Opera is such an extravagant affair that its association with equally extravagant cuisine comes as no surprise. Tournedos Rossini, for example, a steak and truffles dish thought to be named after the composer of The Barber of Seville. Or there’s Dame Blanche, the ice cream sundae christened after a popular Victorian hit about a ghostly nun, by French composer Boieldieu, or the chocolate-topped Poire Belle Hélène, homage to Offenbach’s saucy operetta.
But it is through the name of Melba – attached both to a beloved special treat of a dessert and a crisp dry diet-friendly toast – that opera became most closely intertwined with the pleasures of the table. Today we are familiar with these standard features of so many hotel and restaurant menus: but how many of us know the story of the figure that inspired them?
Alongside the tenor Enrico Caruso, Dame Nellie Melba was the most famous singer of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Born in 1861 as Helen Porter Mitchell, she was the daughter of a Scottish building contractor who had immigrated to the boom city of Melbourne, Australia. As a small child, Helen demonstrated a remarkable ability to whistle, and out of that seed her musical talent developed. But Australia offered limited opportunities for someone with her ruthless ambition: marriage and a modest career as an after-dinner drawing-room singer were not to be enough for her. She dreamed of shining in the glamorous environment of opera, so having dumped her boorish sugar-planter husband, she came to Europe, perfecting her vocal training in Paris and reinventing herself as Nellie Melba.
The international stardom she craved came to her at the end of the 1880s, as her dazzlingly pure yet richly resonant soprano entranced audiences in London, New York and all the great opera houses of Europe. Verdi and Puccini greatly admired her superb technique, and she became particularly identified with the role of Mimi in La Bohème, in a partnership with Caruso that did much to establish the opera’s popularity. Her recordings, made in the early years of the gramophone, sold in the millions and made her a fortune. Although she was no great actress or beauty, Melba had the personality and presence of a true diva, with an iron will to match. Nobody bested her, and she always called the shots, often with the help of notoriously fruity expletives. Her success on stage would be matched by her success in the salons of high society: many aristocrats, notably the playboy Duc d’Orléans, succumbed to her apparently insatiable sexual appetite, while fashionable hostesses vied to invite this poised and forthright creature from a distant continent to their soirées (hence her brief appearance, impersonated by Dame Kiri te Kanawa, in an episode of Downton Abbey). Her proudest claim was that “I put Australia on the map,” and there was some truth in the boast. But she took a dim view of her native land’s lack of sophisticated culture, and her waspish comments about her compatriots would sometimes earn her bad press and cause affront. “Sing ’em muck,” she advised a British singer who was about to make her first visit there. “It’s all they understand.”
In 1899, when she was at the height of her fame, one of Melba’s greatest fans prepared for her a unique tribute. Six years previously the great French chef Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) had been moved by her seraphic performance in Wagner’s Lohengrin to create an elaborate dessert in which the swan that plays a large part in the opera’s plot was represented as an ice sculpture, filled with vanilla glacé and peaches, dusted with spun sugar.
Melba had graciously expressed her pleasure at this baroque concoction – and now for a gala evening to inaugurate the new Carlton Hotel on London’s Pall Mall at which she would be the guest of honour, Escoffier returned to the concept, abandoning the ice sculpture but introducing raspberry purée to complement the fruit and ice cream. The prima donna was once again enchanted, and Pêche Melba was born.
Peaches were a luxury way beyond most housewifely budgets at the time, and nothing could have been more different to the typically stodgy English pudding of suet and raisins. But the recipe would catch on after 1907, when Escoffier published it in characteristically terse and no-nonsense form in his bestselling A Guide to Modern Cookery:
“Poach the peaches in vanilla-flavoured syrup. Dish them in a timbale upon a bed of vanilla ice cream, and coat them with a raspberry purée.”
Today, mass-produced and pre-packed, Peach Melba has become as ubiquitous and some would say as vulgarised as Black Forest gâteau or tiramisu. Variants on the original recipe – some of which Escoffier would not have endorsed – include the substitution of pears or apricots for peaches, and redcurrant jelly for raspberry purée. But whatever the trend, this dish has never really gone out of fashion.
Neither have Melba Toasts, those twice-sliced, twice-baked slivers of bread that provide a minimal base for butter, cheese or pâté, or accompaniment for soup. This wasn’t strictly an invention of Escoffier’s – it features in Bartolomeo Platina’s fifteenth-century cookery manual – but he contributed it to Melba’s invalid diet when she was recuperating after an illness caused by a gruelling tour of America.
Melba could not bear to be away from the limelight, and she foolishly continued to sing publicly when she was well past her prime, giving repeated farewell performances that became something of a joke. In the last years before her death in 1931, she retired to her estate in Australia, where she held almost regal status.
Here she fretted that she would be remembered only through Escoffier’s inventions, and to some extent that fear was justified – today only a coterie of opera buffs keep the memory of her glory alive, while to most modern ears her recordings sound hopelessly oldfashioned and even comical. And yet it would be hard to find anyone whose taste buds didn’t tingle at the mention of her name.