James Gillray, A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion 1792
A few years ago, a curator at Historic London Palaces named Suzanne Groom put out a book that I’ve been meaning to share with you. It’s about great houses, giddy to sick-making tales of royal excesses and food, of course food –– a veritable paradise of material for someone like me. At the King's Table: Royal Dining Through the Ages is full of gorgeous paintings, drawings and illustrations, modern photographs and fascinating menus – it’s also brimming with fine scholarship.
Chronique dAngleterre 1480 (painted 80 years after his death)
Richard resigns crown, Chronique dAngleterre 1483 (painted 80 years after his death)
The book covers 600 years of royal festivities and appetites beginning with the unfortunate Richard II (1367-1400) who was best known for inspiring the creation of Forme of Cury, the first English cookbook written by his grateful chefs who thought him, “the best and ryallest vyandier of all Christen kynges” (I wrote about it HERE.) He was deposed and imprisoned for his outrageous excesses. Ironically, a man who loved the best of everything at the table died of starvation in 1400 in his confinement at Pontefract. He was only 33 years old.
Marvelous passages in his chapter are devoted to humors, the organization of the medieval kitchen and newly popular spices. There was a kitchen staff of 3000 to serve Richard’s court of 10,000. No wonder he bankrupted the treasury with his entertaining.
Groom also gives a sense of royal dining in Europe with exploration into the extravagant styles of the Holy Roman Emperor, France’s Charles V (who had re-enactments of the crusades for dining entertainment), or Charles VI (who was saved by the Duchess of Berry when she smothered the flames that killed 4 less fortunate knights as their resin-soaked costumes caught fire during a dancing performance in 1393).
FIELD OF CLOTH OF GOLD, Procession of English party (painted 1545).
Even diplomacy was huge in the Renaissance. When Henry VIII of England met to talk turkey with François I of France on an open French field in 1520, “ Henry built a 30-foot high crenellated timber palace on brick foundations with huge glass windows (5000 square feet of glass was used) and a tarpaulin roof painted to resemble tiles.” With spies flying back and forth between camps to warn how much better each installation was shaping up, François' tent aspirations became too lofty, literally. At 120 feet, a great gust of wind toppled his creation. At this contest, England won the day.
Henry VIII (1491- 1547)1520 portrait
François I (1494-1547) 1515 portrait
All this ostentation came at a cost. Henry paid a fortune in groceries and wine for the visit. 216,000 gallons of wine and seventy tuns of ale and beer were purchased for the event. And what of food? Groom quoted historian Edward Hall said “forestes, parkes, felde, salt seas, ryvers, moated and pondes were searched… for the delicacie of viands, well was that man rewarded that could bring anything of lykinge or pleasure.” The estates of England were emptied to provision this escapade. Thousands of birds, beasts and fish died to feed the assembled guests, fields were stripped bare for grain. The poor French in the neighborhood ran out of wood and meat. The French had no love for the English before or after the effort and poet Clément Marot said words that "had been expressed frequently before and have been reiterated many, many more times since, “Get back you English rabble, to your beer and [dirty] salted beef.” Two years later the French and English were once again full-out enemies. It seems English lords pressed to provision the party were ruined for nothing -- satirist John Skelton wrote:
There hath ben moche excesse
With banketynge branynlesse
With ryotynge rechelesse
With gambauddynge thryftlesse
With ‘spende’, and wast witlesse
Treatinge of trewse restlesse
Pratynge for peace peaselesse,
The countrynge at Cales
Wrang us on the males [purses]!
As Groom summarized “all hope for peace and prosperity was dispersed in the wind; there were only the bills left to pay.”
Royal Clock Salt, presented to Henry VIII by François 1 1535
Not all things French were despised. Henry did have his own French chef in the 36,000 square foot kitchen at Hampton Court (that I wrote about HERE). Groom wrote that, “The ritual of royal dining had changed little since the reign of Richard II. The king took his seat in the chamber under a canopy of state, servers dressed the table with cloths, a great salt, silver plate, his knife and spoon and a manchet or bread roll wrapped in a napkin. The dishes were offered by servers on bended knee, an almost anything the king could ask for was likely to be on the menu.”
