new Things I Ate in Cambodia: The Pavlova Controversy and Good Old Lord Lamington

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Pavlova Controversy and Good Old Lord Lamington

Australia does have its own culinary traditions, primarily pertaining to baked goods (shocker). Two iconic Aussie treats are pavlova and the Lamington, a couple of snacks that can be found just about everywhere in both Oz and New Zealand. My aunt was kind enough to bring me examples of both the other day. A brief explanation for the ignorant. I like to write about Very Important Things, you see.

A Lamington is, in simplest form, a yellow sponge cake rolled in chocolate frosting and coconut, causing it to resemble a furry brown square. (Charming). Lamington's are often filled with jam or cream - raspberry jam in the case of the specimen you see above. Many people react with revulsion and horror to sponge cake and coconut, which is a bit odd since both are tasty additions to the dessert pantheon and do not deserve the reputation they carry with them. Australians and Kiwis are nuts for Lamingtons and often hold Lamington drives for schools and charities, which are probably like a cake walk minus the pedestrian element. The 21 of July is now designated as Lamington Day in Australia. I love humanities willingness to declare national holidays revolving around cake.

The Lamington got its officious name from one Charles Cochrane-Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington, who was the Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901 - not exactly a long reign. One day, Baron Lamington took his entourage up to the hills to escape the horrible heat of Brisbane, and tasked his French chef, Armand Gallard, to produce something exotic and interesting for his pals to consume on very short notice. The chef thought quickly and came up with the Mighty Lamington. There are about a zillion more theories about the Lamington's origin, of course - some say they resemble the hats the Baron used to wear (in which case he had horrible taste in headwear).

As for the Baron himself, he was certainly not a pressure-washed Aussie icon of goodness and light, which pleases me to know. The Baron apparantly disliked the cakes named for him, dismissing them as ""those bloody poofy woolly biscuits". It appears that he was fine with the taste but disliked their fame - doubtless no one could talk to him for years afterward without referring to Those Cakes, the cakes, and no government official is ever pleased with being associated with baked goods forever more. He shot a koala right out of a tree in 1899, much to the horror of his companions. I love this guy.

A Lamington recipe can be found here, if you are feeling exotic.

Pavlova is another hotly contested Aussie baked good, primarily because no one - Australians or Kiwis - can agree on who actually invented the stuff. Pavlova is, simply enough, a meringue in the shape of a cake, prepared with egg white, sugar, white vinegar, vanilla, and cornflour, and is almost always served with cream and some sort of fruit topping - often passion fruit, kiwi, or strawberry. Australians claim that it was invented in Perth in 1953 by Chef Herbert Sachse to recognize famous ballerina Anna Pavlova, but Kiwis beg to disagree. Most research indeed indicates that a Kiwi chef created the dish in Wellington when Pavlova stopped there. Professor Helen Leach, a culinary anthropologist, has even put together an entire book devoted to Pavlova history, called The Pavlova Story: A Slice of New Zealand’s Culinary History. Pavlova appears to be Australia and New Zealand's answer to Southern BBQ: universally loved and consumed, and just as universally contested and argued about.

I find the stuff incredibly delicious, and Pavlova carries the added benefit of being pleasingly low in fat and calories. It's a mystery that it hasn't hit big-time in the USA. Hopefully I can get the stuff in Cambodia. Fingers crossed.

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