Two hundred years ago, this month, at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, the great French chef, Antonin Carême, devised one of the grandest banquets of all time. This meal was so extraordinary that it has gone down in history as an event on a par with Tigellinus’ Roman orgy for Nero (64 A.D.), the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520) and the Medici wedding celebration in Florence (1600). However, Carême’s meal was more than just vast quantities of lavish delicacies, it was a combination of art and theatre on a scale which would seldom again be seen on the dining tables of England.
Carême’s Brighton banquet . . .
Even before he became Regent, the Prince of Wales was captivated by all things French. As he got older, he also became quite preoccupied by food and the lavish display of fine dining. One of his greatest ambitions was to employ a famous French chef. In the summer of 1816, he got the chance. The Prince Regent offered the illustrious French chef, Antonin Carême, the extraordinary sum of £2000 a year, if the great chef would come to work for him. Carême accepted the offer and left France for Britain in July of 1816. Despite the fact that he did not speak English, Carême had no difficulty in making himself understood in his new post, since the Prince Regent, as well as the majority of his staff, all spoke French fluently. When he first came to England, Carême began cooking for the Regent at his London residence, Carlton House. However, the public turned against the Prince later that year for his spendthrift ways and many threw stones at him as he traveled though London for the State Opening of Parliament. Taking fright, the Prince escaped the angry city and travelled to his seaside retreat, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton.
Carême was part of the entourage which the Regent took with him to Brighton. One can only imagine Carême’s reaction when he saw the Great Kitchen in the Royal Pavilion for the first time. The Prince had directed his architect, John Nash, to begin renovating and expanding the building in 1815. By the last months of 1816, the new Great Kitchen was nearly complete and was fully functional. [Author’s Note: The chinoiserie decoration, including the painted copper palm fronds which capped the pillars in the Great Kitchen, were not completed until 1818, long after Carême had left the Regent’s employ and returned to Europe.] The Great Kitchen was a large, spacious room with high ceilings and two large cooking fireplaces. It was provided with natural light by several skylights which could be opened to vent the room when needed. The Great Kitchen and its adjoining work rooms took up nearly a full quarter of the entire square footage of the Royal Pavilion.
This very modern kitchen was furnished with some of the most innovative systems seen anywhere at the time, some of which had been personally specified by the Prince himself. These state-of-the-art features included a constant supply of water pumped to the water tower in the Royal Pavilion from a nearby well, an extensive ventilation system and the very latest in steam heating technology. This steam system was used to heat a special table with a cast iron top, which kept the dishes placed upon it warm until they were ready to be served. There was also an adjacent "ice room," much like a walk-in freezer today, which was supplied from an ice house located in the southwest corner of the property. The smoke-jack which was installed in this kitchen was a radical advance over the old-fashioned Tudor-era spits. This new and improved jack-spit was automatic, since it was activated by the heat from the fire. The jack was actually fitted with five spits, each about two meters long, which enabled the chef to have multiple roasts turning on the spits at the same time.
Another remarkable feature of the Great Kitchen was its location. At that time, most kitchens were situated far from the main public rooms of a house, in order to minimize the risk of fire and to keep the sounds and smells associated with cooking away from the family and their guests. Of course, this separation had the effect that most dishes could not be served piping hot because of the distance they must travel from kitchen to dining room. Such was not the case at the Royal Pavilion, since this new extension included the Grand Banqueting Room as well as the Great Kitchen. The two rooms were separated only by the Table Decker’s Room, in which the royal table deckers prepared the extravagant and sophisticated ornaments which decked the royal table during important meals. Thus, meals at the Royal Pavilion could be served at the temperature intended by the chef. The proximity of the Great Kitchen to the Grand Banqueting Room also made it convenient for the Prince to take his guests on a tour of his ultra-modern kitchen, which he seems to have done quite frequently, as part of a tour of his state apartments.
In January of 1817, the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia paid a state visit to Great Britain. The Grand Duke was the younger brother of the current Tsar of Russia, Alexander I, and he would become Tsar himself in 1825. He was a handsome and charming young man and the Prince Regent was eager to impress this visiting member of the Russian royal family. Particularly since other members of the Russian royal family had snubbed and slighted the Regent during their visit in the summer of 1814, for the Peace Celebrations after Napoleon’s first abdication. The Prince was aware that state dinners in Russia could be quite extravagant, so he called on his own French chef, Carême, to create a banquet for the Grand Duke that would rival or even surpass those in Russia. Carême was more than equal to the challenge. The date given for the banquet for the Russian Grand Duke ranges from 15 to 20 January 1817, though the date of Saturday, 18 January 1817, seems to be the most likely day on which this banquet took place.