James I by Paul van Somer
1620 Charles I, studio of Van Dyck 1636
Elizabeth the 1st was skipped entirely but the rather dull eating habits of James were included perhaps as a counterbalance to all the excesses of other monarchs in the book – he did do well with his entertainments and enjoyed costumes and merry Christmases –– a sweet reward after a very lonely Dickensian childhood in Scotland but his diet did not thrill.
His son Charles came to an unhappy end, as we all know, but what I didn’t remember was that he nearly made an escape but was thwarted by the effect of a well-meaning chef on his waistline in his stay at Carisbrook Castle on the Isle of Wight. The normally slender King couldn’t squeeze through the window as had been planned so the King stayed in prison and soon met his fate on the block. His final meal in January 1649 was bread and a glass of claret.
Charles II (1630-1685)
Although Charles II was a vagabond king for many years, he always maintained his standards. “The ceremony at his table, wherever he found himself, followed as strictly as possible the ritual he had known as a child at Whitehall. He had by this stage acquired a great salt, silver-gilt plates, spoons, forks and four gold dinner plates, which he set on tablecloths embroidered with his monogram beneath a crown. These were the items required for the royal performance, for the rest, hired pewter plates could make up the numbers required.”
Once he settled into his role as King his faithful cook, John Sayres, was installed and flourished in the king’s kitchen. The cuisine of England at the time as practiced by master chef Robert May was a glorious thing. Cookbooks like May’s, Kenhelm Digby’s and those of the kings own cooks William Rabisha and Patrick Lamb were becoming fashionable and established a new fine English cuisine with a healthy nod to the French.
Great salt, 1660
We know what Charles II enjoyed on his own thanks to the household accounts of his favorite mistress, Nell Gwynn. Mutton and beer were much enjoyed, but so were larks, salmon, blue figs and lemon tarts as well as “chane [China] oranges, greate pares, pertaus, sinomon and much else beside…” His Italian mistress, Duchess of Mazarin favored him with “fine French cuisine and sparkling champagne.”
If nothing else, the reign of Charles II was remarkable for one of the greatest additions to English tradition. The queen Catharine of Berganza may have been childless, but she brought the fashion of tea to England.
Menu July 1737 for George II
Pigeons with tartare sauce
braised beef with cucumber sauce
lettuces and smoked goose
mutton and pickled cucumbers
Metworst stewed in oyl
partridges a l'espagnole
lobster ragout with cauliflower
After Charles came the Hanoverian Georges in the 18th century. A Hampton Court menu of 1737 shows fairly simple fare with roast and smoked meat, a good amount of vegetables and lots of pickled things. George II was the last British king to be born on foreign soil and his German food preferences show up in this menu.
Coronation Service Epergne 1762, Thomas Heming goldsmith for £241 19s (about £47,000 today)!
George III wasn’t much of an eater, unlike many of his predecessors or perhaps because of them – he didn’t want to be a fat joke. He did put on a good show for his country and entertained well, even ordering the magnificent Coronation Service that has been used on grand occasions ever since it was introduced in 1762 with over 90 plates and 72 serving dishes plus a few over-the top pieces like the epergne.
George’s eating habits and his madness in 1788-89 did make an interesting challenge for a chef who though it all continued to put out elaborate meals even if the king was dining on emetics or barley water and mutton (the king was not allowed to use a fork till February 6 1789).
Vegetables were very popular with the royal family. A greengrocer named Savage Bear supplied “bunches of watercress by the dozen, asparagus and French beans by the hundred, apples by the bushel and mushrooms by the pottle [punnet]. But the heart of England has always been beefy. A Swedish visitor reviewed English beef by saying. “ English meat whether it is of ox, calf, sheep, or swine, has a fatness and a delicious taste, either because of the excellent pasture, which consists of such nourishing and sweet scented kinds of hay as there are in this country where the cultivation of meadows has been brought to such high perfection, or some way of fattening the cattle known to the butchers alone, or for some other reason. The Englishmen understand almost better than any other people the art of properly roasting a joint, which also is not to be wondered at, because the art of cooking as practiced by most Englishmen does not extend much beyond roast beef and plum pudding.” In one month the court would order 3500 lb of beef and 2500 lb of mutton and veal (poultry was more expensive than beef and fish even more expensive still).
