Today is the birthday (1861) of singer Helen “Nellie” Porter Mitchell better known by her stage name, Nellie Melba. Her father, David, was a successful building contractor and brick maker, and her mother, Isabella, played several instruments, and served as Nellie’s first music teacher. Nellie first sang in public at the age of eight in the new Richmond town hall. She performed in a community concert for 700 spectators as part of the town hall’s grand opening. She sang three songs, accompanying herself on the piano. The audience was enraptured. Local reporters wrote enthusiastically about her performance, saying she was a “gem,” “incomparable,” and “a musical prodigy.”
Nellie went to a boarding school in Richmond, and then as a young lady enrolled at the Presbyterian Ladies College, where she studied piano and voice. On her mother’s death in 1880 she left school and moved with her father to Queensland where she met her future husband Charles Nisbett Frederick Armstrong. They married in 1882 and she had a son, George. But Armstrong was verbally abusive, and Nellie hated the tropical climate. So in 1884 she packed her bags, took her son, and moved back to Melbourne to pursue a musical career. After several attempts at reconciliation on his part she divorced Armstrong in 1900.
Nellie sang in Melbourne and, later, Sydney, making a name for herself as an operatic soprano. She then moved to London, where she made the connexions necessary for pursuing a career in earnest. In 1886 she began performing in concerts organized by Wilhelm Ganz, a singing coach at the Guildhall School of Music. Though she found some success in London, she was not satisfied with her career’s progress. A patron from Melbourne had written Nellie a letter of introduction to famed German mezzo-soprano, Mathilde Marchesi, so Nellie traveled to Paris to meet her. Marchesi agreed to take her on as a singing pupil and had a great influence on her career. It was Marchesi who was responsible for convincing Nellie to take the stage name Nellie Melba; Melba deriving from her home city of Melbourne. Nellie made her operatic debut in 1887 as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, in Brussels.
Over time Nellie gained great popularity, singing in principal opera houses in Europe and the United States, most notably Covent Garden in London and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. She was well-known in high-society circles, and was asked to perform for kings and queens, including Tsar Alexander III, Emperor Franz Joseph, and Queen Victoria. She became the turn of the century equivalent of a rock star, with crowds gathering to see her when she appeared in public.
It was in London, whilst performing at Covent Garden, that Nellie first met the legendary chef Auguste Escoffier. It is fair to say that Escoffier is the father of French haute cuisine. His cookbook is still the bible for classic French dishes. Every French chef owns a copy and knows it by heart. Even I, a humble home cook, own one (though I don’t know it by heart). There was a cooking series on television some years ago where contestant chefs were given the ingredients for a classic Escoffier recipe (without knowing ahead of time what it was), and asked to replicate the dish perfectly, from memory. The judges critiqued the dishes down to the minutest details, also from memory. Bear in mind that there are thousands of recipes in the book.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century Escoffier partnered with César Ritz (of Ritz Carlton fame), and made a name for himself as the head chef of the restaurants located inside the famous Ritz hotels. His meals were known for being elaborate and fancy, sometimes having as many as 11 courses, all heavy with rich sauces. His dishes became the hallmark of fin de siècle indulgence, decadence, and wealth.
Nellie often ate at Escoffier’s restaurants whilst performing in Covent Garden. Escoffier says in his autobiography that he first created an early version of Peach Melba whilst Nellie was a guest at the Savoy Hotel, where he was chef. On one occasion Nellie sent Escoffier tickets to her performance in the Wagner opera Lohengrin. The production featured a beautiful boat in the shape of a swan. The following evening, Escoffier presented Nellie with a dessert of fresh peaches served over vanilla ice cream in a silver dish perched on top of a swan carved from ice. He originally called the dish Pecheau Cygne, that is, Peachy Swan. A few years later, when Escoffier opened the Ritz Carlton in London with César Ritz, he changed the dish slightly by adding a topping of sweetened raspberry purée. He renamed the dish La Pêche Melba, or Peach Melba in English. Escoffier also created Melba toast for her several years later when she was sick in bed at the hotel and having trouble eating.
Here is the original recipe for Peach Melba, translated into English from Escoffier’s own words. Use the very best vanilla ice cream you can find, homemade if possible, using sugar flavored richly with fresh vanilla beans (you don’t want the vanilla paste directly in the ice cream because for the dish to look attractive the ice cream must be creamy white). High quality essence of vanilla will also work.
La Pêche Melba (for 6)
Choose 6 tender and perfectly ripe peaches. The Montreuil peach, for example, is perfect for this dessert. Blanch the peaches for 2 seconds in boiling water, remove them immediately with a slotted spoon, and place them in iced water for a few seconds. Peel them and place them on a plate, sprinkle them with a little sugar, and refrigerate them. Prepare a liter of very creamy vanilla ice cream and a purée of 250 grams of very fresh ripe raspberries crushed through a fine sieve and mixed with 150 grams of powdered sugar. Refrigerate.
To serve: Fill a silver timbale with the vanilla ice cream. Delicately place the peaches on top of the ice cream and cover with the raspberry purée. Optionally, during the almond season, one can add a few slivers of fresh almonds on top, but never use dried almonds.
It is a good idea to put the peeled peaches in a large bowl of cold water to which you have added 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice, and letting them soak for 10 minutes. Then drain them and pat them dry with a paper towel. The acid prevents the fruit from oxidizing and turning brown.
Naturally you can cheat and use all store bought materials: canned peaches, good quality vanilla ice cream, and bottled raspberry syrup. I’ve done it and none of my guests has ever complained. This way it takes minutes to prepare and can be made right before serving. Just remember to put the can of peaches in the refrigerator the night before.
Obviously you need to pit and slice the fresh peaches if you are following Escoffier’s recipe.
In modern times you can make the raspberry syrup by making a purée of fresh raspberries in a blender or food processor and then forcing them through a fine mesh sieve (fine enough to catch the seeds). I sometimes use a regular sieve lined with a double layer of cheesecloth.