I would have very much liked Peach Melba to have been associated with the great R&B singer Melba Moore. There’s a national treasure that we don’t talk about enough. Maybe it was her soft, sultry tones and velvety voice that inspired some creative chef to make a dessert to honor her. That would have been nice, and sorry Melba but that was not the case. Don’t worry, your fans still love you. It turns out however that Peach Melba was named for another popular singer, the late Dame Nellie Melba. It seems like Nellie was a very popular Australian opera singer at the turn of the 20th century. Her real name was Helen Porter Mitchell but she took the stage name of Melba as a shortened version of Melbourne (as in the city in Australia, her home town). She was world renowned and, dare I say, even more popular than Melba Moore was in her time.
It turns out there was a French chef, Auguste Escoffier, at the Savoy Hotel, London who fancied himself a little Nellie. To honor her at a dinner, he created a new dessert which featured peaches on a bed of vanilla ice cream topped with raspberry purée. He named the dessert Peach Melba and the rest is history. It turns out that Dame Melba continued to inspire Chef Escoffier as he would later go on to create Melba Toast for the great singer who was very ill and the toast become a staple of her diet. Having two foods named after you is quite an accomplishment and gives us some perspective on how popular Nellie Melba was. I don’t think the Beatles even have two foods named after them? Yellow Submarine Sandwiches? Here Comes the Bun? Lucy in the Pie with Diamonds?
My dilemma for celebrating Peach Melba is naturally the lack of fresh peaches in the middle of winter in Rhode Island. There are some peaches in the produce section, some greenhouse grown product of foreign lands I am sure. But those never seem to get the perfect ripeness that you want for a peach. I looked at the peaches in Clements today. Even gave them a few squeezes. Shook their trees. But they just looked underripe and tasteless. I knew my peach celebration would have to come from a can. The can selection of peaches was somewhat limited, especially for peach halves. I ended up with a product from Libby where the peaches were in heavy syrup. A few years ago, I remember when Lola’s Dad had a supply of canned peaches that he found online or on one of his crazy adventures. He stocked up on them. He kept forcing them on us too. “Want to try something good? Have this. Taste this.” He was eating them right from the can. I can still hear him slurping. They were good too. They had the taste of actual peaches, slightly sweetened by the syrup they were in. That gave me hope for canned peaches today although I wish I could remember where he got those damned peaches (I imagine it was one of his internet finds). When I tasted the Libby peaches, I was disappointed. It was the same fruit salad taste that I remember from canned fruit. It wasn’t bad, there was a comforting familiarity to the taste, but it was far from the fresh peach taste that would have made this dessert excellent (and a whole different animal from the canned peaches that Lola’s Dad had found).
There were fresh raspberries today and they tasted ripe too. I tossed them with some sugar and let them sit for about a half hour and the sugar started to breakdown the raspberries right away. Then I put them into a saucepan and onto the stove for a few minutes, adding a bit more sugar. After a while, the raspberries had broken down so I pushed it all through a sieve to get rid of the seeds and I had my warm raspberry sauce. That came out good.
When it was time for Peach Melba, I decided that I would grill the peaches which in retrospect was an error. Grilled peaches sounded pretty tasty. Were I using fresh peaches, I would have tossed them in brown sugar for caramelization, then cooked them outside on our grill. With the canned peaches, I figured they were soaked in syrup so I wouldn’t need to add any more sugar, plus I didn’t feel like sparking up the grill (too cold outside), so I decided to cook on the griddle. This was not ideal because the peaches were too moist. The heat just soaked out the juices and never left any grill marks or any other sign that they were cooked outside of their warmth. Plus it gave off a strange odor that Lola described as a kind of puppy breath. It just smelled weird.
I assembled them in some martini glasses which was a suggestion I saw online to make it fancy. Dame Melba would have been proud. I put the peach in first, topped it with some vanilla ice cream and then poured the raspberry sauce on top. It looked pretty good.
It tasted pretty good too. The raspberry sauce tasted nice and fresh and naturally worked well with the ice cream. The peach wasn’t bad either, although it still had that canned fruit taste. Nothing I could do about that, but when you had a bite that incorporated all three ingredients, it was a nice taste. It definitely made you realize how good it would be with fresh peaches so this will get revisited once those local peach trees start sharing their bounty (which can’t be soon enough) or if I find Barry’s lost stash of special canned peaches in his hidden survival bunker.
All in all, I think Peach Melba is a pretty great creation. Had I thought of it, I would have played Dame Melba’s “Sempre Libera” from her 1904 version of La traviata while we were enjoying it. That would have been a fitting tribute. Or at least I should have played Melba Moore’s “This Is It.” Today was a good reminder of how inspiration is everywhere. While I don’t think that a chef putting peaches, raspberry sauce and vanilla ice cream together is all that inventive, the fact that it became a food that is still celebrated today is quite a legacy, and it all came because he was a fan of the Dame’s musical gifts. I guess the lesson is to be inspired by what you see and hear, and keep the creative ideas coming. Just don’t use canned peaches in what you make, only if you have to.
In honor of the namesake:
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