Royal Roastings and Stately Snacks ... Where on the food chain do aristocrats eat? Royals watchers and history twitchers will love the fond irreverence of the tales within. The succession goes: Queen Elizabeth I and II; the Aga Khan; Victoria; Lady Di; Hiro Hito; Marie Antoinette; Tubs Windsor; Henry VIII; Nero; Anthony and Cleopatra; Louis XIV; the Tsars; George IV.
There is a self-absorption to the dining habits of the British Royal family that defies all incomers to either accept its eating rituals or bugger off. Brilliantly crusty and selfish, there is not one member of the royal inner circle who isn’t used to having their food preferences pandered to. Princess Ann for one is a plain eater (one could even hazard that she is an ignorant eater) whose no-nonsense approach to grub shares much with the brusque speaking on which she – and her father, Prince Philip – prides herself. On skiing holidays she doesn’t muck about with fondues and the like but tucks into chips and ketchup – she downs numerous cokes when abroad, as it “kills all known germs”. Like Prince Philip, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly – clearly not counting herself as one of this benighted number. There is, of course, the apocryphal tale of the Blairs staying with the Windsors briefly, which goes something like this: Cherie, on finding Anne breakfasting with her, struck up conversation. Warming to Anne, Cherie said companionably, “You can call me Cherie if you like?” Anne’s reply was a pinched, “I’d rather not.”
The royal kitchens are full of surprises. An old student friend of mine managed to get a summer job washing dishes in the kitchens of Buckingham Palace. There she was one Tuesday morning, up to the elbows in suds, whistling, farting discreetly. Then … very gently … a voice behind her said: ‘May I have a banana sandwich?’
Then there was the time when another innocent – a chef this time – turned up in the kitchens. He had to learn the ropes, first by watching a demonstration of how the Queen liked her carrots. Split clean down the middle, the carrots were sliced into large chunks and then bundled into a paper bag, which was then to be placed discretely in her pocket. He worried about how she’d manage to swallow these and wondered if he’d stumbled on an immense state secret … but – ho ho –it turned out the carrots were treats for her horses! Hiding things in pockets is quite the royal in-thing (as is the sandwich-crazy culture). There is a custom in the Royal household of smuggling tiny sardine sandwiches up sleeves, down socks and deep in pockets to keep court officials’ tummies from grumbling during long, hungry and arduous ceremonies: so, next time you watch a coronation, consider the number of sardine sandwiches there must be tucked away there.
The Queen has a notebook in which she can leave helpful messages for the royal cooks – if the Sultan of Brunei is partial to Brie she quicklyjots this down so that her chefs can accommodate his tastes in the future, plus she likes to record Prince Philip’s favourite wines. She once left a dead slug in the notebook with a message for the chef asking: ‘I found this in the salad – could you eat it?’ Another great servant-to-the-royals gaffe was when a policeman on bicycle stopped the Queen’s car in the early days of her reign. The bodyguard leaned across the passenger seat and said, “Do you realise we’ve got the Queen and Prince Philip in the back?” To which the policeman scoffed – referring to the famous cowboy show The Roy Rogers Show; “Yes, and I’m Roy Rogers and this,” he said, slapping his bicycle with his hand, “is my horse Trigger.” Imagine his consternation when the Queen’s head popped out of the back window and she barked: “Well you and Trigger had better let us get on our way.”
The Queen’s eating schedule holds no surprises however: her habits are beautifully punctual (unlike the Queen Mum who, by all accounts, often skidded in late for meals) and have a Genesis-like certainty to them. At breakfast time, Elizabeth drinks tea, not coffee, and it is best served in a silver teapot. Like James Bond, she knows a brown boiled egg tastes superior to a white one. If poached, the egg should be served with croutons (are these rich man’s toast soldiers?) She may dally with a sausage or a fillet of smoked haddock, as she’s partial to these – but they come a poor second to her admiration for kippers. When Elizabeth and Margaret were little girls, they paused one day in their play when the rich aroma of something-very-delicious wended its way down the corridors of Windsor Castle. The girls followed their noses all the way to the private kitchens of Alice Bruce, the housekeeper, who was cooking kippers. There the sisters enjoyed their earliest mouthfuls of this humble fish. Eternally true to this memory, every week the Queen has a supply of Manx kippers delivered to her, which seem to get everywhere; Prince Philip was once startled to find a box of kippers packed into his clothes … And, always, the Queen’s breakfast is laid out on an ‘aircraft carrier’, a tray that holds hot water inside it to keep her breakfast warm, while she listens to her trusty Roberts radio, tuned to radio 2. She never ever eats between meals.
