Imagine a quirky Christmas at Downton Abbey. A real fir tree glitters in every room, fires roar and footmen hurry through endless corridors. On the table in the dining room is a spectacular feast – ox tongue, roasted hams and a stuffed boar’s head. The family assembles in the drawing room for pre-dinner Veuve Clicquot and finger-bowls of almonds and cashews. The children are in the nursery – at least until they’re old enough to conduct themselves in the proper manner at the table.
This, as you might have guessed, is no ordinary family, for the matriarch with a crown upon her head – made of paper, rather than gold and jewels – is the Queen. Unsurprisingly she is immensely respectful of Christmas tradition – as I know from experience.
Meghan and the Royal Family will take their places – although seats are unassigned, even for the Queen – at 1pm sharp. The table features elaborately folded starched white napkins, a silver candelabra with lit candles, wine decanters and red and gold crackers at each setting
Fan of the sweet stuff: Princess Diana’s favourite dessert was a crêpe soufflé
For 15 years I was personal chef to Her Majesty and, later, Princess Diana until her death in 1997, catering to the Royals over many Christmases and New Years. Right from my first Christmas I was in love with and enchanted by Sandringham.
This year there will be a new guest when the Royals gather at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk on Christmas Eve, in the shape of Harry’s actress fiancee, Meghan Markle. What, I wonder, will this 36-year-old American make of the festive ritual that is by turns irreverent and formal – and unlike anything she has seen before.
Will Meghan enjoy the meticulously calibrated, somewhat Victorian machine that is the Sandringham Christmas? Not everyone does. Princess Diana, for example, found it too stuffy and claustrophobic, as she would explain when, escaping the formalities, she would come down to natter in the kitchen.
No doubt it will be an eye-opening experience for Meghan, and perhaps for the Windsors, too…
Even the corgis – there were 12 when I was chef – have individual menus, usually involving a rotation of fresh rabbit, beef or chicken with rice and cabbage
Christmas preparations for the Royal family start with the menus, which are chosen by the Queen when she arrives at Sandringham. She’s given two options for each course for every meal over the festive period, except for Christmas Day when a traditional turkey dinner is served. The only forbidden ingredient, at the Queen’s request, is garlic – perhaps with its anti-social effects in mind.
Even the corgis – there were 12 when I was chef – have individual menus, usually involving a rotation of fresh rabbit, beef or chicken with rice and cabbage. We’d jokingly refer to the footmen responsible for the dogs, both named Paul, as ‘Doggy One and Doggy Two’.
Often the Queen would make suggestions. If Prince Andrew was coming, she would make sure we served his favourite Mango Melba – mango ice cream with sliced mango and raspberry sauce – while William’s favourite chocolate biscuit cake would feature for afternoon tea.
The first time the Royals congregate on Christmas Eve is for afternoon tea at 4pm, often in the ornate Sandringham saloon under its exquisitely painted ceiling. It involves a large cake, usually a ginger cake or honey and cream sponge; a fruit cake would clash with the following day’s Christmas cake
There was room for some gentle subterfuge on my part, at least when it came to my favourite Royal, Princess Diana. How could I ensure her favourite, a crêpe soufflé d’abricot, a fluffy apricot jam pancake, would be on the menu? The answer was to suggest it as an option alongside one I knew the Queen wouldn’t like, such as pain aux pruneaux (prune bread set with gelatine). It worked. The Princess loved it so much she’d want seconds, but she was terrified to ask in front of the other Royals. So she’d sneak to the kitchen later where we’d give her some more.
There was great anticipation over the Harrods hamper, sent in those days as an appreciation of the Royals’ business. It would arrive on Christmas Eve containing wheels of Stilton, a whole foie gras en croute and other exotic treats.
One year, Prince Charles had a rival hamper sent, full of organic produce from his Highgrove estate. The Duke of Edinburgh wandered into the kitchen and was poking around, asking questions.
‘It’s from the Prince of Wales,’ I said. ‘It’s his organic food.’ Philip rolled his eyes. ‘Bloody organic,’ he muttered, and stomped off.
The first time the Royals congregate on Christmas Eve is for afternoon tea at 4pm, often in the ornate Sandringham saloon under its exquisitely painted ceiling. It involves a large cake, usually a ginger cake or honey and cream sponge; a fruit cake would clash with the following day’s Christmas cake. Small cakes and scones feature alongside finger sandwiches (crusts off, served in squares) filled with ham and English mustard, Sage Derby cheese and Branston Pickle or Coronation chicken, with a pot of Earl Grey tea.
This year there will be a new guest when the Royals gather at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk on Christmas Eve, in the shape of Harry’s actress fiancee, Meghan Markle
Then, in a German tradition called Heiligabend Bescherung, they will open their presents. The gifts, jokey and inexpensive rather than lavish, are piled on trestle tables alongside name tags. This is one of the few times that the children will be permitted to join the adults.
Dinner is a standard affair in the dining room.
On Christmas Day, the ladies generally opt for a light breakfast of sliced fruit, half a grapefruit, toast and coffee delivered to their rooms – the Queen’s tray is delivered at exactly 9am.