George III’s son would not inherit his father’s simple English taste. George IV loved the good life and especially great French food. This was one of my favorite chapters.
George IV (1762-1830) by Sir Thomas Lawrence 1819
You see, George IV lured the great Carême to England to be his chef in 1816 –– not the best choice for a gouty prince who was not pleased with doctor’s attempts at curbing caloric intake with “plain boiled vegetables and barley water”. His appetite for great rich food usually won the day. Still, he valiantly protested to his new chef, “Carême you will kill me with so much food. I want to eat everything you cook – the temptations are just too great.” Carême demurred, “Monseigneur through the variety of my dishes, it is my job to stimulate your appetite; it is not my job to restrain it.”
Brighton Pavilion Kitchen
Carême didn’t last long in England. Perhaps he was disenchanted by the difference in kitchen management styles with entrenched bad habits, or perhaps his dazzling skill caused a virulent jealousy among the English cooks that worked under him –– the reason was never explained in the chapter (a book on Caréme revealed none of the kitchen staff would speak to him and he felt, " morally isolated"-- perhaps the thousands of pounds he was paid made for a disgruntled staff).
Carême left even though the prince had built the then and still remarkable kitchen at Brighton to help his chef do his best work. It was built with as many bells and whistles as possible for the time. George was rather proud of it and thought cooking was an art to be respected. The kitchen occupied almost ¼ of the ground floor space of the building. It had “pumped water, meat larders, a bake house, an extra-large ice room and two pastry and three confectionary offices. The prince was so pleased with his new kitchens that he included them on the personal tours he gave to his guests, and on at least one occasion he himself sat down to dinner in the great kitchen.” No wonder he was more than half a million pounds in debt with spending on this scale!
Brighton Pavilion Dining room
The apex of dining in the Regency (or in the reigns of most other kings for that matter) took place in Brighton Pavilion on January 18, 1817. It was a dinner for Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia. Carême cooked his heart out providing 8 soups, 8 removes of fish, 40 entrees, 15 platters after the fish, 8 great pieces, 8 roasts, 32 desserts, 12 great rounds and 8 pastry centerpieces. “These 8 centerpieces in spun sugar, fondant and marzipan each represented a style of architecture; there was even a pastry version of the Brighton Pavilion. Each stood some 3 feet high and was very accurately detailed. Temperature was vital to the survival of these fragile pieces; the most miniscule change, or a slight breeze from an open door or window could cause houses of work to collapse into sticky ruins in seconds…. How Carême cooked so much food to such a high standard, and presented it so beautifully, remains a mystery.”
Magnificent kitchens and culinary triumphs were not enough, “after 8 months, Carême declared, Mon âme toute française ne peut vivre qu’ en France (My French soul can live only in France). His soul recovered quickly in Paris, for in no time at all he left for St. Petersburg and Grand Duke Nicholas who most certainly had been bowled over by the dinner and set to poaching the Regent’s chef very soon after enjoying the results of his divine labors. He probably sweetened the pot by telling Carême about a nifty kitchen gadget that brought a fully laden table up from the kitchen to the dining room –saving manpower and keeping the food fresher and hotter.
MENU FOR THE DINNER for Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia by Carême
Les profitralles de volaille à la moderne.
Le potage santè au consommé.
Le potage de mouton à l'anglaise .
Le potage de riz à la Crècy.
Le potage de pigeons à la marinière.
Le potage de karick à l'Indienne.
Le potage à la d'Orléans.
Le potage de celeri, consommé de volaille.
8 RELEVÉS DE POISSON.
Les perches à la Hollandaise.
La truite saumonée à la Génoise .
Le cabillaud à la crème.
Le brocket à l'Espagnol garni de laitances.
Les soles au gratin et aux truffes .
Le turbot, sauce aux crevettes.
Les merlans frits à l'Anglaise.
Le hure d'esturgeon au vin de Champagne.
15 ASSIETTES VOLANTS À SERVIR APRÉS LES POISSONS
De petits vol-au-vents à la Reine .
De petit pâtès de mauviettes.
De croquettes à la royale.
De canetons à la Luxembourg.
De filets de poissons à l'Orly.
8 GROSSES PIÉCES .
Le quartier de sanglier marine .
