Opera, Escoffier, and Peaches: The Story Behind the Peach Melba

On her website ToriAvey.com, Tori Avey explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the recipes of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s recipes can inspire us in the kitchen today. Learn more about Tori and The History Kitchen.

The Peach Melba

The Peach Melba

The Peach Melba is one of the most famous and beloved desserts in the world. This creamy and cool dish – a simple and classic preparation of vanilla ice cream, sugary peaches, and raspberry sauce – has graced restaurant menus for decades. While many people are familiar with this delectable dessert, few know the story behind the dish. It all starts with famed French chef Auguste Escoffier and his friendship with an Australian opera singer named Nellie Melba.

First, let’s meet Nellie, who was born Helen “Nellie” Porter Mitchell in Richmond, Victoria – a suburb of Melbourne, Australia – on May 19, 1861. Nellie was the eldest of several children in a music-loving family. Her father, David Mitchell, was a successful building contractor and brickmaker. Nellie’s mother, Isabella, played several instruments, and served as Nellie’s first music teacher. Nellie was a tomboyish child with a fondness for whistling. She first sang in public at the age of eight, in December 1869, in the new Richmond town hall. She was the youngest to perform in a community concert for 700 spectators as part of the town hall’s grand opening. Nellie sang three songs, accompanying herself on the piano, to the delight of the audience. Local reporters wrote enthusiastically about her performance, saying she was a “gem,” “incomparable,” and “a musical prodigy,” giving an early glimpse of the success on Nellie’s horizon.

Nellie Melba, her father David Mitchell, and her niece Nellie Patterson. Source: Library of Congress

Nellie received her early education at a boarding school in Richmond. As a young lady she enrolled in the Presbyterian Ladies College, where she studied piano and voice. Around the time of her mother’s death in 1880, Nellie left school and moved to Queensland with her father. There she met her husband, Charles Nisbett Frederick Armstrong. They married in 1882 and had a son, George. Their early time together was short-lived; Nellie became depressed by her husband’s angry temper, as well as the area’s harsh tropical climate and constant rain. In 1884, taking her son and a few possessions, she left her husband for Melbourne in hopes of pursuing a serious musical career. She and her husband would reconnect sporadically over the next few years, till they eventually divorced in 1900.

Dame Nellie Melba in costume. Source: Library of Congress

Nellie sang her way from Melbourne to Sydney, making a name for herself in the city as an operatic soprano. She then headed to London, where she made the connections necessary for pursuing a career in earnest. In 1886 she began performing in concerts organized by Wilhelm Ganz, a singing professor at the Guildhall School of Music. Though she found some success in London, she felt her career was not progressing quickly enough. A patron from Melbourne had written Nellie a letter of introduction to famed German mezzo-soprano, Mathilde Marchesi. Nellie traveled to Paris to meet Madame Marchesi, who agreed to take her on as a singing pupil and would end up having a great influence on Nellie’s career. In fact, Marchesi is responsible for convincing Nellie to take the stage name Nellie Melba—Melba deriving from her home city of Melbourne. After many years of study and countless hours pounding pavement, Nellie’s operatic debut finally came in 1887 in Brussels, as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Nellie Melba in costume, circa 1896. Source: Library of Congress

Over time Nellie gained great popularity, singing in principal opera houses in Europe and the United States, most notably Covent Garden in London and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. She was well-known in high-society circles, and was asked to perform for important figures including Tsar Alexander III, Emperor Franz Joseph and Queen Victoria. She was the Edwardian equivalent of a major celebrity; when she appeared in public, crowds fought for her attention.

It was in London, while performing at Covent Garden, that Nellie became acquainted with Escoffier. The legendary French chef was known and respected worldwide for his innovative, imaginative dishes and “haute cuisine.” During the late 1800s, Escoffier partnered with César Ritz (of Ritz Carlton fame), and made a name for himself as the head chef of the restaurants located inside the famous Ritz hotels. His food was known for being elaborate and fancy—what we might describe today as being “typically French.” His 11-course meals were sauce-heavy, often including smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and Beef Wellington. They became the trademark of indulgence and wealth. Many of his creations were named for the star patrons of his restaurants…which, of course, brings us to the Peach Melba.

A portrait of the legendary French chef, Auguste Escoffier. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nellie Melba often ate at Escoffier’s restaurants while performing in Covent Garden during the late 1890s and early 1900s. Escoffier claims to have first created the Peach Melba while Nellie was a guest at the Savoy Hotel, where he was chef. As the story goes, Nellie sent Escoffier tickets to her performance in the Wagner opera Lohengrin. The production featured a beautiful boat in the shape of a swan. The following evening, Escoffier presented Nellie with a dessert of fresh peaches served over vanilla ice cream in a silver dish perched atop a swan carved from ice. He originally called the dish Pecheau Cygne, or “peach with a swan.” A few years later, when Escoffier opened the Ritz Carlton in London with César Ritz, he changed the dish slightly by adding a topping of sweetened raspberry purée. He renamed the dish Pêche Melba, or Peach Melba as we know it here in the U.S. The rest, as they say, is history.

