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
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