Almina Wombwell married the fifth Earl of Carnarvon among pomp and splendour in St Margaret’s Westminster in June 1895. Six months later the new Lady Carnarvon was waiting to greet HRH The Prince of Wales, Albert Edward as he arrived to stay for shooting and the shoot lunch at Highclere Castle. She was only 19 years old and had thrown money at the weekend. Luckily she was able to do so (courtesy of her natural father Alfred Rothschild) and spent over £360,000 in today’s money to prepare for the three days of the December shoot and the shoot lunch.
Streatfield, the house steward, travelled to London to hire Savoy Hotel chefs and waiters, to arrange flowers by the yard from Veitch of Chelsea, and to order an extraordinary supply of food and provisions, wine and champagne.
The Prince of Wales was to retire to a specially decorated bedroom hung with red silk damask and full of ornate French furniture. The enormous bed still stands there. The adjoining dressing-room followed the same decorative theme. The drawing-room had just been redone in a green silk damask inspired by Marie Antoinette’s private apartments at Versailles and was full of French objets d’arts and Meissen china.
Almina Carnarvon spent £856 13s & 9d with W Turner Lord & Co, specialist decorative contractors in Mount Street, London. Car-pets were purchased from Turberville Smith & Co for £312 13s 2d. China and curtains were bought and hired. The billiard table was recovered, lamps were hired, candles bought and every conceivable detail to ensure per-fection for the guests was considered. Extra carriages and horses were hired and railway carriages commissioned to bring everything down to Highclere.
The menus were written in French, course following course of rich food, and £215 4s 4d (approximately £22,000) was spent on “provisions”: meat, chickens, eggs, fruit and even chocolates from Charbonnel et Walker.
The precise menus from those three days have not survived but menus from later years are remarkably similar. Dinners began with potages often consommés, followed by courses such as filets de sole or turbot au gratinée or even turbot grillé Dugléré (after Adolphe Dugléré, a very famous chef to the Rothschild family). The entrées then followed as pâtés or poulets. Next came the rôtis (boeuf or agneau) and, judging by the amount of game ordered for the weekend, there must have been an astonishing amount and variety of roast gamebirds, served with legumes and various potatoes. The dessert might have been a soufflé d’orange or profiteroles marquise, and different types of gelée closed many dinners. A little light supper of cold meats such as pheasant, chicken or beef would follow later in the evening.
Lady Carnarvon’s accounts record bills for entertainments; perhaps a private circus would be asked to perform and certainly a band. Her father, Alfred de Rothschild, had his own circus and, indeed, orchestra, which he conducted with a diamond-encrusted baton.
The shoot took place on Wednesday, 18 December and covered two Highclere drives, Biggs and Warren. There were eight guns: HRH The Prince of Wales, Lord Westmorland, Lord Burghclere, Lord Chelsea, the Hon Seymour Fortescue, Sir Edward Colebrook, M Boulatzell and Lord Carnarvon. It was an era when tremendous numbers of birds and rabbits were shot. What is now farmed on the higher chalk downland was all rabbit warren in those days.
A further gamebook in the archive records how the game was distributed. Generally, the guns were given six pheasants (The Prince of Wales, however, received 12), for some reason half a dozen were consigned to the Russian ambassador, some went to Newbury Hospital and 50 birds were sent to Mr Horace Voules editor of Truth magazine, a well-known investigative London periodical. Even the waiters, the band and the visiting valets received pheasants. The lampmen, however, were given rabbits!
One hundred years later, our head chef, Paul Brook Taylor, and I plan rather different shoot lunches and dinners. Keen to continue tradition, we sit down together and I struggle to remember past shoot lunch menus to ensure variety for friends who have visited in previous years. We still have a favourite Highclere chicken curry for a shoot lunch with all the family. One of the lesser ingredients is the curry powder, and one of the most important is the cream. The curry and rice have to have precisely the right selection of little dishes to accompany them: poppadams, naan bread, bananas, chutneys, minty yoghurt and some green vegetables.
I assume this tradition stems from the time of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, who brought a curry chef back from Ceylon. The story is that this chef used to cook with a monkey on his shoulder, which other kitchen staff found somewhat unhygienic. The fifth Earl was also fond of patisserie and employed an Austrian pastry chef to produce astonishing cakes for tea as well as outrageously rich desserts for dinners. The Rothschild idea of having something with dark chocolate and home-made ice cream to finish the evening meal still works.
Four-wheel drive vehicles allow today’s shooting parties to reach several different beats and return quickly to the castle for a substantial shoot lunch, whereas in Edwardian times, the guns would have relied on a horse-drawn trailer and each shoot day would involve only one or two drives and a shoot lunch picnic.
Paul and I like to create a shoot lunch menu using seasonal food, whether a roast partridge recipe from Almina’s time or a dish that was popular with my father-in-law, such as braised oxtails. Because of the need to get out in time for the afternoon drives as the days shorten, shoot puddings give rise to some discussion. Old favourites such as treacle or ginger pudding, spotted dick, and apple charlotte are always a hit with friends or clients on let days. Paul tells me that spotted dick can take some time so we try and meet halfway with tarte tatin and rice pudding with fruits, or sticky toffee pudding and various crumbles, especially if I have garnered apples from our large old bramley tree or gone blackberrying of a Sunday afternoon.
Almina Carnarvon’s sumptuous repasts are incorporated today in our dinner menus but we have just three courses and only one dish per course. If we can, we use our own venison, or local butchers and local vegetable suppliers. Without doubt I plan a dinner quite differently today, with more vegetables, and often suggest chicken or fish and fewer large servings of red meat. After dinner Charbonnel et Walker chocolates remain a treat, although we do skip the late supper and choose one dish for breakfast; it might be salmon kedgeree or scrambled eggs. The Prince of Wales was offered everything for every breakfast from porridge to kidneys, cold meats, eggs, kedgeree and kippers to bacon and sausages.
Fine wine and fine champagne remain appreciated and my husband endeavours to make use of the old wine cellars deep in the bowels of the castle. Some of the descendants of the families who were here a hundred years ago are still regular visitors as we again create and share shooting weekends.
More food in The Field
How does your shooting compare to the Edwardians?