For his May 6 Coronation Lunch, King Charles has named a quiche the dish du jour. Rachel Rich revisits what those who ruled before him chose for their most momentous feast, and what these menus revealed of the Empire from which they drew their power.
LAST WEEK, King Charles III and Queen Camilla announced a quiche, devised by one of the chefs at Buckingham Palace, as the official coronation dish. The idea is that people will also cook it at home, as part of a "Coronation Big Lunch".
The recipe features a traditional shortcrust pastry with added lard, encasing a cream-and-egg filling of spinach, broad beans and cheddar, spiked with tarragon. Like Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation chicken, it reveals much about the inevitability of multiculturalism in the kitchen. It raises too, the question of what a French staple is doing at the centre of the table.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CORONATION FEASTS
King Charles III is reportedly going for a shorter, simpler ceremony than his mother, (the late) Queen Elizabeth II, did in 1953. Charles is not the first king to try to impose moderation on royal ceremonies.
From 1189 until 1830, when William IV decided it was an unnecessary extravagance, new monarchs in England were feted with a coronation banquet. George IV, whom William succeeded, was well known for his love of rich French foods. So it is no surprise that his turned out to be the banquet to end all banquets.
On July 19 1821, 1,634 diners convened at 47 tables laid in Westminster Hall for a mid-afternoon feast. A hand-written ledger gives us a glimpse of all the hundreds of dishes served, to the tune of a reported £250,000 (equivalent to £27 million today).
At the top table sat the new king and six male members of the royal family. The first course was made up of 20 dishes including les filets de poulards, sautés aux champignons (chicken sautéed with mushrooms), les cotelles d’agneau, panées, grillées, sauce poivrade (breaded, grilled lamb chops in a pepper sauce), and le paté chaud de caille à l’espagnole (a quail pie, served hot).
Two courses followed, with even more dishes: 22 and 31, respectively. The meal included sole cooked in champagne, turtle soup, a spun sugar vase filled with meringues and a pastry temple. It was topped off with ices, biscuits and fresh fruit – melons, grapefruits, plums and nectarines.
A FRENCH FLOURISH
Any animosity between the British and the French became more ambivalent in the kitchen. Fine dining in Britain had long been influenced by new trends from across the channel. When George IV employed the most celebrated chef of his day, Antonin Carême, to cook in his London and Brighton homes in 1816, Carême observed that much of Britain’s diet was, in fact, French.
In opting for a French dish like the quiche, Charles thus follows in the footsteps of his forebears. George V’s English Christmas pudding was devised by a French chef. And Elizabeth II’s menu for her coronation lunch (the dish du jour was "coronation chicken"), much like that for George IV’s banquet, was written almost entirely in French, though it told a British story.
Also like George IV’s banquet, Elizabeth’s 1953 luncheon began with a turtle soup, which Carême had declared to be Britain’s national soup. (He was right. The soup took pride of place at banquet tables throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. But it only existed because of Britain’s exploitation of overseas colonies. It thus bore testimony of the nation’s violent colonial history, whether or not this was the intended message of those who composed Elizabeth’s menu.)
The soup was followed by a fish course which had been given the name of delices de soles Prince Charles, after the heir, thereby signalling the continuity and stability of the monarchy. Lamb cooked à la Windsor followed, along with green beans, asparagus, and later strawberries, all presumably locally grown.
A BRITISH TOUCH (AND A GERMAN ONE)
Locally grown food was also a great passion of an earlier monarch: George III. Though most often portrayed in popular culture as “mad King George” (he did suffer from mental illness), in his lifetime he was known as “Farmer George”. He wrote articles on agriculture using the pen name Ralph Robinson.
Contrary to his son George IV’s predilection for rich French cuisine, George III preferred more typically British flavours – fruit tarts and simple dishes of egg and spinach. But even here, Britain’s food story had European inflections.
The ledgers in which a daily record was kept of the king’s dinners interspersed French and English words to describe dishes of roast meat, ragouts and puddings. Since the British king was also the Elector of Hannover, and his wife, Queen Charlotte, a German princess, there are hints of German eating in the royal ledgers too. When it comes to food choices, flavours and cooking techniques, Britain was, and remains, part of Europe.
Along with Charles' coronation quiche, people wishing to host their own coronation lunch can download recipes for Ken Hom’s coronation roast rack of lamb with Asian-style marinade, and Nadia Hussain’s coronation aubergine.
Britain’s love of curry was the key flavour in the coronation chicken dish invented by Rosemary Hume and Constance Spry at Le Cordon Bleu London for Elizabeth in 1953. These flavours are mirrored in Hussain’s recipe, which, she says, is based both on her own mother’s cooking and what she makes for her children.
Charles’ three dishes of choice might be intended to recognise the multiculturalism of today's Britain. But they are also a reminder of the difficult legacy of empire. After all, the stories we tell about ourselves through our food weave together the things we want to say – and the things we cannot help but reveal.
Rachel Rich is a Reader in Modern European History at Leeds Beckett University. This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons Licence.