Culture & Heritage

A completely biased history of the Pavlova

The Pavlova. Soft meringue with a crunchy outer layer, buckets of fresh fruit and lashings of cream.  A truly delicious dessert. Not great for your waistline but oh so good. Who wouldn’t want to claim this exceptional dessert for their own? The Aussie’s are certainly keen to say the recipe came from their side of the Tasman, but we beg to differ. It’s ours and we can prove it.

In the 1920s Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova visited Australia and New Zealand, that much isn’t in dispute. Contention arises when it comes to who created a delicious meringue-based dessert for the diva. New Zealanders claim that, in 1926, a Wellington hotel chef created the Pavlova in her honour, citing the dancer’s tutu as inspiration for the white meringue and cream combination. The Aussie’s have another take on it. They reckon Bert Sachse, a chef in Perth, Western Australia, created the dessert but his recipe is believed to date from around 1935. They also claim to have a Pavlova recipe dated 1926, the same year as New Zealand’s recipe. However, the Aussie version has jelly as a base. Hmmm. If it has jelly in it then it’s not really a Pavlova, is it? 

Doctor Helen Leach from the University of Otago knows a fair bit about the Pav. She may even be the world’s leading expert on the dessert and even if she’s not, we’re claiming she is. Doctor Helen wrote a book entitled The Pavlova Story – no room for ambiguity about its contents then. For the publication she collected hundreds of Pavlova recipes and here’s the important bit, she found twenty-one recipes in New Zealand cookbooks by 1940 when the Aussie ones first started to appear. The evidence is piling up.

The Oxford English Dictionary is also in our corner. Kind of. In its relaunched online edition, the dictionary says the first recorded Pavlova recipe appeared in New Zealand in 1927. This was in a book called Davis Dainty Dishes, published by the Davis Gelatine company, and it was a multi-coloured jelly dish. Hold on, we’ve already had the jelly discussion; fortunately, the meringue version also appears in publications in 1928 and 1929. Well before Aussie, Bert, put his out. Anyway, with the Oxford English Dictionary categorically saying the first written recipe was in New Zealand you’d think that’d be the end of it but, unfortunately, they didn’t put a full stop on the argument. While they credit New Zealand with the first written record of the recipe they list the Pavlova’s origin, ambiguously, as “Australia and New Zealand”. Annoying.


We think so, yeah. We’re talking about a gloriously creamy, fruity, delicious dessert. It manages to be both as light as air but ridiculously fattening at the same time. That’s no mean accomplishment. And we believe it’s ours. For the final piece of proof, we would ask you to consider what fruit normally tops the Pavlova. Kiwifruit.

Case closed.

So, if you want a scrumptious combination of crisp meringue, bucket loads of fruit, and an outrageous amount of cream… we know a place. And it’s not Australia.