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For The Royal Table

on December 10, 2010 – 8:01 pm

For The Royal Table: Dining at the Palace, a lavishly illustrated book gives a unique insight into nearly 500 years of royal dining, from Henry VIII’s tournament feast at Greenwich in 1517 to the magnificent State Banquets hosted by Her Majesty The Queen today. Previously unpublished material from the Royal Archives, including historic menus and recipes, show how the royal tradition of hospitality has marked coronations, cemented diplomatic relations and celebrated family weddings and christenings.

From the Royal Photograph Collection is a charming series of portraits of Queen Victoria’s footmen and pages, many of whom had started in royal service under her uncle, William IV. Serving food in a royal palace presented particular challenges. Staff was instructed that ‘trays must be kept level so that there is no spilling of gravy or sauces’. At Windsor Castle every dish had to be carried up narrow stairs from the Great Kitchen to the State Apartments. The chefs always made twenty extra dishes for each course in case of a disaster. Following the devastating fire of 1992, the restoration of the Castle included a complete refitting of the kitchen quarters, adding lifts to deliver the food. Royal Household staff still prepare food in the Great Kitchen, the oldest working kitchen in England, where traditional copper pots from reign of George IV stand alongside high-tech catering equipment.

Charles II Receiving a Pineapple.
British School, c. 1675. © The Royal Collection

The style of dining has changed considerably over the centuries, as can been seen from the elaborate menus and recipes from past royal banquets. At a lavish dinner given by Charles II for the Garter Knights at Windsor Castle in 1671, guests were served 145 dishes during the first course, and the catering included 16 barrels of oysters, 2,150 poultry, 1,500 crayfish, 6,000 asparagus stalks and 22 gallons of strawberries.

George IV’s Coronation Banquet, 1821.
George Jones. © The Royal Collection

George IV employed the famous chef Antonin Carême, who had worked at the Napoleonic court and went on to serve Tsar Alexander I of Russia. The book reproduces his recipe for Pike à la Régence – pike stuffed with quenelles of smelt, garnished with truffles, crayfish tails, sole fillets, bacon, eel, mushrooms, oysters, carp roes and tongues. Carême invented what was to become the king’s favourite dish, Potage de Tortue à l’Anglise (turtle soup), 80 tureens of which were served at George IV’s coronation banquet in 1821. He had a profound influence on the style and service of food, and was known for his extraordinary table decorations. The accounts for the coronation banquet include a carpenter’s bill for an ornamental temple, which would have been decorated with sugar, marzipan and sweet meats. After the king left the table, the guests destroyed all the edible parts of the temple in their desire to secure a souvenir of the event.


 Banquet for the Christening of Prince Leopold, Picture Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 28 June 1853.
Louis Haghe. © The Royal Collection

 Gabriel Tschumi was Master Chef to three monarchs – Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V. In his autobiography, Tschumi recalled that for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee banquet 24 chefs were brought over from Paris to help with the cooking and that the younger apprentices in the royal kitchens attempted to grow their moustaches to resemble those of their French superiors. The book reproduces the recipe for Côtelettes de bécassines à la Souvaroff, served by Tschumi at King Edward VII’s coronation banquet in 1902. This consisted of snipe cutlets covered in brandy, pâté and breadcrumbs, placed in a pig’s caul, and served with beans, truffles, mushrooms, and a Madeira and truffle sauce.

A job in the royal kitchens was usually for life. Mildred Nicholls was first employed as the seventh kitchen maid at Buckingham Palace in 1907 and by 1919, when she left service, she had risen to number three in the hierarchy. In the Royal Archives are her charming handwritten notes on the recipes used by the pastry chefs, such as Royal Plum Pudding, crème a la Carème, Pouding Soufflé à la Royale and a Danish dish known as Rodgröd. The latter was a favourite of Queen Alexandra, the Danish consort of King Edward VII, and was often served at post-theatre supper parties at Buckingham Palace.

For The Royal Table provides a glimpse behind the scenes at the preparations for a State Banquet. Contemporary photographs show how Royal Household staff, including chefs, footmen, pages, florists and housemaids, guarantee the highest standards of presentation at a State Banquet. The laying of the table begins two days before the dinner, and each place-setting measures exactly 45cm (18in) across. During the meal, a system of ‘traffic lights’ keeps the team of footmen and pages synchronized; a blue light communicates ‘stand by’ and an amber light signals ‘serve the food’. Each guest has six glasses (one each for red wine, white wine, water and port, and two for champagne – one for the toast and one for the pudding course). A diagram of the arrangement of the glasses guides those who are unfamiliar with the sequence of service.

For The Royal Table: Dining at the Palace is available from the Royal Collection shops at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.