The pavlova: New Zealand or Australian dessert?

Rosalind Scutt
The dessert we know and love today can actually be traced back to 1926.
Rosalind Scutt
Kiwi Sceptics
Forget duelling over Russell Crowe, Crowded House or Jane Campion, it’s the origins of the pavlova that really piques the interests of Aussie and Kiwis feuding over stolen cultural 'treasures'.

What is pavlova?

Pavlova (pronounced pav-low-vah) is made of a sweet meringue-like crust stuffed full of whipped cream and finished with fresh fruits such as kiwis, strawberries and other colourful berries. The dessert is overwhelmingly agreed to be an Antipodean dish.

Why the dispute?

Australia and New Zealand have long been at battle over which country is ‘the best’, and any opportunity to claim an advantage is usually seized upon by eager patriots wanting to prove their nation’s superiority.

In the case of the pavlova, both countries claim to have invented this dessert. But proving ownership has proved difficult since it appears in history (and in cook books) at around the same time in both nations. So who invented it?

Anna Pavlova

Food historians agree that the dessert is named after Russian prima ballerina, Anna Matveyevna Pavlova (1881-1931), who toured both Australia and New Zealand in 1926 and Australia again in 1929. On her second visit to Australia, in 1929, Pavlova stayed at the Hotel Esplanade in Perth (an important detail we will come back to).

Recipe origins

But the dessert we know and love today can actually be traced back to 1926, when the cookbook Home Cookery for New Zealand included a recipe for "Meringue with Fruit Filling" (the name ‘pavlova’ is not used but the recipe is similar).

One year later, the sixth edition of Davis Dainty Dishes is published in New Zealand, which carried the first known recorded recipe using the named "Pavlova" but the recipe was for a gelatine based dish (not meringue).

Professor Helen Leach, a culinary anthropologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said the earliest recipe that uses both the correct recipe and the name ‘Pavlova’ was published in 1929 in a magazine titled New Zealand rural magazine.

In the same year, Mrs. McKay’s Practical Home Cookery, Chats and Recipes, also published in New Zealand, included a recipe for Pavlova Cakes. The ingredients were similar to those of today's pavlova, but the mixture was baked into three dozen little meringues.

Professor Leach states in her book, The Pavlova Story: A Slice of New Zealand’s Culinary History, that the first Australian pavlova recipe was not published until 1935.

But what about Anna Pavlova's stay at the Hotel Esplanade, Perth in 1929? Yes, it is true that the Hotel invented a dessert in her honour, but that recipe was not invented until 1935. On April 2, 1935 Herbert (Bert) Sachse found a recipe for 'Meringue Cake' in the Women’s Mirror Magazine (contributed by a New Zealander) and sought to improve it. The resulting recipe he called ‘Pavlova’. The sweet became a much enjoyed offering at the Hotel Esplanade high teas and won the hotel and Chef Sechse national acclaim.

And the icing on the cake (or the kiwi fruit on the whipped cream) comes from Pavlova’s biography titled Anna Pavlova: Her Life and Art (published 1982). The biographer, Keith Money wrote that during Pavlova's tour of New Zealand in 1926, a chef at a hotel in Wellington, New Zealand invented a dessert for her. Money goes on to explain that the chef was inspired by Pavlova’s tutu which was draped in green silk roses. The dessert pavlova was intended to be a metaphorical representation – light and frothy with the soft meringue, cream and colourful fruit pieces representing the splendour of the dancer’s costume and ‘lighter than air’ form.

The verdict

Given the developments outlined above it seems faily conclusive that New Zealanders first developed the recipe for a meringue cake — sometimes called pavlova. However it wasn't until Perth chef Bert Sachse developed his pavlova recipe that the name and recipe become more widely known around the world. One thing we can all agree on is that the pavlova has become an important part of the national cuisine of both countries.