Like her namesake, Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth often eats lunch alone, modestly apportioned, but she more than makes up for this a few hours later over a rather piggy afternoon tea. The tea itself will be Earl Grey – the pot will be warmed and, following in Queen Mary’s footsteps, the teapot is given three minutes to brew, and is made according to the following formulae: one teaspoon for each person and one teaspoon for the pot. Prince Philip is a stickler for coffee; he might also branch out and have an oatcake with honey.To accompany the tea, the table will be laden with potted shrimp, deeply warm homemade scones and sticky slices of Dundee Fruit cake (also an old favourite of Churchill’s). There might be one of Elizabeth’s favourite tea cakes, biscuity chocolate cake or lemon sponge and a plate of crustless cucumber or ham and tongue sandwiches (for a time – about 50 years – salmon sandwiches were banned, as the Queen Mum detested these). All sandwiches are cut so that their edges are round – not a surrealist foible on the Royals’ part but because sharp edges and pointed corners on sandwiches are supposed to indicate in the maker a treacherous urge to overthrow the royal family. ‘Jam pennies’, lovely little miniature coins of jam sandwiches, are served in the royal nursery.
Foraging from their extensive lands offers rich pickings (Charles has been known to pad along behind Antonio Carluccio on fungal forays) and Charles uses his damsons at Highgrove to make damson gin – he also makes orange gin - and the old mulberry trees on the Windsor estate hang heavy with clustered fruit for mulberry gin. Both mulberry gin and orange gin are deeply delicious, but you must be prepared to wait months (or even a few years for the orange gin) for them to mature, so plan this well in advance.
Mulberry gin, kept in a hip flask, makes for a lovely warming snifter when out at shooting lunches in the Scottish Highlands.Shooting lunches offer a bloodier kind of foray and begin with a gruff, tasty macho early breakfast of devilled kidneys (why is it that offal eating, like BBQ cooking, tends to be a masculine affair?), a scrumptiousness called eggs en croute, that involves baking eggs into hollowed out buttery French bread, and curried salmon kedgeree. Lunches are transported in red leather boxes fitted with lidded silver trays or ‘hot boxes’.
All of this immensely irritated Lady Di, who shuddered at the shooting, moaning to one confidante, “Why does everyone in this family like killing things?” On such excursions, when everyone tumbles into jeeps and heads for the hills, Philip likes to whip out his special outdoor pan and rustle up his signature dishes: he can make a mean scrambled egg and smoked haddock in his beloved pan and likes to wow his guests at summer BBQs far off up in the lavender and dun hills by cooking up – all on his own – Gaelic Steaks, beef tenderloin sautéed with whisky, cream and mushrooms (only the leanest of meat for Philip). All the family is supposed to pitch in and help with the food and clearing up afterwards, but yet again, Lady Di was not keen on cooking and you could catch sight of her, disgruntled, in a pair of yellow marigolds, washing pots after dinner alongside the Queen.
Dating back to the reign of Queen Victoria, Royal picnics in the heathery distances of the Scottish countryside around Balmoral have been very jolly and the Queen Mum used to love these, lugging with her choicest samples of Christmas or plum pudding on every picnic. Indeed the Windsor picnic basket holds the tastiest morsels: round-bellied chicken and ham buns; venison pâté; and a zippy consommé called Bull’s Blood, that has a slick of vodka in it.
Any misconceptions that may be held about the Queen Elizabeth quaffing champagne should be dispelled – both she and Philip hate it (unlike the Queen Mum, whose relentlessly high spirits on her 1989 visit to Canada were attributed to her bone china cup being topped up with champagne rather than tea). When times are particularly tough, frugal Liz has been known to buy Tesco’s own brand of champagne for banquets and bundles it up in lots of white cloth claiming that no-one will know the difference. At state banquets a series of traffic lights are used to signal when to bring in courses – the banquets tend to be limited to four courses, rather than the elephantine, groaning banquets of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.Indeed,the Queen makes no attempt to add any artificial glamour to the occasion, fishing a meat hook out of her handbag at dinner in order to hang her bag from the table.
