Pavlova wars

This week we salute the Pavlova, a delectable dessert, because the first documented recipe for it was published 79 years ago this month. Our Australian guest blogger, Andrea Cooper, writes about the battle between Australian and New Zealand to claim credit for it.

Australia and New Zealand are neighbor countries and allies. Yet their own rivalry, across the ditch (the Tasman Sea), is legendary and taken seriously by many. Examples of this friendly but deep rivalry abound, especially in sport.  A couple of years ago when New Zealand lost their America’s Cup (yachting) challenge to the US, New Zealand’s loss was played up in the Australian media as a local victory, because key positions in the U.S. team were held by Aussies. There are also the annual rugby matches of the Australian Wallabies vs the New Zealand All Blacks, cricket, netball and other sports. Additionally, many entertainers acclaimed international as Australians, including Russell Crowe and Keith Urban, are in fact New Zealand-born.

A down-under food war

Perhaps the most serious rivalry comes from a different field altogether. It is a food war over who invented the Pavlova dessert.

No one contests that it is named after the ballerina Anna Pavlova, who visited both countries in 1926 and Australia again in 1929. This confection, consisting of a meringue shell topped with whipped cream and fruit, can certainly be viewed as a reflection of a dancer’s fluffy white tutu. The dispute arose in the 1950s with the wide publication, in Australia, of Chef Herbert Sachse’s recipe for “Traditional Pavlova.” Sachse claimed to have invented this dish in 1935 whilst working at The Esplanade Hotel in Perth, naming it after Anna Pavlova, who had stayed at the hotel in 1929. New Zealanders were soon up in arms, claiming the dish as their own and accusing Australia of plagiarism.

The dispute has raged across the decades and continued even after Anna Pavlova’s own biographer stated that the dish was created by a chef at the Wellington hotel where she stayed in 1926. Today many Australians still refuse to acknowledge the Pavlova as a New Zealand creation, even after the 2008 publication of Helen Leach’s well documented book The Pavlova Story: A Slice of New Zealand’s Culinary History. 

Leach is a culinary anthropologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Her library of cookbooks includes 667 Pavlova recipes from more than 300 sources. Leach identifies a recipe for “Meringue with Fruit Filling” in a 1926 book, Home Cookery for NZ. In 1927, the name Pavlova first appears for a trifle-like dessert (not a fruit-filled meringue) released by the Davis Gelatine company in their Davis Dainty Dishes (sixth edition). Other recipes for meringues with fruit were printed in various New Zealand publications, including the Women’s Mirror magazine in April 1935. This is the recipe that Herbert Sachse most likely copied and “improved,” then first served as “The Pavlova” on October 3,1935.

The OED steps into the fray

A few years ago, the Oxford English Dictionary awarded the honor to New Zealand, saying the Davis Dainty Dishes publication was the first published Pavlova recipe–even though it was a different confection. Leach said she identified at least 21 Pavlova recipes in New Zealand cookbooks before 1940, the date of the first Australian publication.

Of course this doesn’t satisfy some Aussies.

“They can make all the claims they like, and the Oxford dictionary can go on like great academic know-it-alls, but I think Australians would agree with me that the true Pavlova belongs to Australia,” huffed Margaret Fulton, a 90-year-old Australian food guru, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald after the OED announcement. Personally, in the end I don’t care who first created the Pavlova. Making a good one from scratch is a challenge, but well worth the effort and calories.

Now if Australia and New Zealand could only agree on who first invented the lamington (cubes of sponge cake coated with chocolate icing and coconut) and the ANZAC biscuit (an oatmeal and coconut cookie) – but those are topics for another time!

This Pavlova recipe comes from I’ve adjusted the measurements and terms for U.S. norms. aIf you want to watch a YouTube demo, you can take your pick of many videos