The Diamond Jubilee celebrations mark the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne after the sudden death of her father, King George VI, in February 1952. However, it’s the coronation a year later that is providing the main inspiration for this weekend’s events.
In 1953, Britain was still in the throes of post-war rationing, but the Ministry of Food announced that households would get an extra pound (450g) of sugar and 4 ounces (115g) of margarine to help them celebrate "in the traditional festive spirit." Thousands of miles of bunting and flags went up, and tables and chairs were pulled into the streets. There was also a huge surge in the sale of television sets as viewers at home and around the world prepared to tune in to the broadcast from Westminster Abbey. More than 20 million people in Britain (56 percent of the population) watched it live.
Two official banquets were held, both featuring Edinburgh salmon and beef. Veteran cookery writer Marguerite Patten, now 96, who was a wartime adviser to the Ministry of Food, says the menus were kept simple partly because of rationing, but also because the Queen has always preferred simple food. She also likes to eat slowly to enable her guests to take their time, unlike Queen Victoria, who was a notoriously fast eater. With the plates being cleared as soon as Victoria had finished each course, those served last, at the far end of the table, often went hungry. As a child, the future queen was scolded about her eating habits by her Uncle Leopold (later King of the Belgians). She tried to reassure him by writing: “I wish you could come here, for many reasons, but also to be an eyewitness of my extreme prudence in eating, which would astonish you.”
The full menu for one of the coronation banquets was as follows:
On the night of the coronation, the in-crowd gathered at the Savoy Hotel on the Strand for a coronation ball and cabaret "under the direction of Sir Laurence Olivier, Mr Noël Coward and Mr John Mills." Tickets were 12 guineas (£12 and 12 shillings) each. The hotel reported that "the entire ground floor at the Savoy was converted into a scene of Elizabethan fantasy. Sixteen yeoman warders from the Tower of London in full uniform lined the entrance staircase. An array of 150 heraldic banners hung in the entrance, and the restaurant was converted into a domed tent with 4,000 yards of pink, grey and turquoise material."
Among the guests staying at the Savoy were "Prime Minister Menzies of Australia, with his wife [Pattie] and attractive daughter, Heather. While Mr Menzies goes from meeting to meeting, the two ladies go from shop to shop. Tired out, they arrive back in their river suite to rest, with a martini, the only drink Mr Menzies insists on making himself, then to change for the evening social function."
To add to the fun, "famous Maharajahs" were also among the guests, including "the Maharajah of Darbhanga, who eats very little, but smokes 10-15 cigars a day and only drinks Evian water"; the Maharajah of Faridkot, who "has brought with him 25 different coloured turbans, each 7½ yards [6.8 meters] long, which he says he can put on in under two minutes"; and Sir Sayed Abdel Rahman el Mahdi, "the Political Leader of the Sudan, who remains in his suite all day. He does not eat anything made with salt, and his bread is specially baked by the hotel bakery. He has a 6ft 3in [1.9m] bodyguard who never leaves him, and a doctor in the next room."
Out on the streets, the security arrangements included 43,000 troops called in from home and abroad. They received "haversack rations," containing ‘‘one cheese roll, one Spam roll, one bar of chocolate, one portion fruit slab cake, one apple, 2 oz [ounces] barley sugar, with modiﬁcations where necessary for overseas detachments.’’
The most famous dish of the coronation was served not at a banquet, but at a luncheon for foreign dignitaries who could not be squeezed into the main events. Rosemary Hume devised Coronation Chicken (originally called Poulet Reine Elizabeth): cold poached chicken with an apricot and curry mayonnaise sauce. The recipe later appeared in the 1956 edition of “The Constance Spry Cookery Book,” written by Hume and her cookery school partner, florist Constance Spry, who designed the coronation flower arrangements at Westminster Abbey.
With curry still a rarity in Britain at the time, Spry wrote: “I doubt whether many of the 300-odd guests at the coronation luncheon detected this ingredient in a chicken dish, which was distinguished mainly by a delicate and nutlike flavor in the sauce.”
Coronation Chicken has remained popular in Britain and will be on the menu at many street parties this weekend. It’s also been included in a “hamper” of picnic food designed for 13,000 guests at a Diamond Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace. Sponsored by the upmarket Waitrose supermarket chain, which holds a royal warrant, the menu was created by leading British chef Heston Blumenthal in conjunction with royal chef Mark Flanagan.
