Menus that made his­tory

From tur­key with all the trim­mings to choco­late-bis­cuit cake, the dishes served at grand oc­ca­sions aren’t al­ways as high-fa­lut­ing as you might ex­pect, as Emma Hughes dis­cov­ers

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

From tur­key to choco­late-bis­cuit cake, the right menu can change his­tory, finds Emma Hughes

COOK­ING for a crowd—as any­one who has driven to Waitrose in a pre-din­ner­party panic and grabbed ev­ery fo­cac­cia in the bak­ery sec­tion knows—is stress­ful. Spare a thought then, for the chefs whose job it is to cre­ate the menus for events of na­tional im­por­tance. Part ma­gi­cian, part town plan­ner, the per­son tasked with feed­ing the guests at a royal wed­ding or an­niver­sary bash has to en­sure that each dish stands out, but that the whole is far greater thanthe sum of its parts—a state­ment of in­tent and a tri­umphant ex­er­cise in flag-wav­ing.

Menus, you see, can be a very ef­fec­tive way of de­liv­er­ing mes­sages. When, for in­stance, the one from the din­ner given by Ed­ward VIII for the Prime Min­is­ter and his ad­vis­ers the night be­fore he ab­di­cated came to light, what re­ally stood out was the main course. Was Mousse de Sole Vic­to­ria—named af­ter the coun­try’s long­est-reign­ing monarch—a de­lib­er­ate choice or a Freudian slip?

Foods go in and out of fash­ion, but some have al­ways been a no-go in top­tier ca­ter­ing. Bi­valves are banned (no­body wants to top­ple a head of state with a dodgy oys­ter), as are nuts and any­thing li­able to make a mess of a dress shirt, such as pasta. Sand­wiches, even in canapé form, are deadly—who can for­get Ed Miliband’s run-in with a ba­con butty in 2014?

There have been menus for as long as there have been din­ners, but the first per­son to re­ally har­ness their po­ten­tial for im­age en­hance­ment was Queen Vic­to­ria. Hav­ing cre­ated Christ­mas as we know it by pop­u­lar­is­ing the trees and trim­mings Prince Al­bert brought over from Ger­many, she knew that what was served at her ta­ble would be scru­ti­nised not just by her guests, but by the pub­lic.

The menu for her 1894 Christ­mas din­ner at Os­borne House was mas­ter­fully com­posed. At­tended by her whole fam­ily and sundry dukes and duchesses, the meal was a huge af­fair—so huge, in fact, that the kitchens on the Isle of Wight sim­ply weren’t equipped to cater for it. The chefs got around this by mak­ing all the dishes in ad­vance at Wind­sor Cas­tle and ship­ping them over on the royal yacht. Roast beef, stuffed chine of pork and pheas­ant with truf­fles were mere supporting acts for a gi­gan­tic tur­key with all the trim­mings, here charm­ingly re­ferred to as Le Dinde à la Chipo­lata (menus of note are al­most al­ways writ­ten in French, of which more later). Lav­ish, yes—but not so dif­fer­ent, in es­sen­tials, to the din­ners her wealth­ier sub­jects would have been tuck­ing into. How­ever, the Grand­mother of Europe cher­ished her links to the Con­ti­nent and made a point of cel­e­brat­ing them when­ever she could. Also on the ta­ble was a boar’s head and bot­tles of Tokaji courtesy of the Ger­man and Aus­trian em­per­ors, plus a ter­rine de foie gras sent by the Grand Duke of Meck­len­burg-schw­erin (for the ben­e­fit of guests un­fa­mil­iar with this, the foie gras had been cov­ered in pas­try to make it look more like a pork pie). As a whole, the menu was a neat sum­mary of ev­ery­thing she stood for.

The right menu can po­ten­tially change the course of his­tory, as the then Princess El­iz­a­beth knew when, in March of 1939, she chose one de­signed to com­pli­ment the vis­it­ing Pres­i­dent of France, Al­bert François Lebrun. With the war clouds al­ready rolling in over Europe, strength­en­ing the bonds of friend­ship with Bri­tain’s al­lies had never been more im­por­tant—and the way to the French dep­u­ta­tion’s hearts was most def­i­nitely through their stom­achs.

Thus it was that the royal fam­ily’s guests dined on Con­sommé quenelles aux trois couleurs, Poussin Mer­cyle-haut (named af­ter the vil­lage in the Lor­raine where Mon­sieur le Prési­dent was born) served with Salade Elysée and, for pud­ding, Bombe l’en­tente cor­diale. The wines, nat­u­rally, were French—and less than a week later, Bri­tain and France guar­an­teed Poland in­de­pen­dence.