If the Queen has any pre-dinner tipple it would be something like gin martini or pink vermouth with soda. Philip of course remains loyal to his favourite beer, Double Diamond (brewed specially for him to this day). Footmen at Buckingham Palace are trained in how to pour a Double Diamond so as to get the perfect head. The mythology is that the Royals don’t like the grating sound of ice cubes in a glass, so they insist on round iceballs.
Philip’s bluster and bluntness has left him inured to personal boundaries –
he can sometimes be startlingly intimate. Once, as the Royal Yacht was trailing along the Ivory Coast, submerged in heat, all who sailed on the Britannia were driven to sunbathe, but with the usual master-servant distinctions: the Duke was sunbathing on the royal deck and his staff were on the upper deck. One footman woke from a deep, sweaty slumber and was startled to find the Duke lying fast asleep beside him. He had dragged his sunbed onto their deck. The footman lay still, reasoning to himself that the Duke must have wanted human company. When he finally woke, Philip said brightly, “I’ll have to down a drink with you later.”
The ‘Yotties’, as yachtsmen are known on board the Royal Yacht, love to pester the royal staff with cheeky demands. On one occasion, the royal staff was holed up in the royal mess, supping on gin and tonics when there was a sharp knock at the door. “It’s one of those Yotties,” someone muttered and a footman yelled out, “Piss off!”
“I won’t piss off” came back the muffled voice of the Duke, “I want a drink.” And the offending footman had to buy the Duke a Double Diamond by way of apology. In contrast, the Queen has in the past bemoaned the fact that she is too often offered alcohol, while she secretly hankers for a good cup of tea (even the Queen’s nightcap is tea, placed by her bedside). Traditionally, on board the Britannia, the Windsors love a drink called lemon refresher made with Epsom salts – it has laxative properties so must be measured out and consumed with care.
Starters don’t suit this pair either, though the Queen does sometimes begin with a salad, they prefer to go straight to the main course for dinner. And that main course is ring fenced by personal foibles: odd, weird tomato sauces have been struck off the royal menu, or funny Italian messes with pasta and sauces. Shellfish seems un-British and wet jellified oysters are a real no-no while smellies like onions and garlic raise a shudder. Even pepper is viewed with suspicion.(Though with the younger royals gnocchi and risottos and even noodles have made their way onto the table and the reign of the mashed potato is passed). When, 1986, a fish bone stuck in the Queen Mum’s throat, a stink was raised, particularly so as clearly someone had slipped up – all game, fish and chicken are supposed to be boned before they are served to a royal. Beware the seeded fruit such as the blackcurrant or the raspberry, as they are banned from the table for their propensity to wedge themselves between our monarch’s teeth.
With all outlandishness chased away, on the private Windsor dinner table would be the Queen’s favoured staples of duck a I’orange, Irish stew or Liz’s favourite game bird, pheasant. Broad beans might be served too – she loves these. Or there might be lamb cutlets with mint sauce (Philip and Elizabeth take their own bottles of mint sauce with them when they go on foreign trips), poached salmon, fish and chips and roast beef. But Liz’s all-time favourite is unsmoked haddock, dipped in breadcrumbs, fried, accompanied by a tidy stack of slim French fries and Béarnaise sauce alongside. The Queen is also a stickler for eating yesterday’s leftovers.
All the Windsors like the edible patriotism of traditional puddings. Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, has been slated for liking steamed sponge syrup pudding a little too much (a genetic tendency inherited from his grandmother, the Queen Mum, whose weakness for the steamed pudding is well documented), leading to the unhappy nickname ‘Duke of Pork’.When he isn’t working as a roving business ambassador for Britain, I like to imagine Prince Andrew of an evening, hair parted on the left, slippers on, and a bowl of this syrup sponge on his lap, far from the madding crowd.
As befits a royal pud, this sponge is of the lightest, airiest quality, with kindly aromas of vanilla and egg, and is topped with a seam of caramelised, toffee syrup. The main points to beware when making Duke of Pork’s Syrup Sponge Pudding are the business of mixing it by hand and how weirdly anyone you feed it to will behave ever afterwards: their eyes will shine like an addict’s and they’ll say, voice husky with lust, “Are you going to make IT again?”