Guests at the concert will dine on:
Each hamper will contain a voucher that can be swapped for a glass of Moët & Chandon Champagne or a bottle of Cobra Beer. Lord Bilimoria, who founded Cobra Beer in 1989, welcomed its inclusion, saying, “Given Cobra’s Indian heritage, we feel our presence at these celebrations also serves to represent the Commonwealth, an institution which we know Her Majesty values greatly.”
According to Flanagan, the Queen "has personally tasted every dish” that will go in the hampers, which will also contain a flag and a waterproof poncho.
As royal chef, Flanagan has been involved in a competition in which schoolchildren were invited to create a special menu for the Diamond Jubilee. When she launched the competition earlier in the year, the Duchess of Cornwall said that her mother-in-law's tastes were "very plain, nothing too complicated.”
The winning entries include: Royal Anchovy Biscuits with Asparagus Spears, Beefeater’s Delight (duchess potatoes with horseradish and Gloucester beef), Will’s Spot of Windsor (pork with Windsor apple sauce), King Charles II Syllabub (a dessert of rich cream seasoned with sugar and lightly curdled with wine), Diamond Slippers (cake and sugar-paste, studded with edible diamonds), and Luv-lee Jub-lee Bub-lee (elderflower, strawberry and champagne soup). Flanagan will make the recipes into canapés to be served at a reception attended by the Queen.
One form of celebration that will be less common this year is the traditional village ox roast. Back in 1953, the Minister of Food, Gwilym Lloyd George, told Parliament: "Any local authority, or any other responsible body which has made a custom of ox roasting at coronations, will be permitted to obtain an ox for this purpose during coronation week provided the cooked meat is given away free to those at the festivity." Eighty-two permits were granted. This weekend, a number of towns and villages will opt for a repeat performance, including the Royal Borough of Windsor (which had its first ox roast on the ancient playing field of Batchelor's Acre in 1809, to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of King George III), Harrogate, and Moreton in Essex, where "a 350kg beast, born and reared in the village, is currently hanging to develop the flavour." The traditional accompaniment is plum pudding, washed down with cider and ale.
An estimated 10,000 street parties have been organized throughout Britain, along with tens of thousands of other events, including frozen-sausage tossing in Northumberland and kilt racing in Scotland. The county with the highest number of street closures is Hertfordshire, where a Waitrose wine manager told Wine-Searcher that his store had been selling large quantities of pinot grigio, especially 2011 Las Vis Vigneti di Montagna. He said sales of wine boxes were also on the rise. However, the "real bestseller" was 2011 Rabbit Row Sauvignon Blanc, from the Marlborough region of New Zealand.
But while excitement is mounting and mountains of food are being prepared (think sausage rolls, cucumber sandwiches and Scotch eggs), some Britons view the celebrations with a skeptical eye. Daily Mail columnist Suzanne Moore wrote recently that in front of the Queen, “everyone, even the BBC, becomes obsequious. We walk backwards in her company ... To say, ‘I would like to live as a citizen in a functioning democracy rather than as a subject of some random posh pensioner’ is insulting, apparently.”
The Guardian said: "If any other country were paying homage to an unelected head of state in this way, while the living standards of the majority of the population fall and schools and hospitals struggle with diminishing resources, we would call it 'the cult of the personality' and probably think about invading."
Bertie Miller, co-founder of Watermill, a London-based creative consultancy, takes much the same view. He recalls that for the 1977 jubilee celebrations, “I had a picnic with my mum and a few others, and we wore our ‘Fuck the Jubilee’ badges. I was a 14-year-old punk and Mum a staunch Trotskyite, so the whole concept of royalty went against the grain.”
This time around, says Miller, “my wife and children will be buying into the whole thing with great enthusiasm and I shall try not to upset them.” Of his neighbors in prosperous Regents Park, Miller observes: “No doubt they'll be drinking Champagne, and stuff the recession.”
For its part, the English Wine Producers Association is rather hoping that Britons will choose English sparkling wine rather than Champagne from across the Channel. Suitable choices might include 2007 Bolney Estate Blanc de Blancs, which won a gold outstanding medal at this year’s International Wine & Spirit Competition; 2003 Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs (gold); 2009 Furleigh Classic Cuvée and 2007 Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs (both outstanding silver).
And despite the naysayers, Britain is getting ready for a right royal knees-up. Katie Simpson, 35, a police officer in Cleveland, north-east England, told Wine-Searcher: “There’s bunting everywhere and everyone’s having street parties. There’s just a great sense of being British.”
*“The Constance Spry Cookery Book,” by Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume, Grub Street, £30.00 ($46).