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
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