THERE’S A SLUG IN ONE’S SALAD!
From Edward VII’s overblown lunches to George V’s favourite curries and a shock for our current queen – a captivating book shares delicious revelations about how generations of monarchs have taken their meals
The Queen is not a fussy eater, but she once left a terse reproach to her kitchen staff after her meal. On a torn- off sheet from the comments book that conveys her appreciation – or not – to her chef, Her Majesty had carefully positioned a dead slug. ‘I found this in the salad – could you eat it?’ the Queen had written on the pad.
Mostly, however, the book remains blank as she is not one to complain. The Queen’s taste in food is much simpler than you might think, as Dinner At Buckingham Palace – a fascinating compilation of recipes, menus and reminiscences from a royal servant whose career spanned several reigns – reveals. Most royal dishes are so uncomplicated, despite their French names, that they could be prepared by any reasonably competent cook. The footmen who take dishes to the royal table maintain that it’s the sort of food you would expect at a good but reasonably priced restaurant. The fact that a dish may be written down in the royal menu book as Côtelettes d’Agneau Jardinière doesn’t necessarily mean something extravagant – it’s still lamb chops with vegetables.
The Queen regularly selects menus from a list of suggestions written by the royal chef (currently Mark Flanagan), presented in a red leather-bound book. She marks her selection in pencil, striking out dishes she doesn’t want and writing in alternatives. When a menu book is full, it is sent to the palace library where scores of these books are filed. With their pencilled-in notes and suggestions, they form a unique record of the eating habits and fancies of many generations of British royalty.
The menu book offers three courses a meal – fish, meat and a sweet or savoury to finish – but when the Queen dines alone she often orders only one course, or even just a snack like flakes of smoked haddock in scrambled egg on toast. It’s a far cry from the past when her antecedents grazed on a gargantuan spread of elaborate dishes at every meal.
Dinner At Buckingham Palace reflects the culinary habits of the Royal Family from the reign of Queen Victoria to Elizabeth II. Its author Charlie Oliver, like his father before him, was part of the Royal Household serving the needs of the monarch. Born c1884 (no one knows exactly when), Charlie would have known – if only from a respectful distance – Monsieur Juste Alphonse Menager, who was chef to Queen Victoria during the last decade or so of her reign and later to her gourmandising son Edward VII.
Charlie was fascinated by the royal kitchens, keeping endless notes, recording every detail and amassing a vast collection of recipes and menus, from intimate family meals to grand royal occasions. Having been gravely wounded during the First World War – the only break in his long royal service – he developed a speech impediment which brought him even closer to the royal family circle as ‘Bertie’ – later King George VI – also had a stammer. Charlie’s diligence and endless good humour endeared him to the king and his wife Elizabeth Bowes- Lyon (the Queen Mother), and by the 1940s he was righthand man to the Master of the Household, Sir Piers Legh, who was responsible for all the domestic workings of palace life. Charlie’s ambition was that his culinary memoir should be published as ‘a cookbook with a difference’, his only stipulation being that this should not happen until after his death. In fact, after he died in 1965, his vast collection lay forgotten in an attic until the 1990s.
Charlie had witnessed an era of great change. For King Edward VII, after a substantial cooked breakfast, lunch for six people might include cold pheasant, a couple of partridges, two hot roast fowls and hot beefsteaks. Dinner always featured a choice of at least two soups, whole salmons and turbots, vast saddles of mutton and sirloins of beef, roast turkeys, several kinds of game such as woodcocks, plovers and snipe, a large array of vegetables, perhaps some devilled herring and cream Left: current royal chef Mark Flanagan at Windsor. Above: the Windsor kitchens as drawn in 1894 cheese, an assortment of pastries and enormous Stilton and Cheshire cheeses. This would be accompanied by an abundance of wines, followed by nuts and preserved fruits, then Madeira, port or sherry.
Even when he visited the theatre, Edward insisted on a one-hour interval so he could do justice to the six supper hampers delivered to his box, containing delicacies such as cold clear soup, lobster mayonnaise, cold trout, plovers’ eggs, cold duck, chicken, lamb cutlets, ham and tongue, a selection of sandwiches, plus a choice of some four desserts and Parisian pastries – all served on gold plates.
But after Edward’s death, royal appetites became more restrained. George V, who’d spent time in India, loved Bombay duck (which is actually dried fish, not duck) and was happy to eat curry, prepared by Indian staff, every day. And then the First World War changed everything. The king and queen insisted on rationing in the palace even before it was introduced throughout the country in 1918. Queen Mary allowed no more than two courses for breakfast, and when the king prohibited alcohol, the royal chef, scandalised, asked what he should serve instead. Queen Mary wrote back, ‘Sugar water. Serve water, boiled with a little sugar.’ And this is what guests drank until rationing was gradually lifted by 1920.
