Recipes Food for Thought: Auguste Escoffier: Recipes
By Southern (Southern) on Wednesday, March 24, 1999 - 12:47 am: Edit

Part One: “La Pêche Melba”

At times, Escoffier bemoaned the fact that many people changed his recipes for the worse, yet still attributed the corrupted versions to him. Unfortunately, they’re still out there, haunting the Internet. You’ve got to feel sorry for the man. People who ought to know better, talking about red currant jelly and cornstarch. There’s even a recipe out there for a Peach Melba smoothie attributed directly to the Master himself (even though the first recipe for La Pêche Melbacame out in the 1890's while the first juicer wasn't patented until 1932. Hmmm ... )

So, for one brief shining moment, sit and listen to a story about a man named Auguste and how what may be his most famous recipe, la pêche Melba,came to be.

The inspiration: Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin”

Escoffier’s biographers tell us that Madame Nellie Melba (née Helen Porter Mitchell back in Melbourne, Australia and later Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, 1918) lived at the Savoy Hotel with her husband and son during 1892 and 1893. She was the reigning soprano at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden until the early 1920's, a sublime heroine of Italian opera. Unfortunately, in the early 1890's, it was fashionable to attend (if not to like or necessarily understand) the Germanic operas of Richard Wagner. And Melba insisted upon starring as Elsa von Brabant in Lohengrin,even though she -- and the critics -- knew that her voice could never do justice to the rôle. For good luck, she sent a box-seat ticket to Escoffier, her dear friend from Paris, for opening night.

Now please bear with us for a moment as, clinging for dear life to the back of a galloping horse, we hurtle through a brief synopsis of the plot:

While visiting Antwerp in order to raise an army, German King Heinrich holds court and asks Friedrich von Telramund why the kingdom of Brabant is in turmoil. Telramund accuses his ward Elsa murdering her little brother Gottfried so that she can claim the throne. Elsa describes a dream in which a knight in shining armor arrives to defend her. Twice, the King's Herald calls for a knight to champion Elsa. A boat arrives, drawn by a swan, from which a knight in shining armor steps ashore. He agrees to champion Elsa and offers her his hand in marriage, on the condition that she never ask his origin or name. Lohengrin defeats Telramund, but then spares his life. Banned as a traitor, Telramund and his wife Ortrud bemoan this sorry state of affairs. Elsa appears on a balcony and sings to the evening breeze. Ortrud offers her friendship, but starts sowing doubts about Lohengrin in the girl's mind. At dawn, a wedding procession forms for Elsa and Lohengrin. Ortrud accuses Lohengrin of using evil means to defeat Telramund. In spite of her growing doubts, Elsa assures Lohengrin that she trusts him. But Ortrud’s lies have tainted her happiness, so Elsa asks Lohengrin his name in the bridal chamber. Telramund and his followers break in to attack Lohengrin, but Lohengrin kills Telramund instead. He promises Elsa that he will reveal all as soon as everyone is assembled. In front of the court and nobles at the banks of the river Scheldt, he announces that he has come from the Temple of the Holy Grail in Montsalvat, that his father is Parsifal, and that his name is Lohengrin. After sadly bidding Elsa farewell, he greets the swan which has brought the boat back to him. Distraught, Ortrud reveals that the swan is in fact Elsa's brother Gottfried. Lohengrin kneels and prays, the swan turns into Gottfried, and the white dove of the Grail appears above the boat as Lohengrin departs. Elsa proceeds to drop dead in her little brother's arms, but her soul goes straight to Heaven.

Melba’s performance was not a great success. However, she had gotten her way and the critics were reasonably kind. Meanwhile, that swan had made quite an impression on Escoffier, as we shall see.

© Southern, 1999. All rights reserved.

By Southern (Southern) on Wednesday, March 24, 1999 - 12:56 am: Edit

Part Two: The Recipes

The original recipe: “Les Pêches au Cygne”

The next evening, Melba wanted to entertain some friends at the Savoy. For dessert, she craved ice cream but -- due to a lifelong weight problem -- felt that she ought to eat fruit instead. So she compromised and asked Escoffier to flame some peaches over ice cream. However, he felt that a completely cold dish would be more harmonious with the rest of the meal. So Escoffier created a new dessert for Melba, as an expression of his admiration of the lady and gratitude for the opera ticket. Ironically, it ended up achieving a kind of universal immortality for the renowned diva, in a way that her operatic roles never did.

When wheeled to the table, les pêches au cygneconsisted of poached fresh peaches served on a bed of vanilla ice cream, the whole covered in a glaze of strawberry jam, served in a silver dish set between the wings of a swan that had been carved from a block of ice, covered with a layer of powdered sugar (sucre filé),and set upon a nest of spun sugar and strawberry leaves. It was a smash hit, with an enduring popularity that surprised even Escoffier. Melba often demanded it, with or without the swan. And thousands of other diners also asked for “that dessert with the vanilla ice cream and peaches and strawberries,” even if they had never heard of Nellie Melba.

The famous recipe: “La Pêche Melba”

Years later, Escoffier unveiled the final version of this dessert in the form of pêches Melbaat the opening of the Carlton Hotel on July 1, 1899. He’d replaced the strawberry glaze (which had always dissatisfied him) with a puréeof fresh raspberries, an accompaniment that presented more contrast to the blandness of the peaches and ice cream. In brief, his recipe reads “Poach the peaches in vanilla-flavoured syrup. Dish them in a timbaleupon a layer of vanilla ice cream, and coat them with a raspberry purée.”He offers more detailed instructions in his memoirs:

Choose six 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 puréeof 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 timbalewith 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.

Presentation: Embed the silver timbalein an ice sculpture and add a lace of spun sugar over the peaches (optional).

Note: Blanching the peaches in boiling water and immediately cooling them in iced water has the effect of keeping them fresh for several hours and preventing them from blackening, which is of great importance for large restaurants. If, however, it is necessary to keep the peaches until the next day, they must be placed in an earthenware dish and covered with boiling syrup.

This dessert became world-famous, even rating a mention in Escoffier’s obituary in the New York Times. And Dame Melba? She sent Escoffier a photograph of herself inscribed “A Monsieur Escoffier, mes remerciements pour la création Pêches Melba.” (“For Mr. Escoffier, my thanks for the creation of Pêches Melba.”)

© Southern, 1999. All rights reserved.


Marjory Bartlett Sanger, “Escoffier: Master Chef.” (NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1976)

Eugène Herbodeau and Paul Thalamas, “Georges Auguste Escoffier.” (London: Practical Press Ltd, 1955)

Auguste Escoffier, “Escoffier’s Cook Book of Desserts, Sweets, and Ices.” (NY: Crescent Books, Inc., 1941).

Auguste Escoffier, “Memories of My Life,” translated by Laurence Escoffier. (NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1997)

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