Ireland on a Plate: Curating the 2011 State Banquet for Queen Elizabeth II

Elaine Mahon

Abstract


Introduction

Firmly located within the discourse of visible culture as the lofty preserve of art exhibitions and museum artefacts, the noun “curate” has gradually transformed into the verb “to curate”. Williams writes that “curate” has become a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded to describe a creative activity. Designers no longer simply sell clothes; they “curate” merchandise. Chefs no longer only make food; they also “curate” meals. Chosen for their keen eye for a particular style or a precise shade, it is their knowledge of their craft, their reputation, and their sheer ability to choose among countless objects which make the creative process a creative activity in itself. Writing from within the framework of “curate” as a creative process, this article discusses how the state banquet for Queen Elizabeth II, hosted by Irish President Mary McAleese at Dublin Castle in May 2011, was carefully curated to represent Ireland’s diplomatic, cultural, and culinary identity. The paper will focus in particular on how the menu for the banquet was created and how the banquet’s brief, “Ireland on a Plate”, was fulfilled.

History and Background

Food has been used by nations for centuries to display wealth, cement alliances, and impress foreign visitors. Since the feasts of the Numidian kings (circa 340 BC), culinary staging and presentation has belonged to “a long, multifaceted and multicultural history of diplomatic practices” (IEHCA 5). According to the works of Baughman, Young, and Albala, food has defined the social, cultural, and political position of a nation’s leaders throughout history.

In early 2011, Ross Lewis, Chef Patron of Chapter One Restaurant in Dublin, was asked by the Irish Food Board, Bord Bía, if he would be available to create a menu for a high-profile banquet (Mahon 112). The name of the guest of honour was divulged several weeks later after vetting by the protocol and security divisions of the Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Lewis was informed that the menu was for the state banquet to be hosted by President Mary McAleese at Dublin Castle in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Ireland the following May.

Hosting a formal banquet for a visiting head of state is a key feature in the statecraft of international and diplomatic relations. Food is the societal common denominator that links all human beings, regardless of culture (Pliner and Rozin 19). When world leaders publicly share a meal, that meal is laden with symbolism, illuminating each diner’s position “in social networks and social systems” (Sobal, Bove, and Rauschenbach 378). The public nature of the meal signifies status and symbolic kinship and that “guest and host are on par in terms of their personal or official attributes” (Morgan 149). While the field of academic scholarship on diplomatic dining might be young, there is little doubt of the value ascribed to the semiotics of diplomatic gastronomy in modern power structures (Morgan 150; De Vooght and Scholliers 12; Chapple-Sokol 162), for, as Firth explains, symbols are malleable and perfectly suited to exploitation by all parties (427).

Political Diplomacy

When Ireland gained independence in December 1921, it marked the end of eight centuries of British rule. The outbreak of “The Troubles” in 1969 in Northern Ireland upset the gradually improving environment of British–Irish relations, and it would be some time before a state visit became a possibility. 

Beginning with the peace process in the 1990s, the IRA ceasefire of 1994, and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a state visit was firmly set in motion by the visit of Irish President Mary Robinson to Buckingham Palace in 1993, followed by the unofficial visit of the Prince of Wales to Ireland in 1995, and the visit of Irish President Mary McAleese to Buckingham Palace in 1999. An official invitation to Queen Elizabeth from President Mary McAleese in March 2011 was accepted, and the visit was scheduled for mid-May of the same year.

The visit was a highly performative occasion, orchestrated and ordained in great detail, displaying all the necessary protocol associated with the state visit of one head of state to another: inspection of the military, a courtesy visit to the nation’s head of state on arrival, the laying of a wreath at the nation’s war memorial, and a state banquet.

These aspects of protocol between Britain and Ireland were particularly symbolic. By inspecting the military on arrival, the existence of which is a key indicator of independence, Queen Elizabeth effectively demonstrated her recognition of Ireland’s national sovereignty. On making the customary courtesy call to the head of state, the Queen was received by President McAleese at her official residence Áras an Uachtaráin (The President’s House), which had formerly been the residence of the British monarch’s representative in Ireland (Robbins 66). The state banquet was held in Dublin Castle, once the headquarters of British rule where the Viceroy, the representative of Britain’s Court of St James, had maintained court (McDowell 1).

