Fanny Cradock is in full-on reflective mood. She wants us to recall the days when London still equalled Paris as the centre of the Gastronomic world. Even readers in the 1970s may not have been able to cast their thoughts back the eighty or so years that Fanny had in mind, but luckily she was able to fill in the blanks. You can always rely on Fanny. Her story begins long before the 1890s, and involves a man who had run barefoot and fished for trout as a little boy in the stream which runs through his birthplace, which happened to be Villeneuve-Loubet in Provence. So, not dear old Johnnie then? Ringing any bells for you yet?
Fanny gives another clue. He reigned supreme at the Savoy Hotel in London and indeed over 'all the greatest chefs in the world'. Shame on you if you didn't guess that Fanny is all a bit dizzy thinking about her all-time hero, and inspiration for everything gastronomic, Georges Auguste Escoffier. As well as footwear-free fishing, Escoffier apparently adored grand opera, and had the pleasure of cooking for Australian Operatic Soprano Dame Nellie Melba when she stayed at 'his' hotel between 1892 and 1893. He adored her and his hotel in equal measure it seems. Probably as much as tickling trout with his toes.
Escoffier apparently famously took a night off to hear Dame Nellie Melba sing Elsa in Löhengrin at Covent Garden. Walking back to the Savoy afterwards, no details were given as to shoes or no shoes, the Swan of Löhengrin merged with his constant culinary thoughts to such an extent that by the time he reached his kitchens the original Pêche Melba had emerged - peaches served on a bed of vanilla ice cream, set between two wings of a magnificent swan shaped out of a block of ice. Thankfully he wasn't reminded of his childhood, or fish would've been a feature. Swans though are totally worthy of a grand night out at the opera.
Or the Royal Albert Hall. Sixty years later in 1957, Fanny recreated an exact replica for 6750 people (exactly) at her sell-out show. That must've been one BIG tub of ice cream. The swan was sculpted from a 30lb block of ice, just to give a sense of scale to Fannys presentation. Presumably Johnnie was set to work on the Swan Sculpture while Fanny performed. Fanny realises that even if we were inspired to, recreating her version of the recreation of the creation (Escoffier added Raspberry Purée at a later date) in this way would not be possible. So she urges us to forget the swan that seemed so central (put down that chainsaw Johnnie) and focus on the simplicity of the dish, which she says, is well within the scope of any cook. Even us.
Provided of course you have an ample purse. Vanilla pods, fresh peaches and 'out of season' raspberries (for nothing else will do for a Pêche Melba) do not come cheaply, but do make a fantastic difference on the very occasional times you can afford them. Do not even consider the 'abominable ersatz substitutes' of tinned peaches, vanilla essence, bought ice cream and 'cloying pink sauce' made with imitation raspberry flavouring and tasting 'quite disgusting'. Which would naturally be choice number one. Instead, poach your fresh peaches gently in vanilla sugar syrup, set them atop a bed of luxurious ice cream, and drizzle with fresh, sieved unsweetened raspberries. This is the Real Peach Melba, the most famous of all ice cream puddings. Simple it is, but deliciously divine. Swans are entirely optional.