Les poulardes à l'Anglaise.
Les filets de boeuf à la Napolitaine.
Les faisans truffés à la Perigueux.
La dinde à la Godard moderne.
La longe de veau à la Monglas.
Les perdrix aux choux et racines glacés.
Le rosbif de quartier de mounton.
(arranged around the relevés de poissons as indicated).
La sante de poulardes à la d'Artois.
Les ris de veau glacés à la chicorèe .
La croustade de grives au gratin.
Les poulets à la reine, à la Chevry.
Les côtelettes de lapereaux en lorgnette.
(Les perches à la Hollandaise).
Les quenelles de volaille en turban .
Les cailles à la mirepoix, ragout à la fiancière.
La magnonaise de perdreaux à la gelée .
L'emince de langues à la Clermont .
Les poulets dépèces l'Italienne .
(La truite saumonée à la Génoise) .
Les filets de volaille en demi-deuil .
Les aiguillettes de canards à la bigarade .
La darne de saumon au beurre de Montpellier.
Le pain de volaille à la royale.
Les filets d'agneaux à la Toulouse .
(Le cabillaud à la crème).
La caisse de lapereaux au laurier.
La blanquette de poulardes aux champignons .
La casserole au riz à la Monglas .
Les petits canetons à la Nivernoise.
Le sauté de faisans à la Perigord.
Les sautés de perdreaux au suprême.
La chevalier de poulets garni d'Orly .
La timbale de nouilles à la Polonaise .
Les escalopes de chevreuil à l'Espagnole .
Les ballotines de poulardes à la tomate.
(Les soles au gratin) .
Les bécasses, entrée de broche à l'Espagnole .
Les filtes de volaille à la belle vue .
Les hâteletes d'aspic de filets de soles .
Les cervelles de veaux à la Milanaise .
Les escalopes de gelinottes, sauce salmis.
(Le turbot, sauce aux crevettes) .
Les filets de poulardes glacés aux concombres.
Les boudins de faisins à la Richelieu .
La salade de volaille à l'ancienne.
La noix de jambon aux épinards.
Les ailerons de poulardes à la Piémontaise.
(Les merlans frits à l'Anglaise).
Les pigeons au beurre d'écrevisses.
La poularde à la Maquignon.
Le vol-au-vent à la Nesle, Allemande.
Les cotelettes de moutons à la purée de pommes de terres.
Les filets de poulardes à la Pompadour.
8 PIÉCES MONTÉES.
An Italian pavilion.
A Swiss hermitage.
Giant Parisian meringue.
Croque-en-bouche aux pistache.
A Welsh hermitage.
A grand oriental pavilion.
Un gros nougat à la française.
Croque-en-bouche aux anis.
Les bécasses bardées.
Les faisans piqués.
Les poulardes au cresson.
Les sarcelles au citron.
Les poulets à la reine.
Les cailles bardées.
(of which 16 are desserts, with indication of arrangement around roasts and grosses pièces).
Les concombres farcies au velouté.
La gelée de groseilles (conserve).
(Les bécasses bardées).
Les gaufres aux raisins de Corinthe.
Les épinards à l'Anglaise(Le Pavilion Italian).
Le buisson des homards.
Les tartelettes d'abricots pralineés.
La geléé de marasquins fouettée.
Les oeufs brouilles aux truffes.
(La grosse meringue à la Parisienne).
Les navets à la Chartres.
Le pouding de pommes au rhum.
(Les faisans piques).
Les diadémes au gros sucré.
Les choux-fleurs à la magnonaise.
Les truffes à la serviette.
Les fanchonettes aux avelines.
(Les poulardes au cressons).
La gelée de citrons renversées.
La croute aux champignons.
Les cardes à l'Espagnol.
La gelée de fraises (conserve).
(Les cailles bardées).
Les gateaux renversés, glacés au gros sucré.
Le buisson de crevettes.
(Le Pavilion Asiatique).
La salade de salsifis à l'Italienne.
Les gateaux à la dauphine.
Le fromage Bavarois aux abricots.
Les laitues à l'essence de jambon.
(Le gros nougat à la française).
Les champignons grilles demi-glacé.
Les pannequets à la Chantilly.
