Behind the Scenes of the Royal Kitchens

·7 min read
Photo credit: WPA Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: WPA Pool - Getty Images

Just walking into that vast, cool Windsor Castle Great Kitchen takes the breath away, with its soaring arched ceilings and fireplaces at each end, fireplaces big enough to roast a whole ox, the spits still very much intact. On the pristine white walls hangs an entire battalion of burnished copper stock pots, pans, jelly moulds and turbot kettles, some imprinted with VR beneath a crown, the insignia of Queen Victoria. Truly a kitchen fit for kings and queens alike.

This magnificent kitchen has, for over 750 years, fed kings, queens, emperors and emirs alike, heroes and villains, prime ministers, presidents and imperial potentates. The sizzling, clanking, hissing and spitting nerve centre of the oldest operating castle on earth is where great boar heads were simmered, capons roasted, stocks clarified, turbots poached, lobsters boiled, artichokes stuffed and sugar spun into the most wondrous of shapes.

Photo credit: WPA Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: WPA Pool - Getty Images

“History is everywhere here,” says Mark Flanagan, Royal Chef to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. “It’s so inspiring to work in such a beautiful place.” He is calm and softly spoken, having trained under Albert Roux, Nico Ladenis and Raymond Blanc before joining the household in 2002. “It has to be one of the greatest kitchens in the world.” Easily able to fit up to 30 chefs at one time, it is also conveniently close to St George’s Hall, home to state banquets.

“We very much adhere to the seasons,” says Flanagan. The royal estates offer a wonderful natural pantry, and the kitchens make full use of their abundant bounty. Pork, lamb and beef from Windsor; the same from Sandringham. Game has always played a central role in the royal kitchen. Grouse and red deer, in season, comes from Balmoral, along with pheasant and partridge from Sandringham, and more pheasant from Windsor, too.

Photo credit: Samir Hussein - Getty Images
Photo credit: Samir Hussein - Getty Images

Nothing is ever wasted. “When I first came here,” says Flanagan, “I had a very restaurant-type approach. Partridge season would end on 1 February.” Here, though, they freeze it and use it throughout the year. Many of the vegetables come from an “amazing” kitchen garden at Balmoral. Windsor used to have fruit farms, and some trees still remain, meaning baskets full of apricots, peaches, nectarines, figs and quince. “We do our utmost to use as much of that as possible, wherever we can.” The estates make their own jams and have plenty of honey from the hives at Buckingham Palace. Milk and dairy come from the royal herd in Windsor, eggs from their own flocks, and there is even a cream cheese, made for Her Majesty’s exclusive use.

State banquets, held at both Windsor and Buckingham Place, are far more than mere feasts, rather a subtle form of soufflé diplomacy – an event that mixes pageantry, pomp and circumstance with real diplomatic power. Politics may be left to the government, but few doubt the importance of these occasions. Food plays a crucial role, and part of Flanagan’s brief is to ensure that everything is just right. “It’s so important to have those little things taken care of that make things more personal and positive,” he says. “The Times never reports on the breakfast of a state visit, but we give it the same care and attention as the state dinner, which is all about the ceremony, the concept of sharing a meal of great status with the guests. That’s the important thing.”

Menus are traditionally written in French, a tradition stretching back many centuries. “Her Majesty loves the menu in French,” says Flanagan, “and if I get an accent wrong or mix up the masculine and feminine on the menus I send up for her approval, she’ll let me know. Her Majesty misses nothing!” He smiles. One of the few menus written in English was the one for her Diamond Jubilee lunch – simply a decision “to make life easier”.

Flanagan will offer five different menus to The Queen, but it is not, he admits, “the time for experimentation”. He will never serve food that is highly spiced, and avoids bivalves for reasons of safety. As ever, seasonality is everything. But the menus are only ever a basic guide. “Her Majesty will make the final decision, interject her own suggestions, or remember that so and so really liked that the last time they came. Her memory is incredible. All the menus have her hand on them.”

So, how does he know about the individual likes and dislikes of the visiting dignitaries? Flanagan has his own culinary network. The White House Chef, for example. “We communicate, so we know exactly what is going on. For any state visit, we get a delegation in advance, who say, ‘We need this, we need that’. Keeping up-to-date is nigh-on impossible, which is why this chef network is so important.”

