It seems like only yesterday that Johnny Depp was here amongst the dreaming spires. I’ll admit it: I was awestruck, and couldn’t imagine anyone cooler coming to Oxford any time soon.
Two weeks later, and I’m proved wrong. Today, everybody’s favourite royal, the venerable Duchess of Cornwall, came up to open the new Shulman Auditorium at the Queen’s College. With this faint whiff of royalty lingering in the November air, Queen’s is the next stop on my culinary odyssey, and has got me thinking about the royals and their food. So, what culinary delights can we thank our monarchy for?
Kings and food: images spring to mind of gluttonous feasting, Henry VIII-style. He was a dashing young man in his youth, and a bit of a sexual deviant (I think, at least, The Tudorson the BBC marking the limits of my historical knowledge). But his penchant for gargantuan banquets meant he died hardly able to move with a 54-inch chest and a 54-inch waist.
At Hampton Court, which this year has put on an exhibition about the King’s Christmas feasts, the kitchens filled 55 rooms, with 200 staff serving 14-course meals to 600 courtiers. Each year, around 14,000 large animals were served up in the palace, as well as more exotic dishes like whale meat and roasted swan. And the man liked his drink: 600,000 gallons of ale and 75,000 gallons of wine were served annually to his guests.
Almost 300 years later, George IV’s lifestyle was just as extravagant. His coronation in 1821 cost almost £250,000 (roughly £20m, adjusted for inflation). Like Henry, George sailed through the 50-inch waist barrier, and was confined to his bed, suffering from gout, arteriosclerosis and dropsy, for his final years.
His banquets were even more sumptuous than his predecessor’s; he employed the world’s first celebrity chef, Antonin Carême, famous for his massive confectionery centrepieces, often several feet high.
Dead after only nine years as King, his younger brother William IV was rather more austere and cancelled the Coronation Ceremony in Westminster Hall that had been held since 1189.
But this age of austerity lasted only seven years, and the culinary indulgence of the subsequent Victorian era were remarkable, led by the French master Auguste Escoffier. This was the age of the rise of the afternoon tea, with its cucumber sandwiches for the idle aristocracy. Chefs loved naming their creations after royalty, such as Fillet of Beef Prince Albert, a rich braised fillet filled with foie gras, and poularde Edouard VII, invented by Escoffier for the coronation in 1901.
And where would welfare teas be without Victoria’s eponymous sponge cake, which was first served at the Queen’s tea parties on the Isle of Wight after Albert’s death? And Battenberg cake, which – although probably not quite as cloyingly sweet, fluorescent and E-number laden as today – was first made for the Queen’s granddaughter’s wedding to Prince Louis of Battenberg? The thought of my Wednesday afternoons without these spongey delights is enough to convert me definitively to Royalism.
Half a century after Victoria’s death the royal court looked utterly different. King George VI and his family were subjected to the same rationing laws as every other British citizen, which was exploited for some morale-boosting propaganda. Something tells me, however, that they probably managed to rear a few animals and grow a bit of veg on one of their country estates, even if they kept quiet about it.
Those same laws were still in place for Elizabeth II’s wedding in 1947, so her wedding cakes were made from ingredients sent from overseas (those for the main cake came from the Australian Girl Guides). But an event as grand as the Coronation in 1953 justified the luxury of poultry, and with that came the ever-popular coronation chicken, known at the time – rather pretentiously – as poulet Reine Elizabeth.
So what do our royals eat nowadays? Well, a couple of years ago, notes from the Queen’s late Deputy Head Royal Coffee Maid told us that her breakfast consisted of decidedly ordinary white toast and an oat biscuit, while Prince Philip requests Ryvita (must watch the waistline) and granary toast. At tea-time, they have a whole loaf of white bread, as the Duke enjoys slicing it himself. Buckingham Palace life must be thrilling.
On a state visit to Italy over a decade ago, requests were made that garlic, “messy” tomato sauces and spaghetti should not be served (one cannot eat spaghetti without slurping). Shellfish, rare meat and foreign water are also banned on her travels for obvious health reasons.
Protocol also says that all those in the Queen’s presence must stop eating when she has finished her plate. But, polite hostess that she is, she reportedly keeps a morsel on the side until all present have finished.
And her successor, Prince Charles, is a passionate foodie. He founded Duchy Originals in 1990, which sells ‘natural, organic, delicious’ (if not perhaps slightly overpriced) products in Waitrose. The company works with several charities to promote sustainability, and all profits are donated to charitable causes.
I think it’s fair to say that the days of spit-roast wild boar being served at Buck Pal are unlikely to make a return. The habits of the monarchy are notoriously well-guarded secrets and for all we know, Liz might sit down every weekend to The X Factor with a Domino’s Meat Feast. And if she’s not, I’m still confident I’ll see the day when King William V and Queen Catherine walk Prince Harry home from Mahiki at three in the morning, döner kebab in hand.
Coronation chicken: gloopy, icky-coloured mess or perfect sandwich filling? Since its invention by Rosemary Hume almost 60 years ago, coronation chicken has undergone hundreds of variations. Originally a fairly complicated recipe, it’s nowadays thought of as just chicken, curry powder, mayo and occasionally a handful of sultanas, which is a bit of an injustice. In 2002, for the Golden Jubilee, it was radically altered to create “Jubilee Chicken”, featuring ginger, crème fraîche and lime. But the original – with a bit of tweaking – is still the best, in my opinion. Have a go at this recipe and see what you think – it’s a slightly adapted recipe of Felicity Cloake’s ‘Perfect Coronation Chicken’, and I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to better it.
4 chicken breasts
1 cinnamon stick
5 black peppercorns
Pinch of saffron
1 tsp salt
4cm piece of fresh ginger
5 tbsp mango chutney
50g ready-to-eat dried apricots, finely chopped
2 tbsp good curry powder
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
200ml homemade mayonnaise
200ml Greek yoghurt
50g flaked almonds, toasted
1. Put the chicken breasts in a large pan along with the cinnamon, peppercorns, saffron, salt, the bay leaf and half of the ginger and fill with cold water. Cover with a lid and bring to a simmer, then turn down the heat so only the occasional bubble rises to the surface. Cook gently for about one hour. Take out of the pan and set aside to cool, then chop the meat into bite-sized pieces while lukewarm. Finely chop the rest of the ginger.
2. Put the mango chutney and apricots into a large bowl. Toast the curry powder in a dry frying pan until fragrant, then add the chopped ginger and stir both into the bowl, followed by the Worcestershire sauce, then the mayonnaise and yoghurt. Season to taste.
3. Once the chicken is cold, fold it through the dressing and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours before serving topped with the almonds.
[Photo: State Records SA]