Melba toast was also named after Dame Nellie… but that’s another story, for a future post. For now, I would like to share Escoffier’s original recipe for the Peach Melba, broken down into simple steps from his autobiography, Memories of My Life. Escoffier swore by the simplicity of his original dish; as the Peach Melba became more popular, he scoffed at the numerous variations that spread throughout the restaurant community. In his words, “Pêche Melba is a simple dish made up of tender and very ripe peaches, vanilla ice cream, and a purée of sugared raspberry. Any variation on this recipe ruins the delicate balance of its taste.”

Here is the original recipe for the Peach Melba, translated to English from Escoffier’s own words:

Original Recipe for La Pêche Melba (for 6)

Choose 6 tender and perfectly ripe peaches. The Montreuil peach, for example, is perfect for this dessert. Blanch the peaches for 2 seconds in boiling water, remove them immediately with a slotted spoon, and place them in iced water for a few seconds. Peel them and place them on a plate, sprinkle them with a little sugar, and refrigerate them. Prepare a liter of very creamy vanilla ice cream and a purée of 250 grams of very fresh ripe raspberries crushed through a fine sieve and mixed with 150 grams of powdered sugar. Refrigerate.

To serve: Fill a silver timbale with the vanilla ice cream. Delicately place the peaches on top of the ice cream and cover with the raspberry purée. Optionally, during the almond season, one can add a few slivers of fresh almonds on top, but never use dried almonds.

The recipe is, as Escoffier promised, quite simple. When made as written, the simple, natural flavors really shine. I have reproduced the recipe below with clear step-by-step instructions and American measurement equivalents. The only step I have added to the original recipe is to give the peaches a quick soak in water with a touch of lemon juice… this will help keep the peeled peaches from turning brown and oxidizing as they chill. If you don’t mind the peaches browning a bit, feel free to skip this optional step.

While I did not have a silver timbale for serving, the dish makes a lovely presentation in glass, too. Make this dessert with the succulent, ripe seasonal peaches that fill our markets now, and prepare to be amazed. A true Peach Melba is something very special, indeed.

Escoffier’s Peach Melba

Peach Melba with Almonds

Delight in the original Peach Melba recipe, as translated from Escoffier's words. Learn the fascinating history of this Summer treat with Tori Avey's full story in The History Kitchen.

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Ingredients

  • 6 ripe, tender peaches
  • Sugar
  • 1 ½ pints vanilla ice cream (fresh homemade is best)
  • 1 heaping cup fresh ripe raspberries
  • 1 heaping cup powdered sugar
  • 6 tbsp blanched raw almond slivers (optional)

Directions

  1. Boil a medium pot of water. Keep a large bowl of ice water close by. Gently place a peach into the boiling water. Let the peach simmer for 15-20 seconds, making sure all surfaces of the peach are submerged. Remove the peach from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and immediately plunge it into the ice water for a few seconds to cool. Take the peach out of the ice water and place it on a plate. Repeat the process for the remaining peaches.
  2. When all of the peaches have been submerged, peel them. Their skin should come off easily if they are ripe, thanks to the short boiling process. Discard the skins. Halve the peeled peaches and discard the pits.
  3. Optional Step: Place the peeled peaches in a large bowl of cold water mixed with 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice or ascorbic acid powder. Let the peach halves soak for 10 minutes. Drain off the water and gently pat the peach halves dry with a paper towel. This step will help to keep the peaches from oxidizing and turning brown.
  4. Sprinkle the peach halves with sugar on all exposed surfaces. Place them on a plate in a single layer, then place them in the refrigerator for 1 hour to chill.
  5. Meanwhile, make the raspberry purée. Place the raspberries into a blender and pulse for a few seconds to create a purée. Strain purée into a bowl through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing down on the solid ingredients and agitating the mixture with a metal spoon to extract as much syrupy juice as possible. It will take a few minutes to extract all of the juice from the solids. When finished, you should only have seeds and a bit of pulp left in the strainer. Dispose of the solids.
  6. Sift the powdered sugar into the raspberry purée, adding a little powdered sugar at a time, and whisking in stages till the sugar is fully incorporated into the syrup. It will take several minutes of vigorous whisking to fully integrate the powdered sugar into the syrup. Refrigerate the raspberry syrup for 1 hour, or until chilled.
  7. Assemble six serving dishes. Scoop ½ cup of vanilla ice cream into each serving dish. Place two of the sugared peach halves on top of each serving of ice cream. Divide the raspberry sauce between the six dishes, drizzling the sauce over the top of the peaches and ice cream. Top each serving with a tablespoon of raw almond slivers, if desired. Serve immediately.

Yield: 6 servings

 

Research Sources

Blainey, Ann (2009). Marvelous Melba: The Extraordinary Life of a Great Diva. Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, IL.

Escoffier, Auguste – translated by Escoffier, Laurence (1997). Memories of My Life. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, NY.

Herbst, Ron and Sharon Tyler (2009). The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion. Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., Hauppauge, NY.

Smith, Andrew F. (2007). The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford University Press, New York, New York.

You can uncover more fascinating food history on Tori’s website: The History Kitchen.

Meet the Author

Tori Avey is a food writer, recipe developer, and the creator of ToriAvey.com. She explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Tori’s food writing and photography have appeared on the websites of CNN, Bon Appetit, Zabar’s, Williams-Sonoma, Yahoo Shine, LA Weekly and The Huffington Post. Follow Tori on Facebook: Tori Avey, Twitter: @toriavey, or Google+.