Monday, January 24, 2011

Malva pudding

 Pelargonium capitatum

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?

Apparently not.*

[*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 morewith 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.]


  1. My inclination, since your research focused on the culinary, is to head to language (oh, my latin studies coming in handy now). Malva, is a latin form of a Greek word and quite possibly derived from Hebrew (Malluach, from Melach-salt).

    Marsh Mallow (mealwe) grows near salt water, and the mallows (weeds!) I am familiar with from the desert tolerated salty soil (as in the Mid East?) Is the pudding sweet and savory? Much salt in it?

    Marshmallow, the confection, is soft, giving rise to the thinking that the word Malva means soft, where google searches turn up baby name sites in droves. In reverse, then, could Malva have been applied in the sense of soft? Is the pudding soft? Well, is any pudding not? What of the confection though, is it anywhere near the original 'marshmallow' confection?

    Of course, it could've been named by a Tolkien fan, Malva being a name of a particular Hobbit.

    Good luck!

  2. Hierdie is fascinating. Nog nooit daaroor gedink nie. Min mense maak 'n excellent malvapoeding. Sad hoeveel crap weergawes daar op spyskaarte is.

    Sien uit om die res van jou malva-wedervaringe te lees!

  3. Wow - thanks for the investigation. Being a botanist I assumed the pudding had some trace of malva in it (the very Pelargonium capitatum you saw) - a bit like rose water, I thought.

    But how on earth could this delicate flavouring stand up to the indecent amounts of sugar, butter and cream (and apricot jam?) which go into malvapoeding?

    If the 'malva' part is indeed a hoax, it could simply be renamed death-by-pudding!

  4. Don't know Malva pudding, but good souther girls make "rose geranium" jelly with leaves from Pelagonium for flavoring. Maybe it's used as a flavoring in the pudding, too, or it was at some time...

  5. Hi Marie - great post.. had me looking in my copies of Hildagonda Duckitt's books - Traditional SA Cookery and Hilda's "Where is it"... first printed in 1891(o m gosh).. and there's no mention amongst here puddings about a Malva Pudding. I know I first made it from Ina Paarmans recipe book.. just wonderful.. just wonderful.. mmm! roll on winter.. thanks for posts
    Regards from an ex Saffer now living in Brisbane 9 years) Jean Wethmar -

  6. The edible malvas are full of mucilage and can be used to thicken soups, stews, sauces. Could pudding be far behind? There's a good chapter on them in John Kallas's book Edible Wild Plants. No pudding recipes, but enough other stuff to make me think it's related. come back to the states and I'll lend it to you.

  7. I was convinced I would find it in the Kook-en-Geniet, but it's not there! I am shocked. I thought it was an old favourite of the Boere-tannies! Well done on researching it - I would love to know the true origin of the name. I always wondered whether it was named after the sweet or the flower, now it seems it is neither...
    Here in Dubai it is a standard item at any South African do/ braai/ restaurant.

  8. The search continues:

    Frank, a hobbit? That would take the, er...cake!

    Salt - well, some recipes call for bicarb!

    Marijks, I would not say it is hoax so much as a possible myth, it perhaps being a relatively modern dessert based on an old technique, but even that might not be true. I'm just fascinated that I can find no references, yet, to the pudding in old recipes.

    More info:

    Maggie Pepler's son, Dave Pepler, also reiterates the possible theory that Malvesy wine was in the sauce of the pudding, hence the name.

    I am still looking for an old recipe with the name, anything seriously predating the 70's. We have a lot of people sniffing about...

    Brandy pudding, tipsy tart are very similar - so why 'Malva'?

    Ellen come and look at flowers and bring it with you :-)

    Ansie, my cousin says she found it in Kook en Geniet and I am waiting hear which edition that was. I wonder why it was not in yours?

  9. About six months ago I had the same question. The closest I got to an answer was with the help of a family friend (a retired librarian) where we also came across "malvesyn" wine as being the link to malva (ons het in Afrikaanse bronne gesoek).

  10. HA HA! Found a malva pud recipe with real geranium in. Follow this link:

  11. What a pity I only found your post now, while looking for the original Maggie Pepler Malva pudding - up until last week you would have been able to get the answer to the 'Malva' mystery straight from the horses mouth. Sadly she passed away on Sat 14th Sept aged 87. Lovely write-up in the Sunday Times yesterday where they mention that it was a recipe passed down to her from her mother. It used to be called 'telefoonpoeding' as the farmers wives would call each other up on the party line and read the recipe over the phone. She was a talented self-taught cook who grew up in the Robertson farming community experimenting with exotic dishes far ahead of her time. She is survived by two children .. maybe they know the answer.


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