By any standards it was an epic lunch: the finest soup, jellied trout and rice with prawns, quail stuffed with truffles and foie gras, chicken, beef, duck, asparagus, wonderful Viennese doughnuts, sweet soufflés decorated with gold leaf, and not forgetting tiny songbirds, which are either a luxurious delight, or a gastronomic disgrace.
The birds, called ortolans, weigh about an ounce and were hunted and kept in darkness for weeks to fatten up. They were then drowned in Armagnac, roasted and served sizzling to be eaten in a single hedonistic mouthful.
The late chef Anthony Bourdain once described eating an ortolan as a “sort of a hot rush of fat, guts, bones, blood and meat … really delicious”.
Today ortolan hunting is banned and eating them frowned upon, but in 1890 they were very much on the menu for what ranks as one of Queen Victoria’s favourite meals.
The story of the meal is to be told in a new display exploring the history and secrets of the kitchen at one of Britain’s grandest country houses, Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire.
Pippa Shirley, head of collections and gardens at Waddesdon, said kitchens were the “unsung heroes” of the UK’s mansions and country estates.
“There is just so much more interest now from the public in how these big houses worked, how they ran, so it is nice to be able to discover more,” she said.
“Downton [Abbey] has played a huge role, but I also think that people are more interested in their history, if you think of people using Ancestry, or programmes like Who Do You Think You Are?.”
Waddesdon’s kitchen was particularly impressive. The house was completed in 1883 as a weekend retreat for one of Britain’s richest men, Lord Ferdinand de Rothschild.
It was at Waddesdon, now run by the National Trust, that Rothschild would host his lavish Saturday-to-Monday house parties with the finest food and drink as well, of course, as the Sèvres porcelain to eat off and Gainsboroughs to admire on the walls.
In 1890, Victoria came for lunch, arriving at Aylesbury by train from Windsor. The menu for the royal visit is the only one that survived from the time.
As was the royal custom, the Queen ate separately from other guests. She was in the main dining room with her daughters while everyone else was in a smaller dining room. The Royal Artillery Band played jolly tunes between the two rooms.
Victoria evidently enjoyed herself, with Rothschild later noting: “The royal appetite is proverbial, and it was not until about half past three that the Queen … reappeared.” His butler reported that her majesty had returned to the cold beef for a second helping.
The meal made quite an impression on the Queen, Shirley said. “We know that she sent people from Windsor to learn secrets from the Waddesdon kitchen. The standard of cuisine was very, very high.”
The menu will go on display along with photographs that curators hope will help fill in gaps in knowledge about the people who worked in the kitchen.
“We have rather less information than you might imagine about the staff here, and it would be nice to know more about the servants and their lives,” Shirley said.
A grainy black and white photograph, taken around 1900, shows how accurately the Waddesdon kitchen was restored in the 1990s, but curators would love to know who the people gathered round the table are.
Rothschild died in 1898 and the running of the house was passed to his sister Alice.
Catherine Taylor, Waddesdon’s head archivist, said she was fairly certain Alice’s chef at the time was a Monsieur Bonnar, of whom very little is known apart from he died in a car accident in Brighton in 1915.
According to the scant records which do exist, other kitchen staff members were called Annie Gough, Susan Smith, Susan Cole and Fanny Sams.
Taylor said: “If you have been researching your family history or know of ancestors who worked at the manor at this time, we’d be delighted if you got in touch. Especially if you have any old family photos that may help us to identify the individual members of our turn-of-the century kitchen brigade.”