A famous Russian ballerina from the 1920’s, an Australian controversy and an iconic national New Zealand dessert.
I had seen the word pavlova a number of times relating to New Zealand history but I never took the effort to investigate what it was. Somehow I had imagined it had something to do with Russia or perhaps something related to the Cold War.
Pavlova is a New Zealand dessert similar to a meringue with a crisp outer shell and a marshmallow-type center. The top is commonly topped with whipped cream and fruit, often passion fruit or kiwifruit. This national dish of New Zealand is popular primarily in the summer and is also commonly served for celebrations and holidays.
It is named after a Russian ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova, who visited New Zealand in 1926, the lightness of the cake being thought to represent the ballerina’s swan costume, a white-layered tutu, or perhaps her ethereal qualities as a dancer.
Despite there being hundreds of recipes for pavlovas, the basics are some form of the following. Beat egg whites to a stiff consistency, fold in sugar, vinegar, cornflour and other ingredients. Slow bake similar to a meringue. Leave your pavlova in the oven to cool before removing. If exposed to cold air, it will collapse! Top with whipped cream and fruit.
The Pav Wars
The sports rivalry between Australia and New Zealand is legendary. Similarly the pavlova wars have been going on between the two countries for countless years, and every so many years they boil to the surface.
The controversy revolves around two subjects:
1) Who invented the pavlova first, Australia or New Zealand?
2) Which is the original and preferred topping, passion fruit or kiwifruit?
Pavlova, made in a similar manner, happens to be an iconic national dessert in Australia also. Australia claims that the dish was created in Western Australia in 1935 by Bert Sachse. Australians also commonly use passion fruit on their pavlovas, while New Zealanders used kiwifruit called by one Aussie food-writer a ‘dreary’ fruit.
The trans-Tasman rivalry erupted anew in 1999 and sparks flew.
“These bloody New Zealanders are trying to steal our national dish.” – Australian newspaper
And the New Zealanders responded.
“Those bloody Australians. It’s so typical. They’re always trying to steal our best ideas.” – New Zealand newspaper
History and detailed research in the 2000’s seems to have put the matter to rest. Helen Leach1, a culinary anthropologist—that’s right, someone who among other things researches the origins of food dishes—found the true history is not as it often seems. In actuality there were three different dishes named pavlova.
The first printed recipe was for a four-layered moulded jelly (made from gelatin similar to Jell-O) named “Pavlova” from Australia in 1926. This was distinctly different from what is now commonly termed a pavlova.
A second type of pavlova recipe appears in New Zealand in 1929 for “Pavlova Cakes”, small meringues which consist of the whites of eggs and sugar, basically small versions of the present day pavlova.
And finally a 1933 New Zealand cookbook has the first documented single-layer actual cake-size pavlova recipe. If that wasn’t enough, a full-sized pavlova recipe was found in a New Zealand rural magazine from 1929, well before Sachse in Australia had claimed to have invented the dessert. The Southland Times, a New Zealand newspaper called this last finding a “knockout blow” to the Aussies, “those pav-pinching dingo wranglers.”
“Those pav-pinching dingo wranglers.”
How about the toppings? Well, research showed that New Zealanders also used passion fruit as a topping and that kiwifruit did not become popular until after World War II.
During the war years, there was a fall in popularity of pavlova in great part due to the rationing of food items. Pavlova perhaps reached its heyday of popularity in the 1950’s. Standardized recipes became popular and a great deal of cooking-energy was expended by women during this time into baking such things as pavlovas often for afternoon tea.
The largest pavlova? Glad you asked. A 45 meter long pavlova named “Pavzilla” was created to celebrate the first birthday of New Zealand’s national museum in Wellington in 1999. But this was superseded by the 64 meter long “Pavkong” in 2005 made by students in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand.
And how about a pavlova made for 25 guests from a single emu egg.
New Zealand franchises of McDonalds in 2000 launched the McPav, a mini soft-centered pavlova, but with a passion fruit topping supposedly in deference to the Aussies at that time.
Who was this woman for whom this dessert was named?
Anna Pavlova was a Russian prima ballerina and principle artist of the Imperial Russian Ballet and the Ballet Russes of Sergei Diagheliv, and the most celebrated ballerina in the world in the first three decades of the Twentieth Century.
Born to unwed parents, her mother was a laundress. At a young age, Anna was taken to a ballet performance of The Sleeping Beauty which deeply impressed her. At age ten she was accepted in the Imperial Ballet School. Over time she rose through the ranks to become a prima ballerina.
She is perhaps best know for a solo choreographed specifically for her, The Dying Swan, danced to the music Le cygne.
Anna Pavlova founded her own ballet company and was the first ballerina to tour the world. She visited New Zealand in 1926 with her 50-member dance troupe and 22-member orchestra where she performed an astounding 38 shows in 39 days throughout the country.
In 1931 while touring in The Hague, Anna developed pleurisy. She was told she needed surgery but that she would never be able to dance afterwards.
“If I can’t dance then I’d rather be dead,” she responded.
She died shortly afterwards. In keeping with the role she had danced so many times, she whispered these final words to her personal maid, “Marguerite. . . prepare my Swan costume.”
The next day after her death, as was an old ballet tradition, the show went on with a single spotlight illuminating the empty portion of the stage where she would have been.
Video of Anna Pavlova dancing “The Dying Swan.”
1) “The Pavlova Story A slice of New Zealand’s culinary history”, by Helen Leach 2008.