Peach Melba

For sheer succulence, few fruits on earth can match a ripe-on-point peach fresh off the tree, and Escoffier, “the king of chefs and the chef of kings,” affirmed the fruit’s supremacy when he created an astoundingly superb yet simple dish to celebrate the great operatic coloratura soprano, Nellie Melba.

Dame Nellie Melba, (1861-1931), was a skilled pianist and organist as a youngster, but she did not study singing until in her twenties. She made her operatic debut as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1887 at Brussels under the name Melba, derived from that of the city of Melbourne. Until 1926 she sang in the principal opera houses of Europe and the United States, particularly Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, excelling in Delibes’s Lakmé, as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, and as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1918. She returned to Melbourne in 1926. Her image is on the Australian one-hundred-dollar bill.

Melba was not known as a Wagnerian singer, although she occasionally sang Elsa in Lohengrin, which she did to acclaim in 1892, at Covent Garden. The Duke of Orléans gave a dinner party at the Savoy to celebrate her triumph. For the occasion, Escoffier created a new dessert, and to display it, he used an ice sculpture of a swan, which is featured in the opera. The swan carried peaches topped with spun sugar which rested on a bed of vanilla ice cream. In 1900, Escoffier created a new version of the dessert for the occasion of the opening of the Carlton Hotel, where he was head chef. Escoffier topped the peaches with raspberry purée.

Incidentally, in 1897, Nellie, who was “slimming,” complained that her bread was much too thick and sent it to Escoffier in the Savoy kitchen. The chef returned to her table with a thinly sliced piece of toasted bread and promptly named it Melba toast in her honor.

Inferior versions of peach Melba substitute pears, apricots, or strawberries instead of peaches or use raspberry sauce or melted redcurrant jelly instead of raspberry purée. The original dessert used simple ingredients of “tender and very ripe peaches, vanilla ice cream, and a purée of sugared raspberry”. Escoffier himself said, “Any variation on this recipe ruins the delicate balance of its taste.”

Singing Turkey

Whoever coined the phrase, “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” was more likely referencing Brunnhilda’s final arias in the “Ring” cycle than any specific performer, but at the turn of the last century and no doubt before operatic divas were typically big girls with big voices.

Among them was Luisa Tetrazzini, a robust Florentine soprano whose career peaked in 1905-14.  Tetrazzini dazzled audiences with her chromatic scales, staccato, trills and other such florid effects, and her skill and taste in the delivery of simple melodies was universally admired. The girl had class. Luisa’s great rival was Nellie Melba, an acclaimed Australian soprano with whom she had a bitter feud. (It’s a diva thing.) Escoffier, “the King of Chefs and the chef of kings” created dishes for them both; for Nellie the peach Melba, and for Luisa a soufflé Tetrazzini. While the peach Melba (peach and raspberry sauce over vanilla ice cream) has become a standard (as has Melba toast, also an Escoffier innovation for her during an illness), the soufflé Tetrazzini has been consigned to obscurity.

The dish Luisa is much more remembered for was according to James Beard (and though Beard had a natural bias towards the West Coast, I’ll trust him in this issue as opposed to the Knickerbocker supporters) made in her honor by Ernest Arbogast, the chef at the legendary Palace Hotel in San Francisco, where Tetrazzini resided for two years. Her contemporary Caruso was there during the Great Earthquake in 1906; he never returned, and who can blame him? Luisa’s enduring dish is turkey tetrazzini, a spaghetti dish usually involving our Foremost Fowl, and though we may never know what the original contained, in addition to string pasta and turkey, the tetrazzini usually has mushrooms and vegetables in a Velouté/Mornay sauce topped with Parmesan cheese and baked en casserole.

Even though it has now become such a pedestrian dish that you see versions of it in the lunch buffet at Kroger, for many such as me tetrazzini has become a default leftover turkey dish. Here’s a basic recipe from Fannie Farmer, but bear in mind the variations are endless. I use vermicelli rather than spaghetti, and instead of baking will often just ladle the turkey/sauce mixture over pasta with a sprinkling of cheese.

Cook 1/4 cup tablespoons flour in 1/2 cup butter until foam subsides. Add 2 cups chicken broth, about 1/2 cup heavy cream, a good slosh of dry sherry, and generous dash of nutmeg. Cook, stirring, on medium heat until thickened. To a half pound cooked spaghetti, add about 3 cups diced turkey (or chicken), 2 cups sliced sautéed mushrooms, and about a half cup each of sautéed celery and frozen green peas. Mix very well with sauce along with about half a cup of grated Parmesan. Press mixture into a casserole, top with more Parmesan and bake at 425 for about 15-39 minutes, until lightly browned. Toasted almonds are a nice touch.