Dur­ing, and af­ter, the Sec­ond World War, these kinds of gran­des bouffes dis­ap­peared from view—the na­tional ap­petite for them, so to speak, had van­ished. And then, in 1953, The Queen was called upon to host two enor­mous ban­quets to mark her Corona­tion. Over the even­ings of June 3 and 4, more than 8,000 guests, in­clud­ing rulers of the Com­mon­wealth coun­tries, took their seats in the Buck­ing­ham Palace ball­room for a once- in-a-life­time din­ner.

Os­ten­ta­tion has never been The Queen’s style. Pho­to­graphs show the ta­bles laid sim­ply but el­e­gantly, with flow­ers de­signed to give every­one a view of the young monarch and her husband. The menu was full of sweetly

per­sonal ref­er­ences: San­dring­ham soup, fil­lets of sole Prince Charles, sad­dle of lamb à la Wind­sor and, al­most as an af­ter­thought, straw­ber­ries Reine El­iz­a­beth.

This most English of menus was printed, as was the cus­tom, in French, which is still the in­ter­na­tional lan­guage of the kitchen. An ex­cep­tion was made in 2005 when The Queen, show­ing her sup­port for London’s Olympic bid against Paris in no un­cer­tain terms, pre­sented the vis­it­ing In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee with menus writ­ten—

quelle hor­reur!—in English. Cham­pagne was also out, re­placed by bot­tles of Nyetim­ber 1995. ‘We wanted to show­case Bri­tain, not France,’ ex­plained a palace aide.

Her Majesty is not a fussy eater, but her pref­er­ences are known. She adores foie

gras, for in­stance—and when two dif­fer­ent kinds (one made from duck liver, the other from the more tra­di­tional goose) were served at a din­ner with Prési­dent Jac­ques Chirac in 2004, she is said to have cleared her plate. She also has a soft spot for choco­late-bis­cuit fridge cake, which may be why The Duke

and Duchess of Cam­bridge de­cided to have one at their wed­ding re­cep­tion. The Duke of Ed­in­burgh, it’s re­ported, prefers beer to wine, even at of­fi­cial func­tions.

The way we eat has changed be­yond recog­ni­tion since the Sec­ond World War, but, for many years, the menus at ma­jor func­tions seemed to be pre­served in aspic, all souf­flés and sauces. Mar­garet Thatcher’s 70thbirth­day cel­e­bra­tions took place in 1995, but the meal it­self—baron of lamb, a car­rotand-spinach tim­bale and a bou­quetiére of turned root veg­eta­bles—showed not a trace of River Café-fi­ca­tion. It was as much a prod­uct of the pre­ced­ing decade as shoul­der pads and the power blow-dry.

Over the past 10 years, how­ever, things have be­come far less fusty. For his 60th birth­day in 2008, The Prince of Wales opted not for a ban­quet, but brunch at The Gor­ing. When The Queen, David Cameron and Ge­orge Os­borne dined with the Oba­mas at Win­field House in 2011, they had pecan pie. The Duke and Duchess of Cam­bridge’s wed­ding break­fast was, like them, warm-hearted and ap­proach­able.

Their Royal High­nesses’ menu would have made any­one feel proud to be Bri­tish: there was South Uist salmon, Lyme Bay crab, He­bridean lan­goustines and Jer­sey Roy­als; lamb from the High­lands, veg­eta­bles from High­grove and honey ice-cream from The Duchess’s home county of Berk­shire. This was def­i­nitely food to dig into, rather than take ner­vous lit­tle bites of—and all the bet­ter for it.

The fol­low­ing year, the cel­e­bra­tion ban­quet be­came even more ac­ces­si­ble when the 10,000 peo­ple who had won tick­ets to the open-air con­cert mark­ing The Queen’s Di­a­mond Ju­bilee at Buck­ing­ham Palace pick­nicked on a menu de­signed by He­ston Blu­men­thal. The ham­pers they were pre­sented with in­cluded his take on corona­tion chicken, a San­dring­ham straw­berry crum­ble and Madeira cake.

Still, some things never change. Spe­cialoc­ca­sion menus are de­signed to be read like runes and the boat con­tin­ues to be pushed out from time to time. When the Chi­nese pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping dined at Buck­ing­ham Palace last year, he and the other guests were treated to lob­ster mousse, veni­son in a madeira-and-truf­fle sauce and Warre’s fêted vin­tage Port from 1977. Some, it seems, will al­ways like it haute.

‘Her Majesty is not a fussy eater, but her pref­er­ences are known ’

Above: The menu for Queen Vic­to­ria’s din­ner on Mon­day, June 21, 1897, the day be­fore her Di­a­mond Ju­bilee

Above: Queen Vic­to­ria, played by Judi Dench, at her ban­quet in the film Vic­to­ria and Ab­dul. Left: An in­vi­ta­tion to the Di­a­mond Ju­bilee Ban­quet at North Ber­wick in 1897

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