press of both countries,” he wrote.
The humble pavlova also polarises us in other ways.
For every one of us who thinks it’s a delicate treat for special occasions, there’s another who thinks of the dessert as a soggy mess of sugar.
So is the pavlova all fluff, or does it stand up as an iconic dish that two countries can be proud of?
Lesson one: Is the pavlova from Australia or New Zealand?
Both countries claim the pav was invented as a tribute to Anna Pavlova, a world-renowned Russian ballet dancer who toured Australian and New Zealand in the 1920s.
Ms Utrecht’s intense interest in pavlova’s provenance began with an argument about it on Facebook.
At the time she was working in media production, and was a fiery advocate for Australia’s claim.
On the other side of the argument was Dr Andrew Paul Wood, an art historian and cultural critic from New Zealand.
“We clashed over pavlova ownership rights, just like everyone else,” Ms Utrecht says of their initial interaction.
“Miffed, we were determined to prove each other wrong.”
If you believe the Kiwi version of the story, a chef at a Wellington hotel where Pavlova was staying presented the dessert to the ballerina during her 1926 tour.
The Australian tale is similar, but instead involves a chef at the Esplanade hotel in Perth who named a dessert after Pavlova in 1935 as a tribute, a few years after her death.
A few days after their Facebook disagreement, Dr Wood and Ms Utrecht reconvened.
To their mutual surprise, they’d both discovered that the pavlova had probably not been ‘invented’ in either country.
They’ve been researching it together ever since, and are writing a book about it.
Lesson two: Where is the pavlova really from?
“Meringue cakes filled or topped with whipped cream and fruit were just about everywhere, prior to the pavlova,” explains Ms Utrecht.
In fact, large meringue cakes were popular with the upper classes across Europe a good 100 years before pavlova was ‘invented’.
“They’re indistinguishable from modern pavlovas,” she says.
“One of my favourite things to do is to bake and present an antiquitous meringue cake to unsuspecting punters and ask them what it is. Invariably, a definitive chorus of ‘pavlova’ will follow.”
Ms Utrecht now runs a twitter account with her old rival, Dr Wood, under the handle @DocAndTheFrock and regularly tweets photos of the historic recipes she recreates.
Of her creations, the French ‘kiss cake’ and the German ‘foam cake’ would look at home sitting next to an Australian pavlova at a CWA bake sale.
How did these meringue cakes find their way to our shores?
Europeans migrated to the United States, Australia and New Zealand around the same time as gas stoves and egg beaters made their way into home kitchens.
Suddenly pavlovas, as we know them today, became a home-cooked favourite that could travel.
“The Schaum Torte is still a beloved and extremely popular regional dessert in US states like Wisconsin,” says Ms Utrecht.
Michael Symonds, who’s a historian of Australian food, has written that it was actually “numerous domestic cooks [who] created the pavlova” across Australia and New Zealand, roughly at the same time.
Lesson three: How to add your own twist
“The basic pavlova, [made with] the egg whites and the sugar, is such a simple thing to make,” Lina Jebeile tells ABC Life.
Lina is a food photographer and home baker who says these simple flavours provide a perfect canvas to experiment.
She makes a version that incorporates the flavours of her childhood: rose water, figs and pistachios.
“The meringue is very sweet … the ingredients you add to it as the topping really need to cut through,” she says.
“That’s what the rose water and the spices do. They cut into that sweetness.”
Lina grew up eating Lebanese food but says she stopped cooking and eating the food of her parent’s homeland when she left home. That’s now starting to change.
“When I had kids I suddenly felt like it was important to hang on to whatever I had left of Lebanese heritage. I felt Lebanese food was all I had left of that. A lot of my Lebanese-ness I had already lost.”
Ms Utrecht points out that the pavlova has a very young history, which is peppered with evolution and experimentation.
Some of the earliest recipes only feature berries with no tropical fruits, while new interpretations include peaches, figs or mangoes.
The truth is, if there’s cream and fruit on top of a meringue: it’s a pavlova. That’s according to both Ms Utrecht and the Oxford English Dictionary.
In our Food Files series, ABC Life takes a close look at a seasonal ingredient every fortnight. From how we eat it, where to find it, and the best ways to enjoy it at home.