Auguste Escoffier (1846–1935) was a French chef, restaurateur and writer, a key figure in the development of modern French cuisine. In the 1880s, he formed a partnership with the equally celebrated César Ritz (founder of the Ritz Hotel in London), the two of them being called upon by Richard D’Oyly Carte to run the Savoy Hotel, where Escoffier devised some of his most famous dishes. Aside from being the most respected chef in London during the 1890s, Escoffier was also an avid opera fan (see also poire belle Hélène) and legend has it that he forged a friendship with one of the greatest opera singers of her era, Dame Nellie Melba (1861–1931), when she was staying at the Savoy.
One evening in 1893, the Australian singer, and reputed drama queen extraordinaire, remarked to Escoffier that she loved ice cream but was unable to eat it in case it froze her vocal cords. Never averse to a challenge, the chef went straight to his kitchen and set about experimenting with ice cream mixed with different types of fruit and sauces, in the hope that these might render the dish less chilly. He soon hit upon his favourite combination, peaches and vanilla ice cream smothered in raspberry sauce (although alternative versions of the story ascribe the sauce to a later version of the dish).
In a dramatic flourish, the chef later presented his new creation in an ice sculpture of a swan, in reference to Lohengrin and its story of the Swan Knight. Melba was so enchanted by the dish that she was soon demanding it at restaurants and hotels the world over. Since then, Peach Melba has proved such a hit that it was recently shortlisted by a national television competition as one of the world’s greatest dishes, while a National Peach Melba Day (13 January) has been declared in America. (See also Melba toast for another dish inspired by the diva.)
Margherita and other Food Icons – Who inspired our favourite foods
Albert Jack books available for download here