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President Obama’s State visit to Buckingham Palace

President Obama’s State visit to Buckingham Palace. May 24th and 25th 2011

Today President Obama will become just the third US President in 100 years to make a State visit to the UK. He and the first lady will spend the next two nights at Buckingham Palace. Will it be like the White House ?  I spent eleven years in the royal kitchens at Buckingham Palace and prepared many state banquets. Here’s a brief insight into what the President and first lady can expect.

Since Queen Elizabeth II took the throne in 1952 she has held two State visits a year, either at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle and it doesn’t matter if you are the President of the USA or President of the Maldives, when it comes to protocol and hospitality all are treated the same.

The visiting King, Queen or President will stay in the Belgian Suite on the ground floor at the back of the palace. It was named after King Leopold I of the Belgians. He was Queen Victoria’s favorite Uncle and loved that room. It’s also the room that Prince Andrew and Prince Edward were born in. Two senior footmen will be assigned to the suite and be at the President’s beck and call. An equerry and lady in waiting will also have been assigned to deal with any protocol questions.

Chocolates, cookies, candy and fruit waiting to go up to the royal suites


The Queen is the perfect hostess and checks out all of the rooms prior to the important guests arriving, making sure the towels are perfect and there is enough soap etc. Chefs will already have dispatched the fruit, mints and chocolates for each guest by the time Her Majesty does her inspection. As you can see in the picture above taken in the royal kitchens prior to a state visit at Windsor Castle, the more important the guest the bigger the fruit bowl and box of chocolates. The hand made chocolates come from Charbonnel and Walker and Prestat in London and ribbons matching the visiting countries flag are tied onto the chocolate boxes.

Queen Elizabeth’s favorite snack Bendicks bittermints are placed in every room, along with a crystal bowl of digestive biscuits and a large fruit bowl that is replenished twice a day. Of course the highlight of any State visit is the state banquet that is always held on the Tuesday night of the visit in the ballroom.

Below stairs the yeoman of the silver pantry and the yeoman of the glass pantry will have been busy weeks before hand polishing the 1,320 knives, forks and spoons and 825 crystal glasses (five for each of the 165 guests – sherry, white wine, red wine, champagne and water). Each piece will be meticulously placed on the 160 ft dining table that is so big it is polished by two men shuffling along the top of it with dusters on their feet.  On the sideboard will be displayed the Rockingham China purchased by King William IV in 1830 but not used to serve food on anymore because so much has been broken.

Each guest is given a menu that also has ribbon from the colors of the countries flag sewn through it. Not only does this show what food will be served that evening, but also lists the wines, the music program and a large seating plan. Dinner starts with soup, then goes on to a fish course followed by a meat course that includes vegetables and salad. Next up is “pudding” followed by dessert.  In the royal household any pie, pudding pastry or ice cream is called pudding. The term dessert is saved for the fruit course served after pudding. We would prepare seventy-two dessert dishes in the kitchen. China dishes were hand painted Meissen china from the 1700’s and after hand polishing half a dozen leaves the fruit would (again after polishing) be placed neatly on each dish.  Because the china was so expensive we were only allowed to carry two dishes at a time and it took hours just to get all the fruit out and even longer to tear it down at the end of the evening without breaking a china bowl.

After dessert comes coffee and petit fours. In the kitchens we would prepare pastillage sugar bowls to serve these in and hand paint the visiting countries flags on each bowl.The food is served using a traffic light system; it leaves the royal kitchens and goes upstairs to a holding kitchen where footmen at the ready would wait for the traffic lights to change color to enter the ballroom and either start serving or clear each course. As soon as the Queen puts down her knife and fork that course is over, even if you haven’t finished eating…the course is over.

State Banquet Medals



Many gifts were exchanged over State visits too. The visiting Kings Queens and Presidents often competing with each other to win Her Majesties favor. Some would present the Queen with a painting and others like the picture below a diamond, ruby, sapphire and emerald dessert dish. Her Majesty in return always gives the same gift to each… a signed photograph of her and Prince Philip.

Staff are not left out of gift giving too. Some times guests will leave large tips for footmen and maids who have looked after them and often staff are presented with medals as a token of thanks for their hard work. Palace chefs try to use local and seasonal ingredients for the State banquet menu. Below is a typical menu.

Spring Asparagus Soup with Dill


Gleneagles Pate


Beef Wellington


Iced Praline and Amaretto Souffle with Poached pears

All of the recipes can be found in my book Eating Royally.


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