Carême planned a lavish menu for this banquet, which included over 120 different dishes to be served over nine courses. (A traditional formal dinner at that time was usually eight courses.) The banquet menu included eight different soups, followed by eight different fish dishes, then five shellfish dishes, and that was just to start. This grand banquet also included forty different dishes in the entrée course and thirty-two desserts. Some years ago, Janet Clarkson, author and food historian, published an article at her blog, The Old Foodie, which lists the complete menu for this extravagant banquet. [Author’s Note: Though the majority of the menu is in French, it is a simple thing to copy and paste the text into an online translation tool for a translation to your preferred language.]
In Regency England, including at the Royal Pavilion, most formal dinners were served à la française, that is, in the French style. That meant all the dishes were placed on the table at the same time. The custom was for people to help themselves from the dishes nearest to them and then offer them to those sitting nearby. At large dinner parties, this had the effect of restricting diners to those dishes which were placed closest to them, and they were often denied access to dishes placed on the table at any distance from their seat. But for this banquet the Regent gave for the Russian Grand Duke, Carême wanted to be sure that all of the dinner guests had a chance to taste all of the luscious dishes which he prepared. Therefore, he chose to have this special dinner served à la russe, that is in the Russian style. In this style of service, the dishes were presented in multiple courses, and each guest was served a portion of each dish.
However, for Carême, the provision of multiple courses of fine food was not nearly enough to make a grand meal. He was one of the first chefs of the modern era to focus on the appearance of the table on which his food was served, and not just the taste of those dishes. In one of the cookbooks he wrote later in his life, he said, "I want order and taste. A well displayed meal is enhanced one hundred per cent in my eyes." In order to enhance this banquet, he created eight large centerpieces of confectionary, or gros pièces de patisserie, to adorn the table. This was more than just a meal, it was theatre and had its roots in the Middle Ages. These works were intended to entertain and amuse the diners as they enjoyed the chef’s succulent dishes. Such opulent works of art also made a statement about the host of the meal, showing him to be a man of superior taste and style. Thus, these magnificent confectionary centerpieces made a statement about the Regent, which the Prince and the Grand Duke, as well as the rest of the dinner guests, would have appreciated.
In addition, by the eighteenth century, it was believed that pleasant and beautiful scenes on the table would aid the digestion of the diners at any meal where they were presented. Thus, Carême was not only asserting his prowess as an artist and master chef with his confectionary models, he was also ensuring that his meal was enjoyed both aesthetically and physically by those who partook. His goal was to create a gourmand’s paradise for those who sat at his table. Some of the elaborate gros pièces de patisserie on display that evening were a giant Parisian meringue, a Welsh cottage, an Italian pavilion and a Swiss hermitage. But the pièce de résistance was a magnificent marzipan model of a grand Turkish mosque, which stood four feet high. Carême’s grand banquet was a tour de force which was thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended. The Prince Regent was extremely pleased by the event and is reported to have said, "It is wonderful to be back in Brighton where I am truly loved." A curious remark to have made, since few if any of the citizens of the Brighton area were invited to this state banquet. But it seems likely that at that time, the Regent was looking for signs of public affection anywhere he could find them.
Dear Regency Authors, could the great banquet for the Russian Grand Duke, given at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, in January of 1817, make a suitable setting for scene(s) in any of your upcoming novels? At the time of his visit to England, the Grand Duke Nicholas was a dashing young man of twenty. He was handsome, charming, fond of women and single. The Grand Duke would not take a bride until that July, after he had returned to Russia. Might he flirt with the heroine during the course of that royal banquet, much to the chagrin of the hero? Or, mayhap the heroine is fluent in French, a devotee of art and is fascinated by the magnificent confectionary centerpieces. Might she find some excuse to visit the Great Kitchen, in order to give the great French chef her compliments, and maybe even learn some of his secrets? On the other hand, could it be that the hero is a pastry chef at the Royal Pavilion and studies the techniques of the great Carême in order to improve his skills and find an even better position? How else might the great banquet for the Grand Duke Nicholas feature in a Regency romance?