You will have to get away fast …
Ideally, in order to make the sponge base by hand, you should have either a) arms like hams or b) a servant (Prince Andrew has lots) for the amount of businesslike stirring you have to do, slapping about the sponge mix with a wooden spoon. It’s like being trapped in too long a kitchen scene from Upstairs, Downstairs. You expect someone to come in and say, “Ooooh, Mrs Humbleby, has your Sidney seen his lordship this morning?” If a servant is unavailable, some slightly dim but willing relative would do, just say something like, “Do you mind stirring this for a moment? I think I hear the phone ringing …” and then just hole yourself up in the loo for 15 minutes.
As with anywhere else, though, the Windsor table evolves to accommodate modern trends – the younger tier of the upper crust are very keen on banoffi pie.
Long have I dreamt about making Prince Philip’s favourite dessert, Andrassy Pudding. It just sounds swanky, doesn’t it? And it is. Andrassy Pudding tastes aristocratic: it is rich, intense, with ebony, sassy, expensive chocolate tones. In truth, though, Andrassy Pudding is named after a bleak-looking Austro-Hungarian count, Julius Andrassy, a relative of the Windsors, who had a brief and relatively undistinguished career in the lead-up to WWI (he managed to be Hungary’s Foreign Minister for only nine days before he threw in the towel...)
Second-cousin-twice-removed Julius turned up for dinner one evening at the start of the twentieth century and, far from his table, in the commoner underworlds of Buck House some unnamed chef had been instructed to make a simple, puffy little bundle of chocolate soufflé. This was to be Andrassy Soufflé.But it sank. Our pâtissier must have cursed as he looked at his limp, punctured soufflé. All he had left was more soufflé mix (without the whipped egg whites added yet) but no time to bake it. Quickly – perhaps even furtively – he decided to slice the soufflé up like a cake and disguise it behind an artificial wig and beard of frosting (the second soufflé mix), finally throwing chocolate curls all over it. That’s just the ticket, he thought: Andrassy Pudding.
The queen often finishes her meal with grapes but all larger fruit such as bananas or peaches must be tackled with a knife and fork (given her passion for kiwi fruit, I wonder how the Queen manages).
Food at Clarence House during the Queen Mum’s time there was reputedly pretty heavy going, like a slightly slip-shod 1970s hotel, with deep fried potato rissoles and liverish-looking stews. There was something beautifully ancient and perpetual about events there, from the Queen Mum’s gin and Dubonnet tipple before lunch, to the long memories and starchy habits of the ancient upper crust. In Colin Burgess’ book, Behind Palace Doors, he recalls sharing a hard-core lunch of chicken and mashed potatoes with the Queen Mum and her old guard of Sir Alistair Aird, her devoted lady-in-waiting Dame Frances Campbell-Preston and the Queen Mum’s silvery treasurer, Sir Ralph Anstruther. The day was warm; the lunch was outside, the honeyed hum of bees was in the air. Several bottles of pugnacious, solid claret were consumed as the quartet struggled on, debating WWII. Burgess suddenly found that, one by one, mid-conversation, all four of the elderly diners fell fast asleep, and the burble of snores and sighs filled the air. Burgess sat silently, politely mute. Some 35 minutes passed. Burgess thought, well, I ought to ring the bell for the servants, I suppose … No sooner had the bell tinkled that all four woke and immediately resumed their conversation. “And of course the Italians,” blustered Sir Ralph, “simply gave in once the Germans had gone.”
Oh, to be a corgi. They get the best deal all round and don’t have to bother with forks and knives. These lucky dogs get freshly baked fruit scones, broken up by the fair hands of their mistress while she sucks on a Bendick’s Bittermint (chocolate and mint combinations do it for the Queen, she’s also partial to Elizabeth Shaw peppermint creams, Terry’s Twilight and mint choc chip ice cream). The corgis compete for these fragrant morsels through performing rolling, spinning and wriggling tricks for their mistress. There’s pheasant, mixed with Pedigree Chum and rabbits and all out of their own named little bowls … The corgis never have common tinned dog food, always enjoying fresh food, lamb, beef or rabbit with gravy and mashed potatoes and cabbage … mmm … hungry? This, then, is transported from the kitchens to the dogs, but passes through the hands of the queen who likes to personally mix this with dog biscuits and more gravy. BUT BEWARE: if you ever happen to be passing the time of day with the Queen don’t pet the her corgis – she gets jealous and thinks you are trying to suck up (which you wouldn’t be of course, would you?) One of Paul Burrell’s onerous duties was to check that the corgis were all in bed at night. Bless.