Cultural Diplomacy

The state banquet provided an exceptional showcase of Irish culture and design and generated a level of preparation previously unseen among Dublin Castle staff, who described it as “the most stage managed state event” they had ever witnessed (Mahon 129).

The castle was cleaned from top to bottom, and inventories were taken of the furniture and fittings. The Waterford Crystal chandeliers were painstakingly taken down, cleaned, and reassembled; the Killybegs carpets and rugs of Irish lamb’s wool were cleaned and repaired. A special edition Newbridge Silverware pen was commissioned for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip to sign the newly ordered Irish leather-bound visitors’ book. A new set of state tableware was ordered for the President’s table. Irish manufacturers of household goods necessary for the guest rooms, such as towels and soaps, hand creams and body lotions, candle holders and scent diffusers, were sought. Members of Her Majesty’s staff conducted a “walk-through” several weeks in advance of the visit to ensure that the Queen’s wardrobe would not clash with the surroundings (Mahon 129–32).

The promotion of Irish manufacture is a constant thread throughout history. Irish linen, writes Kane, enjoyed a reputation as far afield as the Netherlands and Italy in the 15th century, and archival documents from the Vaucluse attest to the purchase of Irish cloth in Avignon in 1432 (249–50). Support for Irish-made goods was raised in 1720 by Jonathan Swift, and by the 18th century, writes Foster, Dublin had become an important centre for luxury goods (44–51).

It has been Irish government policy since the late 1940s to use Irish-manufactured goods for state entertaining, so the material culture of the banquet was distinctly Irish: Arklow Pottery plates, Newbridge Silverware cutlery, Waterford Crystal glassware, and Irish linen tablecloths. In order to decide upon the table setting for the banquet, four tables were laid in the King’s Bedroom in Dublin Castle. The Executive Chef responsible for the banquet menu, and certain key personnel, helped determine which setting would facilitate serving the food within the time schedule allowed (Mahon 128–29). The style of service would be service à la russe, so widespread in restaurants today as to seem unremarkable. Each plate is prepared in the kitchen by the chef and then served to each individual guest at table. In the mid-19th century, this style of service replaced service à la française, in which guests typically entered the dining room after the first course had been laid on the table and selected food from the choice of dishes displayed around them (Kaufman 126).

The guest list was compiled by government and embassy officials on both sides and was a roll call of Irish and British life. At the President’s table, 10 guests would be served by a team of 10 staff in Dorchester livery. The remaining tables would each seat 12 guests, served by 12 liveried staff. The staff practiced for several days prior to the banquet to make sure that service would proceed smoothly within the time frame allowed. The team of waiters, each carrying a plate, would emerge from the kitchen in single file. They would then take up positions around the table, each waiter standing to the left of the guest they would serve. On receipt of a discreet signal, each plate would be laid in front of each guest at precisely the same moment, after which the waiters would then about foot and return to the kitchen in single file (Mahon 130).

Post-prandial entertainment featured distinctive styles of performance and instruments associated with Irish traditional music. These included reels, hornpipes, and slipjigs, voice and harp, sean-nόs (old style) singing, and performances by established Irish artists on the fiddle, bouzouki, flute, and uilleann pipes (Office of Public Works).

Culinary Diplomacy: Ireland on a Plate

Lewis was given the following brief: the menu had to be Irish, the main course must be beef, and the meal should represent the very best of Irish ingredients. There were no restrictions on menu design. There were no dietary requirements or specific requests from the Queen’s representatives, although Lewis was informed that shellfish is excluded de facto from Irish state banquets as a precautionary measure. The meal was to be four courses long and had to be served to 170 diners within exactly 1 hour and 10 minutes (Mahon 112). 

A small army of 16 chefs and 4 kitchen porters would prepare the food in the kitchen of Dublin Castle under tight security. The dishes would be served on state tableware by 40 waiters, 6 restaurant managers, a banqueting manager and a sommélier. Lewis would be at the helm of the operation as Executive Chef (Mahon 112–13).