The present Queen’s father George VI was annoyed when, during the austerity years that followed the Second World War, a chef got drunk and burned the dinner he was preparing for a small private party. As the royal cupboard was bare, the king issued an instruction to send out to the nearest hotel for a takeaway for four. Nothing more was said and the chef was forgiven.
Like her father, the Queen is no foodie and her taste is for quite
ordinary food. She rarely has breakfast in bed and prefers Special K cereal with fruit or toast and marmalade, served with tea ( Darjeeling, Earl Grey or Assam) and a jug of fresh orange juice. If she has eggs for breakfast, she insists that a brown egg tastes better.
On one morning visit the Queen’s
hostess, a diplomat’s wife, offered champagne or sherry – but the Queen spotted a silver teapot and confided, ‘ We are nearly always offered something alcoholic when we visit people in the morning, you know, but what I really do like is a nice cup of tea.’ Prince Philip would always prefer to have a gin and tonic or a lager to champagne.
For at least three generations, the Queen’s tea services and silverware were jealously guarded by an elderly, bespectacled spinster known as Mag-
gie Smith, whose unofficial title was Queen’s Tea Maker – though, in fact, she did no such thing. She kept everything locked away in a cabinet that nobody, not even Prince Philip, dared to go near. Her finest hour each year was at Christmas at Sandringham when she became official toast-maker for the royal caviar. The Royal Family don’t often indulge in caviar but it’s always a Christmas treat. Maggie would ensure that the toast was just right, pacing the kitchen and insisting
that the under-butler remained on hand to transport it as soon as it was ready.
Maggie’s precious tea things were counted in and out to ensure that nothing went missing. Only two cups and saucers were left out overnight, those used for the drink that Prince Philip makes for the Queen before they settle down for the night.
The magnificent gold and silver plate is only used on occasions like state banquets. But the Queen likes to serve dainty sandwiches on gold plates when she entertains her guests with film shows at Buckingham Palace. The Queen’s drinks tray, too, is quite a conversation piece when she has guests: it features photos of four of her favourite racehorses along with their jockeys.
The Queen gives eight or nine informal lunches every year for guests from a wide variety of backgrounds. They sit down to four courses and a typical menu offers smoked salmon, roast veal with peas and carrots, apple meringue and cheese and biscuits. ‘ I had thought it would be a toffee-nosed affair, but it turned out to be a happy family lunch,’ commented one business tycoon. ‘The Queen made me feel absolutely at home. She took me to the window to look at the garden and laughed a great deal when I said it would be a prime site for development.’
From an early age, Prince Charles was interested in cooking and regu-
larly visited the kitchens to help by fetching and carrying and weighing ingredients. He would also stand guard over kettles and saucepans to warn when they were coming to the boil. Princess Anne was far less keen and only helped sporadically. While at boarding school, however, she acquired a taste for fish and chips, served the traditional way – out of newspaper. The children’s treat when their great-grandmother
Queen Mary was still alive was to be allowed to choose a chocolate from the big box that she always had beside her as she was working her tapestries.
Prince Philip often used to return from visits abroad with new recipe ideas. One royal chef, Ronald Aubrey, knew that if a new dish didn’t arrive at the table exactly as the prince remembered it, there would be a visit to the kitchens and a
discussion about what went wrong. It was Prince Philip who insisted that Mr Aubrey go on a course at the Ritz in Paris to improve his skills.
Sometimes the prince experimented for himself. His most ambitious dish was snipe, which he plucked, cleaned and prepared after shooting it at Sandringham. The meat and game larder in the cold stone basement at Balmoral features a row of huge refrigerators stocked with all manner of joints and plucked birds; there’s probably also a couple of stag carcasses hanging in season.
In London, the staff ball at Buckingham Palace is the social function of the year for the Royal Household, and members of staff are allowed to invite a guest. At one staff ball soon after the war, George VI and Queen Elizabeth entered with the princesses – and the queen launched into conversa-
tion with a young man, asking ‘Where do you come from?’, expecting him to name a royal residence where he was in service. In a panic, the young man – who was a news-vendor from Victoria Station invited as someone’s plus-one – blurted out, ‘Elephant and Castle, Ma’am.’ The queen smiled and moved on. But he can’t have been as embarrassed as a footman at Sandringham one New Year’s Eve. As midnight approached, the Queen Mother was blindfolded to play a kissing game – and inadvertently planted a kiss on the blushing footman instead of a family member. The Queen Mother laughed louder than anyone – and the footman recovered to join them all in a toast to the New Year.
Adapted by Mary Greene from Dinner At Buckingham Palace by Charles Oliver, published by John Blake, priced £12.99.
‘Charles would stand guard over saucepans’
The Queen tucks into a picnic and (far right) the Queen Mother with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret