I started editing photos this morning - inbetween helping rescue and being bitten by a lost dachshund, another story - for a post about a hike above Muizenberg and became side-tracked by a quest for the origin of malva (mahl-fah) pudding.
It is on every menu in every restaurant in South Africa. It is touted as deeply traditional Cape cookery and is waved like a sweet culinary flag of welcome at visitors who suffer its every incarnation with remarkable fortitude and loosened belts. Malva pudding is South Africa. It is the Frenchie's favourite dessert.
My question is simple. Does the origin of the dessert have anything to do with the family Malvaceae, specifically pelargoniums whose common Afrikaans name is malva?
On this hike we passed a pelargonium I have seen frequently but never really noticed. Its common Afrikaans name is kusmalva (kus rhymes with Swiss ) or coast malva - and it is Pelargonium capitatum, native to this coast. Its leaves are highly, rosily perfumed, its flowers a pretty pink, and the first thing I thought, was, malva pudding!
I have pored over all of mother's oldest books, going back to 1918:
Lily Haxworth Wallace's Rumford Complete Cookbook, which I only later discovered was published in Rhode Island in 1918 (by the Rumford Chemical Works?!?) - it was my grandmother's go-to cookbook, was fascinating, but of no use as far as local food history goes; then the South African, 1952, Old Time Recipes, published by The Cape Times; on to Hilda Gerber's Cape Cookery, approx. 1950, as well as her Traditional Cookery of the Cape Malays (this edition 1957); Mary Higham's Household Cookery for South Africa (thirteenth edition, 1945); C. Louis Leipoldt's Cape Cookery (Flesch, 1976) and Our Best Traditional Recipes, by Vida Heard and Lesley Faul (1975). Plenty of fodder for plenty of food stories but...
No malva pudding. Nada. No trace. Not a whiff.
Sussssssssspicioussssssss. For such a 'traditional' dessert.
Then I hit the Interwebs. Loads and loads of speculation. From saying it was named after a woman called Malva (Colin Cowie made the claim, apparently, telling the world this theory after it was served at the school Oprah founded), to citing Madeiran wine, to local chef Topsi Venter suggesting it is related to 'geraniums', an explanation I like and want to believe, though the word is incorrect - the scented leaves she has in mind are the pelargoniums, family Malvaceae, to a South African-born California gal who makes and sells it describing it with a lead-off that is too wonderful for words:
"The country of South Africa is a melting pot of Afrikaners (Cape Dutch), British, Indians, as well as other Europeans and Asians, their cultures and their food."
Um. Africa. South Africa....Africans? Might Africans feature anywhere in that melting pot?
[*Update 1/25/11 - Kari has emailed the site administrators and will correct this error]
Then there is South African food personality Michael Olivier, who claims to have started the craze in the 70's, after he hired his friend, Maggie Pepler who "had the original recipe" to come and work at Boschendal's restaurant. It is a well-known tourist venue, a wine estate with beautiful Cape Dutch architecture, wonderful garden, gets lots of traffic. The explanation seems plausible. It rings true, though no one else quotes it. "The original recipe" part is vexing. What original recipe, from whom, derived from where?
Where is Maggie Pepler? Maggie Pepler might in fact be Malva Pudding. Could her recipe be the original recipe, influenced presumably by vinegar puddings, sticky Dutch puddings, and perhaps by her own appetite. And the malva part?
I am fascinated. Let's see what Mr Olivier has to say.
I'll be back. With the myth of malva pudding. As delicious as it can be, ain't nothing traditional about it. Child of the 70's, and possibly of Maggie Pepler's.
If you know more, please get in touch.
[Postscript: After learning more, with lots of help from readers - Malvasia wine - and some tinkering, here is the recipe I came up with for a passable version of the dessert.]