No oysters, no foie gras and a fraught seating plan: The politics of the state banquet

Boris Yeltsin was ‘amazed’ by Queen Elizabeth at a banquet in Moscow
Boris Yeltsin was ‘amazed’ by Queen Elizabeth at a banquet in Moscow - Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

We may live in an era of fussy dinner party requirements, but even preparations for a  gluten-intolerant vegan relative have nothing on the dining rules around a state banquet.

Some go back decades. Queen Elizabeth II long instructed her family members to avoid oysters as a bad one could derail even the most meticulously planned visit.

Others are more recent. For tonight’s state dinner in the Versailles Hall of Mirrors, King Charles has requested that foie gras be removed from the menu in line with the 2008 royal ban. Likely to be even more painful for the three French chefs in charge – Yannick Alléno, Anne-Sophie Pic and Pierre Hermé, all household names in France – is the King’s dislike of garlic.

Charles takes seasonality and food miles very seriously, hence asparagus – which was on the original menu when the state visit was planned for March – being replaced with more autumnal mushrooms. The menu will also feature blue lobster, Bresse French poultry with gratin, and a selection of cheeses from both sides of the Channel, including from France, and Stichelton from Britain.

“All this will have been discussed over the course of many months, so there will be no surprises,” says historian Hugo Vickers, who accompanied the late Queen on state visits to both Russia and Pakistan. “Monarchs have their preferences that have to be accounted for. The late Queen and Prince Philip famously didn’t really drink wine – she preferred a martini and he liked beer – which is rather a shame when you think of the incredible vintages they would have been offered.”

Queen Elizabeth was no stranger to Versailles, which Hugo Vickers describes as ‘extraordinary’
Queen Elizabeth was no stranger to Versailles, which Hugo Vickers describes as ‘extraordinary’ - /AFP via Getty

Over the course of her reign, the late Queen undertook nearly 100 state visits (this is King Charles’ second as the monarch after Germany) and host countries are always keen to impress the British royals. Given this is France, Charles and Camilla will likely be sipping on something spectacular this evening – and yes, both of them do drink wine.

Pudding may pose more of a challenge as the King is said to dislike chocolate, in contrast to his late mother who loved it. This meant that throughout her reign, the final course of a state dinner was often the most impressive. One example is when George H.W. Bush hosted the Queen in Washington in 1991 – for the dinner, he instructed the White House chefs to create something memorable. The result featured marzipan cobblestones topped with a ten-inch, dark chocolate carriage filled with mousse.

It is certainly an improvement on the frozen cheese with watercress salad, calf’s head soup and terrapin with cornbread sticks that were on the menu when President Roosevelt hosted George VI at a 1939 White House state dinner. Although things were thankfully looking up by 1951, when President Truman served the then Princess Elizabeth baked Old Missouri ham, french fried potato balls, and watermelon pickles along with the lobster thermidor.

President Truman playing host to Elizabeth
President Truman playing host to Elizabeth - Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As for the seating plan, well, that’s even more fraught. Guests are usually dominated by the British delegation and their opposite numbers from within the host country’s government, as well as various ambassadors. But beyond that, the host country is free to choose – in America this often means celebrities, while in Britain hereditary aristocrats and royal relatives tend to get the nod.

Although it is where everyone is seated that is more complex than who is in attendance. The King and Queen will likely be on either side of Macron, followed by various officials and diplomats in order of importance. “People take this very seriously,” says Vickers. “In the past, if an ambassador was badly seated or ranked below a rival country then they would turn their plate over in protest and leave.”

Equally, a plan has to be made in case of no-shows. At Buckingham Palace, there is usually a table of white-tie guests eating dinner in another room, ready to be brought into the banquet hall if someone doesn’t arrive on time or is taken ill – and the same is likely to happen in Versailles.

Not that things always go smoothly. In 2002 in Jamaica, the Queen had to eat under the gaze of a car headlight after a power cut left her state dinner in darkness.

Guests aren’t always state-dinner ready either. Sir Anthony Brenton, former British ambassador to Russia, once wrote about the first ever visit by the Queen to Russia in 1994, for which they had to fly in a load of dinner jackets for the Russian elite who had nothing to wear.

Queen Elizabeth made a strong impression on Boris Yeltsin
Queen Elizabeth made a strong impression on Boris Yeltsin - Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

Vickers was in attendance and describes watching the Queen and Boris Yeltsin together. At the State Dinner, he had apparently been “amazed” by her and later put on a march past on the quayside where the Royal Yacht Britannia was docked. “The Queen came down in a long fur coat and all her jewels – she wasn’t doing any communist nonsense – and Yeltsin kissed her hand and watched her go back onto Britannia quite misty eyed.”

Tonight, all eyes will be on Charles and Camilla. According to a poll in Le Figaro, 71 per cent of people had a positive view of our Royals. And diplomats will be hoping that King Charles’ speech, which he will give after dinner, will ease the somewhat frosty relations that have arisen between France and Britain in the wake of Brexit.

“Queen Elizabeth always saw her purpose as less political than as a diplomatic door opening exercise,” says Vickers. “We very much need better relations after Brexit. The late Queen used to say we cannot change the past but we can build bridges to the future, and I hope Charles uses a similar message – and I hope he says it in French.”

Pressures aside, Charles is also likely to enjoy this evening’s event. “He is a very cultured man,” says Vickers. “Versailles is extraordinary and when the French decide to pull out all the stops, they do it in tremendous style.”