The fine dining of aristocratic England
Originally published in Maxx-m Magazine, September 2010
Queen Elizabeth II of England likes nothing better than to eat a simple piece of grilled chicken with a fresh salad, according to one of her former palace chefs. But things were not always so down-to-earth at the Royal Table; in fact, the history of royal cooking and eating in England is a tale of gluttony and excess on a magnificent scale, of groaning banqueting tables and rigid dining formalities, and of gourmandising refugees from mainland Europe bringing their culinary arts to the palaces of the British Isles. And though high-end dining in England – and especially in London – today is a grand tasting menu of global influences, old echoes of royal institutions linger on amongst formal dinners and high teas.
English cooking has long been the butt of many a bad joke. Many foreigners believe that the country’s cuisine is at best hearty, earthy and rustic – from Cornish pasties to Lancashire hotpots – and at worst a series of crude heart-attack inducing horrors like soggy chips and deep-fried Mars Bars. In short, nothing fit for a king. But that is all the stuff of the commoner’s table; in the royal courts and stately homes things were always much more refined – if no less unhealthy.
One of the very first cookbooks written in English is the late 14th century Forme of Cury (“cury” being Old English for “cookery”). With some 200 mind-boggling recipes written out in quill pen on sheets of soft leather by “the Master Cooks of King Richard II” it is a window on the extravagance of royal banqueting. There are recipes for the elaborate edible sculptures that adorned the tables of guests of the Plantagenet court, expensive demands for rare spices shipped all the way from Indonesia, instructions for stuffing and roasting whole pigs, sheep and deer, and even dishes made from whales, seals and dolphins.
A Forme of Cury recipe for roast geese with “Sauce Madame” tells cooks to “take sage, parsley, hyssop and savoury, quinces and pears, garlic and grapes, and fill the geese with them. Sew the hole so that no grease comes out, and roast them well, and keep the dripping that falls from them. …” And all of these greasy goodies were sanctioned by “the masters of medicine and of philosophy” of the court!
England – and indeed Europe – never really developed the individual royal dishes seen in so many Asian countries. This was in part because the royal houses of Western Europe so often intermarried and traded places; English dynasties were at various times largely of Dutch or German descent. But if these pan-European royals lacked their own culinary specialities, what they had was an eating culture of formality and expansiveness. And very often the food itself was French. Even today the menus for many of the banquets that the Queen hosts in Buckingham Palace are printed in French, and French method and technique still informs the royal kitchens.
This French connection in the cuisine of the courts became stronger after the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, the concept of the public restaurant is in part a consequence of the French Revolution. Gallic chefs from the royal palaces and aristocratic chateaus were left unemployed when their bosses got the revolutionary chop. Some set up the first high-class eating houses in Paris for paying diners; others crossed the English Channel to seek employment with the kings and aristocrats of Britain.
The United Kingdom’s first celebrity chef was a Frenchman. Alexis Soyer, who was born in Paris, came to England in 1830 and worked in the kitchens of princes, dukes and marquesses. He cooked a royal breakfast for 2,000 people on the morning of QueenVictoria’s coronation.
Today the royal household still employs its own brigade of chefs who cater for the family on a daily basis, and who prepare the food for the great state banquets held for visiting dignitaries at Buckingham Palace.
These banquets are the direct link to the extravagant past hinted at in the Forme of Cury. Though whales and dolphins and whole pigs are off the menu today, classical French method and formal English service are still the watchwords. After Champagne to accompany the toasts, fish and meat courses are served on platters of silver gilt and dessert courses come on fine porcelain with port and more Champagne, while a chamber orchestra plays from the balcony and liveried bearers trot between the tables.
Things are less grand on a normal day. According to Darren McGrady, a former royal pastry chef, and for four years the personal chef to the late Princess Diana, the Queen takes high tea every day; Diana was a fan of tomato mousse and stuffed eggplant, and the young princes like to tuck into a decidedly down-to-earth cottage pie.
All of this royal dining, formal or otherwise, is shut off to members of the public – except those invited to partake of tea and cucumber sandwiches during the Queen’s summer garden parties.
But the places outside the palaces that maintain the closest connections to the original French-influenced royal and aristocratic dining traditions of England are the grand old hotels of London. The Ritz, the Dorchester, the Savoy and Claridge’s are the bastions of the formality that has long surrounded English royal dining. All have their own royal connections, especially Claridge’s, while the Ritz is the most famous place to take in public the kind of high tea the Queen is served in private each afternoon. Her great-grandfather Edward VII often took his own tea at the Ritz, as did her mother.
And while there are none of the great specifically royal cooking styles of Asia, here and there a dish of royal descent has slipped into the diet of the general English public. The Victoria sponge – two layers of fluffy cake sandwiched with a layer of strawberry jam – is what Queen Victoria took with her own afternoon tea. Coronation chicken – shredded chicken meat with mayonnaise and curry spices, an eternal sandwich filling for English picnics – was invented by the celebrated cook Constance Spry for the current Queen’s coronation in 1953. And last of all, it’s worth remembering those Continental connections from the post-French Revolution days of Alexis Soyer: Prince Charles’ favourite chef is said to be an Italian, Antonio Carluccio.
© Tim Hannigan 2010