Christmas came early as, to my sheer joy and pure delight, the perfect little white puffy package was waiting for me in the mailbox, straight from the gates of Buckingham Palace. After months of anticipation, I carefully opened the package to find my very own copy of the Palace’s first official cookbook, A Royal Cookbook – Seasonal recipes from Buckingham Palace. I would not be disappointed.
An expertly designed prelude to the elegance of its contents, the book cover is at first glance a feast for the eyes, themed in rich ‘blue céleste’, Queen Victoria’s favourite colour. The vibrantly hued linen spine is detailed in fine gold lettering to match Queen Victoria’s exquisite Staffordshire Minton Dessert Service featured on the cover.
Leafing through its pages, one quickly surmises that this is not a book to be grazed but to be relished slowly, savouring every page. More than a mere cookbook, this richly illustrated little gem first and foremost indulges the reader’s curiosity with fascinating insight into the history of royal dining, and the surprisingly practical philosophy that drives the planning behind every royal dining experience.
The ‘first course’
Deputy Master of the Royal Household Edward Griffiths whets our appetite as he enthusiastically draws upon old culinary journals, anecdotes and records to give us a fascinating look at how things were done in the past, and how they are today.
From the extravagant 20-course meals of Queen Victoria’s day to the more sensible three and four-course menus for today’s elegant State Banquets, from the roasting of swans and the re-feathering of cooked pheasants for display to today’s substitution of cheese platters with fresh fruit for dessert (along with the requisite cutlery and finger bowl, of course), royal dining has evolved in wonderful and surprising ways.
As a continuing theme, Her Majesty’s guests are privy to a brilliant marriage of both history and innovation. Between opulent walls that ever so discreetly guard centuries of royal secrets, guests feast on sublime yet interestingly simple and healthy dishes based largely on French classical cuisine, served on the finest centuries’ old porcelain and silver-gilt displayed to perfection on a sumptuously laid table.
Such a marriage would be remiss, however, were it not for the carefully planned and executed collaboration between the various teams within the Royal Household. From the Royal Kitchen to the Silver and Gilt Pantry, to the China and Glass Pantry, to the Linen Room, Housekeeping, the florists, the footmen and pages who serve the guests and the curatorial expertise of the Royal Collection Trust who adorn the rooms with priceless collections and works of art, no effort is spared to create the most rewarding experience for the senses.
The ‘second course’
The next course on our royal culinary journey features a brief tour of the Royal Estates where the star ingredients originate. The Royal Kitchen is genuinely committed to celebrating sustainable cooking with a focus on fresh, local, seasonal produce and meats. These include lamb and pork from the Windsor farms, distinctly gamey Balmoral venison from the Highlands, apples from the orchards at Sandringham, and succulent wildflower honey from the 16-hectare garden at Buckingham Palace.
Inspired by the fresh ingredients and seasonal scheme within these pages, you will surely rediscover the pleasure of visiting your local farmer’s market, butcher shop and fish monger, and gain a finer appreciation for Prince Charles’s passion for ethical and local farming.
The ‘third course’
Set against the spectacular gilded rooms at Buckingham Palace, the third course showcases the beautiful culinary works of Royal Chef Mark Flanagan. Photographed in all their splendour, one would be tempted to think that these artfully prepared dishes would fall beyond the scope of a domestic kitchen. Surprisingly, however, most of these recipes are quite feasible for the average home cook willing to follow direction.
Portioned to serve four to six people, the recipes require no special equipment, are amazingly flexible when it comes to substitutions, are presented in metric, imperial and American measurements, and (gasp!) even make use of mayonnaise and ketchup… in the Eggs Drumkilbo no less, The Queen Mother’s favourite dish.
Furthermore, Chef Flanagan’s brilliantly simple detailed instructions and tips smooth away any vestige of intimidation, and are quite a delightful read whether donning an apron and ready in the kitchen or quietly lounging by the fire.
From melting chocolate in the microwave to verifying sponge cake doneness with a finger test, to sharing such secrets as how to obtain that perfect rim of pastry on a quiche, give greens a vibrant emerald colour, and construct elegant chocolate towers (hint: simple acetate), the book is brimming with practical advice.
Cleanse their palate with a refreshing Blackcurrant Sorbet or celebrate the expectant Royal Parents with the famous Chocolate Biscuit Cake that was served at their wedding.
The simplicity of execution for several of these dishes will be a well-kept secret indeed, and your guests will surely be convinced of your culinary prowess.
The ‘final course’
The fourth course in this royal culinary journey is actually the crimson ribbon that seals the deal, for thoughtful presentation and a beautifully laid table are essential if we are to successfully entice our guests in true royal style.
Gloriously supported by the most stunning photography, Mr Griffiths inspires the way with practical tips on presentation and a fascinating look at the exquisite service collections of the royal table.
While porcelain services came about in the mid-18th century as an alternative to silver for serving dessert, porcelain is now used for the third and fourth courses at State Banquets.
Of the 47 dessert services in the Royal Collection, some of the most stunning ones featured in this book include the unusual Rockingham Service, which was commissioned by George IV to feature various British territories and landscapes and took seven years to complete, and the luminous ‘blue céleste’ Staffordshire Minton Dessert Service featured on the cover, bearing the interlaced monograms of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
The book is available in select bookstores or why not order it directly from the Palace and enjoy the added bonus of a Buckingham Palace postmark?
The best things in life do indeed come in small packages.
Photo credits: Monique Turnbull and Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014