During Queen Victoria’s reign, Turkey was considered to be a small and much less important part of the Christmas menus than it is today. Before Turkey was popularised by King Edward VII, there were some rather unusual dishes on the Royal Christmas menu.
In the 12th century King Henry II introduced the tradition of a boars head being the centrepiece of the Christmas feast. The head would be pickled in brine, stuffed, braised and roasted before being decorated with herbs, carved vegetables (sometimes placed as eyes) and a placed in its mouth. This tradition still continues today, although it’s mostly used as a decoration.
The Boar's Head and Christmas Pie for the Royal Banquet at Windsor Castle, from The Illustrated Times. Wood engraving 1857
A new tradition began in 1841 when Prince Albert began entering Oxen raised on the Windsor estate into the Smithfield Cattle Club Show each December. From then on, the prize winning animals became part of the of the royal Christmas menu.
The large baron of beef, containing ‘two sirloins joined at the backbone’ was cooked in the kitchens at Windsor in front of an open range for around fifteen hours, before being decorated with holly. Both the boars head and baron of beef, as well as a woodcock pie containing 100 birds, were placed on a sideboard in the dining room for every meal throughout the week of Christmas, before finally being eaten on the 25th.
In 1840, Queen Victoria’s Christmas meal included 35 unique dishes. This included: boiled turkey, turtle soup, roast swan à l’anglaise, iced knuckle of veal and hare curry! Not wanting any food to go to waste, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert cleverly served leftovers at their New Year’s Day feast.
Following Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria decided to spend Christmas at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, rather than Windsor Castle. However, the kitchens at Osborne soon proved too small so a new tradition began of cooking the food at Windsor and transporting the dishes to Osborne by train and royal yacht.