Dessert Week at The Great Kiwi Baking Blog

Is there any food more symbolic of New Zealand than the pavlova? Of course the Great Kiwi Bake Off was going to have some sort of pav challenge. It’s Kiwi As.

“But wait,” you say, “isn’t pavlova actually an Australian dessert?”

Oh, I am so very, very glad you asked.

Allow me to introduce…

It’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t know what a pavlova was. I don’t think I’d encountered one in person before moving to New Zealand, but I’m fairly certain I had heard of them. At the very least, we’d learned about them in culinary school, but they weren’t at all common in the communities I grew up in, so for the benefit of others who might not have had the pleasure yet, let’s start with an introduction:

Named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, Wikipedia describes the dish as “a meringue dessert with a crisp crust and soft, light inside, usually topped with fruit and whipped cream.” Kiwis have described it to me as a large round cake made of a meringue (so egg whites whipped to a stiff foam with sugar) that has vinegar and cornflour (cornstarch) added to it so that when it bakes, the exterior dries out and becomes crisp and crunchy, but inside it is soft and pillowy, like a marshmallow. It is finished with whipped cream and fruit on top – usually some combination of passionfruit, kiwifruit, and strawberries.

Meringue Pavlova  with whipped cream and fresh fruit.

So where did it come from?

Believe it or not, for about 50 years, both Australia and New Zealand not only claimed the pavlova as their own, but were each more or less oblivious to the other’s claim. According to Professor Helen Leach in her book A Pavlova Story: A Slice of New Zealand’s Culinary History, it wasn’t really until the 1974 death of Bert Sachse that the two countries gained a national awareness of the contention over the dessert’s origin story. This is because Sachse was an Australian, working as a chef at a restaurant in Perth in 1935 when he developed a recipe for a meringue cake with a soft center, served with whipped cream and fruit. His boss, Elizabeth Plowman, named it in honor of the famed Russian ballerina who had toured Perth in 1929, because she found the cake as light as the dancer. Naturally, this story was included in his obituary in the Aussie newspapers, which then came to the attention of the Kiwi newspapers, which brought it to the attention of the Kiwi public. And the pavlova war had officially begun.

The Pav War

At first, ammunition in the Pavlova War ultimately consisted of anecdotes, shot across the Tasman Sea by newspapers in New Zealand, relaying people’s recollections of eating or preparing pavlova before 1935. But without hard evidence of any prior claim, the Aussie papers (and public) were able to shield themselves from the initial barrage. After all, Bert Sachse had given an interview in 1973 in which he explained how he had worked for a month developing the recipe – how much harder could the evidence get?

Then in 1982, Michael Symons waded into the fray with his book One Continuous Picnic, for which he had managed to unearth a New Zealand recipe for “Pavlova Cakes” dated to 1929, but the recipe was not for pavlova as we know it. Rather, it produced several dozen small meringues that were also named for the ballerina because they were so light and airy. This signaled a shift in the combatants’ strategy: away from gathering anecdotes and towards finding the earliest published recipe not only called pavlova but also that would produce the dessert as we know it today.

Professor Leach, who became involved in the conflict in 1995 via a reporter at the Otago Daily Times, ended up spending a decade searching some of the oldest recipe collections in New Zealand before ultimately finding a 1929 recipe for pavlova cake that actually produced what we would recognize today as pavlova. At last, here was proof positive that New Zealand had it first – in name as well as in thing. Ergo, the pavlova is Kiwi.

Great minds think alike…

However, that’s not to say that Sachse’s claim to fame is false. Because meringue cakes were growing in popularity in both Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s and 30s, a number of women’s magazines took to publishing recipes for them. One such recipe – again, for a “meringue cake”, not a “pavlova” – contributed by a Kiwi woman in Rongatai, ran in the Australian Women’s Mirror in early 1935. It is likely that this recipe provided the foundation for Bert Sachse’s experimentation, as an interview with his wife revealed his penchant for reading women’s magazines. The fact that it was given the same name as a similar dish in New Zealand could have just been a coincidence, and not a farfetched one at that. By the 1930s, Anna Pavlova had already had several different dishes named after her all over the world, including the small meringues that Michael Symons had found in New Zealand. Sachse’s boss was very likely just giving the dish a very “on-trend” name. So maybe New Zealand paired the concept with the name first, but Australia didn’t necessarily steal it.

Or steal alike?

Recently, there’s been another development in the pavlova’s origin story. In 2015 – almost a decade since Leach’s book was published with her findings – reported that Annabelle Utrecht, an Australian, and Andrew Paul Wood, a Kiwi, had spent the previous two years researching the origin of the pavlova and now “can ‘categorically state’ the modern pavlova began life as a German torte”. To them and the reporter writing the story, I respectfully respond with “No shit, Sherlock.”

See, in her book, Professor Leach already looked at the history of the first large pavlovas as meringue cakes, and concluded that both the Kiss Cake (or Baisertorte) and Foam Torte (or Schaum Torte) are ancestors of the modern pav. She even explains how German immigrants brought those recipes from their homeland to North America at the turn of the 20thcentury. So Utrecht’s and Wood’s “discovery” of the pav’s German ancestry (as well as Austrian ancestry, through the Spanische Windtorte, another style of meringue cake) isn’t really news to me. It seems their findings concur with Leach’s: the pavlova evolved from the large meringue cakes of Europe.

Culinary Creationism vs Culinary Evolution

But Utrecht and Wood believe these findings are proof that “the idea that [the pavlova] was invented in New Zealand or even Australia is total fiction…” It seems that, in their view, Sachse’s story and the stories around the first Kiwi recipes are not stories of experimenting with older recipes and changing them, bit by bit, into something new. Rather, any so-called evolution was actually just the rebranding and claiming of “a cake already in existence”. Utrecht and Wood appear, then, to be the creationists of the culinary world, at least as far as the pavlova/meringue cake is concerned.

Leach, on the other hand, emphasizes that “no one creates recipes from scratch.” In her decade of research, she documented the progression of a recipe for “Meringue Sponge Sandwich” as it evolved into the recipe for “Meringue Sponge Sandwich or Pavlova Cake” across four editions of the same early Kiwi cookbook – not only through changes to the recipe’s name but also through changes to the proportions and list of ingredients, the method for cooking (cake tin to paper-covered tray), and a reduction in layers (from multi- to single). Leach, then, would appear to be take the Darwinian view of culinary history.

Of course, I can’t dismiss the possibility that Utrecht and Wood have made other, unique discoveries that support their belief that the pavlova is an “appropriation” of an ancient European meringue cake (instead of an evolution). They are after all working on a book and documentary, so I can’t imagine they’d disclose all their findings for free, right? But in terms of what they’ve released to the press thus far, as ground-breaking discoveries go, I’m not convinced it even warrants a report on GeoNet (the NZ website for tracking earthquakes).

Personally, I tend towards the culinary Darwinian mindset. Like Professor Leach, I believe that recipes rarely, if ever, spring forth, fully formed, from the mind of a single individual, and my cross-cultural experiences back that belief up. Recipes evolve over time and across borders, the result of creativity, the mixing of cultures and experiences and, sometimes, simply out of necessity. I still find it interesting and important to explore a recipe’s ancestry – as clearly evidenced by this blog – but not because the exploration ends in “this is mine and not yours”. Instead, culinary history shows us how alike our tastes and culinary inclinations are.

And in the case of the pavlova, it not only ties the Aussies and the Kiwis together, but also links them to Americans and Germans and even the House of Habsburg. Just think of that big happy family at your Christmas lunch this year, eh?

Up Next: I try to come up with an AmeriKiwi Pavlova


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