(Les poulets à la reine).
Les pains à la duchesse.
Les truffes à la serviette.
Les pommes de terre à la Lyonnaise.
Les gateaux d'amandes glaces à la rose.
(Les sarcelles aux citrons).
La gelée de cuirassau de Hollande.
Les céleris à l'Espagnol.
12 ASSIETTES VOLANTES.
4 soufflés de pomme.
4 soufflés à la vanille.
I saw so many extraordinary possibilities for a dish to make from the menu, choices that were enormously luxurious and complicated as you would expect for such a dinner –– perhaps I am contrary by nature but I didn't want to go in that direction. Then I saw Les poulets dépèces l'Italienne –– diced chicken in ham and mushroom sauce. It is such a homely dish. The kind of thing you have when you want to feel comforted. To include it with all the fabulous dishes made me feel like it might have been a favorite of the Regent – something he might have loved when he dropped in on the kitchen to eat with the staff. I know it feels like home when I eat it. It’s very like one of those things my mom might have made for Sunday supper from leftover chicken -- very comforting on a bit of toasted bread. I have certainly made it a million times and never been disappointed. Although I usually do just mushrooms, ham is a great addition.
I found a recipe for sauce Italienne in the great Alexis Soyer’s Gastronomic Regenerator, published a dozen years after Carême’s death, but I really didn’t need it. Escoffier does a diced chicken with mushrooms or one with ham, but it all points to the same conclusion. It’s pretty much a simple white sauce made with stock and a bit of cream. Served with potato croquettes or on little rounds of toasted bread, it is a perfect way to use leftover turkey or chicken and ham and delicious to boot.
At the King's Table goes through the rest of the Georges (there were 6 after all) as well as Victoria and her Regent son Bertie with his own infatuation with French food and the great French chef, Escoffier's handiwork. The book even looks to today’s Elizabeth and her simple post-war Coronation Chicken and notes that her son and grandsons can actually cook for themselves (how times have changed!).
You can be sure this dish graced all their tables at one time or another. Timeless and delicious and never out of style – that is the best of the royal table. Make yourself the Chicken Italienne, curl up in your favorite chair and binge on the book. It is a great guilty pleasure.
Diced Chicken in Ham and Mushroom Sauce l'Italienne -- Serves 2
1 T butter
1 shallot sliced
1 c sliced mushrooms
1 chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
salt and pepper to taste
¼ c diced ham
1 ½ T flour
1 ½ T butter
1 ¼ c chicken stock, warmed
¼ c cream
1 - 2 T sherry (dry or Pedro Jimenez)
1 t lemon juice
pinch of mace and cloves
½ t thyme
salt and pepper to taste
2-4 rounds of bread, buttered and fried or toasted (use a cookie cutter, I sliced them in half)
Sauté the shallot and mushrooms in the butter. Add the chicken and salt and pepper and cook till nearly done. Set aside. Put the flour and butter in a pan and cook the flour for a few minutes. Add the stock slowly, stirring all the while. When fully added, put in the cream and cook over very low heat for 20 minutes. Add the spices and thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Add the sherry and lemon and then add this to the meat and mushroom mixture.
Put the warm bread on a plate and spoon the chicken over it. Sprinkle with herbs and peas and serve.
From Alexis Soyer’s Gastronomic Regenerator
No. 30. Sauce à l’Italienne.
Put two tablespoonfuls of chopped onions and one of chopped eschalots in a stewpan with three tablespoonfuls of salad oil, stir them ten minutes over a sharp fire; then add a wine-glassful of sherry, a pint of brown sauce (No. 1), and half a pint of consommé (No. 134), set it over a sharp fire until it boils, then place it at the corner, let it simmer ten minutes, skim off all the oil which it will throw up, then place it over the fire, stir with a spoon, reducing it until it adheres to the back of it, then add a teaspoonful of chopped parsley, a tablespoonful of chopped mushrooms, a little sugar, salt if required, and finish with the juice of half a lemon.
No. 31. Sauce à l’Italienne (white.)
Italian sauce for any description of fish, white meat, or poultry, must be made white, which is done by following the directions of the preceding receipts, only substituting white sauce (No. 7) for the brown, and finishing with three spoonfuls of cream.