The Duke of Orléans gave a dinner at The Savoy for the Australian soprano, Nellie Melba, in the early 1890s. Melba was singing in Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin. In the story the eponymous hero comes to the aid of the damsel in distress (whose name is Elsa) on a boat pulled by a swan.
Auguste Escoffier, head chef at The Savoy at the time, knew Nellie Melba, who had given him some tickets to the opera. He devised a pud of peaches on a bed of vanilla ice cream, presented on an ice sculpture of a swan, naming the dish Pecheau Cygne. Later, having opened The Ritz Carlton hotel with César Ritz, he ditched the swan, added the raspberry coulis, and renamed the dish, Pêche Melba.
Helen Mitchell was born in Melbourne. From the start she was clearly musically gifted, and, after much hard grind, she went to Paris to study under the German mezzo-soprano, Mathilde Marchesi. Marchesi persuaded her to take a stage name – Nellie (from Helen) and Melba (from Melbourne).
You could try making this with a blackcurrant or blueberry sauce. For more about different types of fruit sauces, or coulis, follow this link.
Alternatively you can substitute the peaches for pears, apricots, or strawberries (which, obviously need only very light poaching).
But you fiddle at your peril. The dish’s inventor, the great Escoffier warned, “Any variation of this recipe ruins the delicate balance of its taste.”
And, yes, Melba toast is also named after Nellie Melba.
Recipe for a classic, operatic peach Melba
For 6 (in fact, as part of a three course meal, this could almost do for 12)
For the stewed peaches:
- 6 medium, ideally white, not over-ripe, peaches
- 340g/1 cup golden caster sugar
- 480ml/2 cups water
- 1 tsp vanilla paste
- Squeeze of a quarter of a fresh lemon
For the raspberry coulis:
- 400g/14 oz frozen raspberries
- 170g/½ cup golden caster sugar
- 80ml/⅓ cup of water
- Squeeze of a quarter of a fresh lemon juice, and a sprinkling of zest
- Vanilla ice cream: either make your own (go here for a very simple, no-churn method) or make sure you get a good quality one – go to What You Really Need to Know About Choosing Vanilla Ice Cream – Some On Offer Should Be Illegal – for some advice on what to avoid.
- Sprig of mint if you have any growing to hand (Escoffier would not have approved – he eschewed anything other than a few slivers of fresh (NB only fresh, not dried) almond for garnish
- Take the raspberries out of the freezer to defrost.
- Boil a full kettle.
- Peel the peaches by scoring a cross in the bottom, putting into a bowl, and topping with the just boiled water while you count up to 30. Go to The Quickest Way To Peel Tomatoes (or Peaches) for more on this.
- Then put immediately into a colander, and put under the cold tap to cool. Cut each peach into half, and carefully prise out the stone. If the peaches are very ripe, they may peel easily without the boiling water, and you may need to cut into quarters and cut out the stone.
- Put the sugar, water and vanilla paste into large non-reactive saucepan, and heat until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to a simmer. Then poach the peaches, cut side down, covered, for five minutes. If you think they need a bit more cooking (it all depends on how ripe they are) turn them over and cook for two or three more minutes. You don’t want them to go mushy.
- Take off the heat, and leave the peaches to cool for a couple of hours.
- In the meantime, push the defrosted raspberries (use a microwave to speed up the defrosting process if you need to) through a sieve, into a medium saucepan with a lid, ideally a Dutch oven, such as a Staub or a Le Creusset. Follow this link for why – these makes are specially designed to maximise the condensation when covered, and these precious drops with wash down any sugar crystals which may form on the interior surface of the saucepan.
- Add the sugar and water, cover, and bring to the boil. Uncover and boil for a couple of minutes.
- Stir in the lemon juice (and a shaving of zest) and leave to cool along with the peaches.
- Serve the peaches, the raspberry sauce, and the ice cream together…perhaps with a sprig of mint. Serve any remaining sauce in a jug, for people to help themselves.
Below, Nellie Melba sings Home Sweet Home and Lo, Here The Gentle Lark