The contended Pavlova

The origins of this meringue cake make New Zealanders and Australians quarrel

27-04-2013
Pavlova, the meringue cake named after Anna Pavlov

Pavlova, the meringue cake named after Anna Pavlova, as a tribute to the tour the Russian dancer took in the Twenties between Australia and New Zealand. The anthropology professor Helen Leach has just demonstrated that the origins are from New Zealand. The case, however, is far from being closed

They say there’s a traditional rivalry between Australians and New Zealanders, due to a particular bitterness the former feel for the latter, a famous envy which, instead of being moderated and channelled as a jet engine, creates, in fact, a deep resentment. New Zealand would like to be, not so much like Australia as “Australian”, they say; which would be a real pity seeing the immense quantity of green spaces – not due to irrigation – and the less torrid climate and a healthy isolation which, instead of restraining talent, fuels the necessity of confrontation.

Anna Pavlovna Pavlova (1881-1931)

Anna Pavlovna Pavlova (1881-1931)

One of the most good-humoured diatribes of which I’m aware, regards the birth of a cake, the famous Pavlova. Incredibly, even Wikipedia states the correct origin of the dessert as belonging to the Kiwis, something which could perhaps induce Australia to invade South Island in order to vindicate the offence with some Pinot Noir from Central Otago – another thing New Zealanders are very good at. The meringue based dessert dedicated to the famous Russian dancer who at the beginning of the 20th century was on tour more or less all around the world (lucky woman!), has promoted a quarrel which was solved by Helen Leach, professor emeritus at the University of Otago; the Anthropology professor has dedicated an undetermined number of years to analysing the recipe books of the two countries, searching for evidence that would prove if it’s best to put some slices of kiwi, instead of passion fruit, on Pavlova.

The good news is that she’s made it, something for which the fruit farmers in the Bay of Plenty are deeply grateful; what leaves purists of cuisine unsatisfied, instead, is the fact that a definite attribution of the culinary origins of a dish to only one creator is highly unlikely. Just like finding one, and only one, recipe for a traditional dish. I know this fact will make a great part of food bloggers go mad, seeing as they live in the contradiction of offering “unique and original” recipes while they are in fact adapting them to the needs of their readers.

In the case of the Pavlova cake, the research was based on any possible historical source, also looking in the private correspondence between pastry-chefs or mothers and their distant daughters. The focus point was trying to find out how a recipe had moved from one country to the other but in the meantime what emerged was that there was no univocal recipe and that the same name was referred to different kinds of cakes, while the only constant that cakes completely different from each other had in common was the name, not the meringue nor the cranberries used to decorate it.

Is it bad for me to suspect that in our days, more than “tradition” what is really at stake are economic interests? The two sides of the same medal are identical when originality is lost in the mechanism of novelty at all costs and someone holds onto the eternal repetition of doing something sensible. Living off something should be transformed into an art, just to demonstrate you still deserve it. Of course, should someone start to put pine-apples (and frozen, too) on pizza, even in Naples, I’d refuse any responsibility.


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Piatti downunder

Delicacies from Australia and New Zealand told by Cinzia Piatti