In 1892 or 1893, the Australian opera star Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931) performed in Wagner’s opera Lohengrin at London’s Covent Garden to great critical and popular acclaim. To celebrate her triumph, the Duke of Orléans gave a dinner party at the Savoy Hotel for which the hotel’s French chef Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) created a new dessert — Pêche Melba.
Nellie Melba, born Helen Porter Mitchell, was one of the most famous singers of the late Victorian Era and early 20th century — the first Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical vocalist, and one of the first stage performers to be made a Dame of the Order of the British Empire.
To an observant student of the world’s genius it is a reflection, not wihtout a peculiar interest of its own, that the Australian Continent has so far produced but one woman-singer of the first rank. …
Melba stands alone. Towering head and shoulders over every other aspirant to the highest honours of grand opera, the retirement of Madame Patti from the operatic field has left “the Australian Nightingale” undisputed ruler of an empire probably the proudest in the sum of this planet’s most desirable possessions. Yet these are honours becomingly and graciously worn by one who, scarcely a decade ago, was little more than a name to patrons and supporters of the opera.
~ The Strand Magazine, No.97 (1899)
Like many celebrities, in any era of history, Melba seems to have been concerned about her personal appearance, but “Melba, like all sensible people, loved her food,” wrote Percy Colson in his personal memoir of the opera singer, Melba: An Unconventional Biography (1932):
At the same time she wanted to keep her figure and found it a little difficult. Once when she and I were dining with [the German composer, Herman] Bemberg in Paris, he said to her : “What is the good of making to come a masseuse every morning, Nellie, when every evening at dinner vous retrappez tons ce que vous avez perdu?”
“Quel cochon,” she answered. “I believe you grudge me every mouthful I eat.” Bemberg himself ate very little, but he kept a first-rate chef.
The original Pêche (Peach) Melba was served in a silver bowl. An ice sculpture of a swan was filled with peaches on a bed of vanilla ice cream, the whole thing topped with spun sugar.
Escoffier revised his Pêche Melba for the opening of the Carlton hotel in 1900, where he was the head chef. The ice swan was omitted this time, and raspberry purée topped the peaches.
It is this second version that has become famous as the definitive Escoffier Pêche Melba, but later Peach Melba recipes have substituted raspberry sauce or melted red-currant jelly for the raspberry purée. Depending on local availability of fruits in season, sometimes the variations even go so far as to use pears, apricots, or strawberries in place of peaches.