The male Royals, meanwhile, come downstairs to the dining room for a hearty breakfast at 8.30am with eggs, bacon and mushrooms, kippers and grilled kidneys, to set them up for the 11am church service at St Mary Magdalene. When they return, it’s straight into pre-lunch drinks. This is where Meghan may find she can request a glass of her favourite wine, Tignanello, a full-bodied Tuscan red.
The Queen has a gin and Dubonnet, while Prince Philip has beer. Everyone else will sip a glass of Veuve Clicquot (except teetotal Prince Andrew) and nibble on nuts. Canapes before a full Christmas lunch are rather frowned upon.
Meghan and the Royal Family will take their places – although seats are unassigned, even for the Queen – at 1pm sharp. The table features elaborately folded starched white napkins, a silver candelabra with lit candles, wine decanters and red and gold crackers at each setting – a wonderful sight, although there is no shortage of Christmas ‘tat’ elsewhere at Sandringham.
On Christmas Day, the ladies generally opt for a light breakfast of sliced fruit, half a grapefruit, toast and coffee delivered to their rooms – the Queen’s tray is delivered at exactly 9am
The children eat separately in the nursery at 12.30pm.
There is no starter today and the roast turkey, traditionally from local butcher Scoles in Dersingham, takes centre stage. It’s the one day of the year that the head chef is permitted to enter the dining room, to carve the bird at the table.
Once he’s finished, the Queen will offer him a tot of whisky and wish him a happy Christmas. The turkey is served with mashed and roast potatoes, chestnut or sage and onion stuffing, cranberry sauce and bread sauce. Vegetables include brussels sprouts, carrots and roast parsnips. The Queen enjoys drinking Gewurztraminer, an aromatic white wine.
English dining etiquette is something Meghan would do well to observe. For example, forks should not be held in the right hand, nor should they be put down with the prongs facing upwards when not in use – as is the style in the United States. Americanisms will be noted, and discouraged.
The gifts inside the crackers – opened over lunch – are more luxurious than most, but I assume the jokes aren’t much better than average. While the table is jolly, it is never raucous.
The Christmas pudding, doused in fine brandy and decorated with holly, is carried into the dining room by the Palace steward and lit in front of everyone.
We used to start making Christmas puddings in September, when we returned to Buckingham Palace from Balmoral.
The enormous stainless steel sinks in the kitchen are meticulously scrubbed so that they can be used as giant mixing bowls.
The one presented on Christmas Day is often made the previous year, which allows extra time for it to mature.
There is a lot of alcohol in it, but – perhaps for obvious reasons – no coins or trinkets are added. No one wants to be responsible for a Royal choking. The pudding is served at 2pm with brandy butter and brandy sauce for good measure.
Then Meghan will be treated to a lavish cheese course with bottles of port on the table.
The Stilton will be pricked with a fork and soaked with port so it turns purple and mushy.
Occasionally, Princess Diana would wander into the kitchen and we’d chat about musicals and the theatre.
The other Royals would drift off and sleep for a while, but not for long.
A small circular table is laden with chocolates from Charbonnel et Walker and the Queen’s favourites, Bendick’s Bitter Mints
They were required to assemble again at 3pm for the Queen’s Christmas message on television (although some took the opportunity to stroll around the grounds) and again at 4pm for a festive tea. There will be Christmas cake, a chocolate yule log, mince pies with brandy butter, scones and more sandwiches.
All the Royals are remarkably disciplined with food. Most simply graze. This is just as well, because the dinner buffet is a further feast.
Served at 8.15pm, and preceded by the requisite aperitif from 7.45pm, it is laid out in the dining room. But there is not a sausage roll or Quality Street in sight.
When I was there it was traditional, Old English cuisine: a stuffed boar’s head on platters, ox tongue and boiled and roasted hams, salmon and game. Potatoes tossed in hollandaise sauce, sliced tomatoes or green leaves suffice as an accompaniment. A small circular table is laden with chocolates from Charbonnel et Walker and the Queen’s favourites, Bendick’s Bitter Mints.
When I was there it was traditional, Old English cuisine: a stuffed boar’s head on platters, ox tongue and boiled and roasted hams, salmon and game
After the buffet has been served at 8.30pm, the 100-strong staff’s duties are over.
And it is party time. We would have a disco in the Recreation room, although we’d have to be up by 6.30am the next day. After a hearty breakfast on Boxing Day, the men – desperate to get out of the house – go shooting.
The Queen, and the ladies, generally join them at a cottage on the estate for a hot lunch of beef bourguignon, or venison stew, with mashed potatoes, braised red cabbage and apple pie. We would fry up slices of Christmas pudding in unsalted butter to snack on.
The evening meal tends to be game – venison, served with dauphinoise potatoes and carrots.
Pudding is usually chocolate-based to please the Queen, such as a Chocolate marquise or Chocolate perfection pie, a multi-layered creation made up of cream, meringue and cinnamon.
True, none of this fits easily with a Hollywood diet. But if Meghan is anything like me, she will enjoy it immensely – every member of the Queen’s staff will welcome her, and I’m sure the kitchen will rustle up green juice and chia seeds when all the festive feasting is over.
Darren McGrady is the author of The Royal Chef At Home: Easy Seasonal Entertaining (Bright Sky Press, £24.95).