Photo credit: WPA Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: WPA Pool - Getty Images

Before Covid, there were two or three state banquets a year. The Queen always leads the procession in, and no one eats until Her Majesty starts; nor does anyone leave before she has left the room. These events are not so much dinners as theatrical extravaganzas, the long tables glittering with glass and silver, awash in a sea of flowers, the bottom end of the cutlery one thumb’s length from the edge of the table, the distance between plates precisely measured. The relationship between head chef and place steward is key. Everything must work like clockwork and timings are exact.

In pre-Covid times, there were 800 mouths to feed daily from the Buckingham Palace kitchens. Split into staff, events and domestic, this is catering on a vast scale. It is not just the Royal Family and visiting dignitaries who must be fed, but also the army of private secretaries, equerries and ladies-in-waiting, the valets, pages, dressers, maids, policemen and gardeners who make up the royal household.

Photo credit: AFP - Getty Images
Photo credit: AFP - Getty Images

A jubilee, though, is a special occasion indeed, a cause for national celebration and feasting. Queen Victoria didn’t celebrate her Silver Jubilee, being still in mourning for her husband, Prince Albert. But the Golden Jubilee in 1887 was a typically splendid affair. Funded by the Crown (the Whigs and Tories refused to use public funds), there were more ox roasts, tonnes of plum pudding and lakes of ale served to her delighted subjects.

Ten years later, the country celebrated Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee on 22 June, “a never to be forgotten day”, in her own words. Light breakfast (omelettes, fried sole, beef fillets and cold fillet of beef) at Buckingham Palace was followed by a two-and-a-half-hour carriage ride through the cheering crowds, before returning to a lunch filled with many of her favourite dishes, from lamb cutlets and asparagus to cold fowl, cinnamon rice pudding and fruit compote.

Photo credit: Print Collector - Getty Images
Photo credit: Print Collector - Getty Images

People came to London to celebrate, straining to catch a glimpse of their beloved sovereign. Street vendors made a brisk trade flogging ice cream, winkles and currant buns to the masses, while wealthier punters sat upstairs on balconies before retiring indoors for a feast complete with claret and champagne. As usual, parties, fetes and ox roasts were held across the country. In Gateshead, children from ragged schools received a paper bag containing two buns and an orange, while in Windsor, 6,000 children were feasted at public expense.

These days, things are rather different. Flanagan is one of the judges, alongside the Duchess of Cornwall, Mary Berry and Monica Galetti, for the Fortnum & Mason Platinum Pudding Competition, which aims to find a pudding “Fit for The Queen”. And while there will be al fresco feasting aplenty, plus the Big Jubilee Lunch, one towering figure will be deeply missed. “The Duke of Edinburgh was truly interested in food and really knew his stuff,” says Flanagan. “A genuine gourmet, but never a snob. It was all about the flavour. And if he enjoyed the taste, it didn’t need to be complicated or overly fussy. He was a very unfussy man.”

The Duke would suddenly appear in the kitchen, asking what was for dinner that night. His barbecue skills were legendary, and at Balmoral, he would wander around the fridges, looking to choose the meat, well-hung venison or grouse for that night’s grill. “He would then have his own marinade and always had a firm idea of what he wanted to cook. And as much as I could try to represent or suggest, if it didn’t meet that vision, then it was very unlikely I was going to change his mind. He was a hugely talented cook, and it was an honour and pleasure to work for him.”

Things may have changed since the oxen and plum puddings of George III. But as Her Majesty celebrates her unprecedented Platinum Jubilee, one thing remains very much the same. A nation is united, not just by food and celebrations, but by our admiration and respect for the longest serving sovereign of them all.

Photo credit: St James's House
Photo credit: St James's House

The Official Platinum Jubilee Commemorative Album from St James's House, is available starting June 2 at stjamess.org.

Excerpted from Her Majesty The Queen: The Official Platinum Jubilee Pageant Commemorative Album authored by Robert Jobson and Katie Nicholl, contributor Tom Parker Bowles. Copyright © 2022 by St James's House. Used by arrangement with St James's House. All rights reserved.

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