Well-crafted stories and expert culinary insights

Aug 2013

Dame Melba: A Culinary Muse

Sure, I got caught up in the groundswell of interest in Downton Abbey after it got so many friends yammering about it in that first season. I dutifully caught up on all the episodes, watching that last season in real-time, able to commiserate and grouse along with them (really? a car crash in the last scene? after so much distress already that season??).

So I’m a bit of a fan, though in a pretty mainstream way. News of new cast members/characters due to appear in the next season would usually not register with me. But reading yesterday of a new guest character for season 4 was different. Because it’s Dame Nellie Melba, the real-life opera diva from Australia, to be played by New Zealand opera star Kiri Te Kanawa. And my interest is not because I’m such a big fan of opera. But because I just love the randomness of the Australian opera star being namesake to two very disparate culinary legacies: Peach Melba and Melba Toast. Both of which were created for her by none other than legendary chef Auguste Escoffier.

I was first introduce to Ms. Melba while working with Anne Willan on her outstanding book, Great Cooks and their Recipes: From Taillevent to Escoffier, each of the fourteen chapters featuring a different culinary trailblazer. The book had originally been published in 1977, but she revised and updated it while I was working with her in France in the early 1990s. It was one of the most fascinating projects I’ve had the fortune of working on, which included everything from testing modernized versions of historic recipes, doing photo research in historic archives in Paris and helping out with photo shoots that endeavored to depict food that reflected five centuries of culinary development.

In the context of discussing Escoffier’s work at the Savoy Hotel in London, in partnership with hotelier César Ritz, Anne’s book mentions that among their elite customers was Nellie Melba who “lived there whenever she was singing across the way at Covent Garden. It was after her performance in Lohengrin that Escoffier served the first version of pêches Melba–poached peaches on a bed of vanilla ice cream set in a swan of ice, recalling the swan in the Wagnerian opera. (Not for several years did Escoffier add the crowning touch of fresh raspberry sauce.)”

Elsewhere I’d learned about his creation of the unassuming, otherwise forgettable dry toast that also bears her name. It’s an unlikely creation for such a celebrated chef, but he was–by all accounts–doing a great job, catering to the needs of a patron, even if that meant simply drying out this slices of bread. I’ve read two version of the toast’s inspiration, (a) that she was ill and requested something light and delicate to help settle her stomach and (b) that she was trying to watch her waistline and asked for a less-filling alternative to what graced her table’s bread basket. Either way, it’s some credit to Escoffier’s cred that something so simple is still in circulation today and bears the name of the grande dame of opera. (Who, as it happens, also graces the 100 dollar bill in Australia, which I learned on a trip there….)

Now I’ll be looking forward to the next season of Downton Abbey with a bit keener interest, to see how Dame Melba works into the plot and to see if Mrs. Patmore has anything up her sleeves in a nod to Melba’s role as a culinary muse.