Lewis started by drawing up “a patchwork quilt” of the products he most wanted to use and built the menu around it. The choice of suppliers was based on experience but also on a supplier’s ability to deliver perfectly ripe goods in mid-May, a typically black spot in the Irish fruit and vegetable growing calendar as it sits between the end of one season and the beginning of another. Lewis consulted the Queen’s itinerary and the menus to be served so as to avoid repetitions. He had to discard his initial plan to feature lobster in the starter and rhubarb in the dessert—the former for the precautionary reasons mentioned above, and the latter because it featured on the Queen’s lunch menu on the day of the banquet (Mahon 112–13).

Once the ingredients had been selected, the menu design focused on creating tastes, flavours and textures. Several draft menus were drawn up and myriad dishes were tasted and discussed in the kitchen of Lewis’s own restaurant. Various wines were paired and tasted with the different courses, the final choice being a Château Lynch-Bages 1998 red and a Château de Fieuzal 2005 white, both from French Bordeaux estates with an Irish connection (Kellaghan 3). Two months and two menu sittings later, the final menu was confirmed and signed off by state and embassy officials (Mahon 112–16).

The Starter

The banquet’s starter featured organic Clare Island salmon cured in a sweet brine, laid on top of a salmon cream combining wild smoked salmon from the Burren and Cork’s Glenilen Farm crème fraîche, set over a lemon balm jelly from the Tannery Cookery School Gardens, Waterford. Garnished with horseradish cream, wild watercress, and chive flowers from Wicklow, the dish was finished with rapeseed oil from Kilkenny and a little sea salt from West Cork (Mahon 114).

 

Main Course

A main course of Irish beef featured as the pièce de résistance of the menu. A rib of beef from Wexford’s Slaney Valley was provided by Kettyle Irish Foods in Fermanagh and served with ox cheek and tongue from Rathcoole, County Dublin. From along the eastern coastline came the ingredients for the traditional Irish dish of smoked champ: cabbage from Wicklow combined with potatoes and spring onions grown in Dublin. The new season’s broad beans and carrots were served with wild garlic leaf, which adorned the dish (Mahon 113). 

Cheese Course

The cheese course was made up of Knockdrinna, a Tomme style goat’s milk cheese from Kilkenny; Milleens, a Munster style cow’s milk cheese produced in Cork; Cashel Blue, a cow’s milk blue cheese from Tipperary; and Glebe Brethan, a Comté style cheese from raw cow’s milk from Louth. Ditty’s Oatmeal Biscuits from Belfast accompanied the course.

Dessert

Lewis chose to feature Irish strawberries in the dessert. Pat Clarke guaranteed delivery of ripe strawberries on the day of the banquet. They married perfectly with cream and yoghurt from Glenilen Farm in Cork. The cream was set with Irish Carrageen moss, overlaid with strawberry jelly and sauce, and garnished with meringues made with Irish apple balsamic vinegar from Lusk in North Dublin, yoghurt mousse, and Irish soda bread tuiles made with wholemeal flour from the Mosse family mill in Kilkenny (Mahon 113).

The following day, President McAleese telephoned Lewis, saying of the banquet “Ní hé go raibh sé go maith, ach go raibh sé míle uair níos fearr ná sin” (It’s not that it was good but that it was a thousand times better”). The President observed that the menu was not only delicious but that it was “amazingly articulate in terms of the story that it told about Ireland and Irish food.” The Queen had particularly enjoyed the stuffed cabbage leaf of tongue, cheek and smoked colcannon (a traditional Irish dish of mashed potatoes with curly kale or green cabbage) and had noted the diverse selection of Irish ingredients from Irish artisans (Mahon 116).

Irish Cuisine

When the topic of food is explored in Irish historiography, the focus tends to be on the consequences of the Great Famine (1845–49) which left the country “socially and emotionally scarred for well over a century” (Mac Con Iomaire and Gallagher 161). Some commentators consider the term “Irish cuisine” oxymoronic, according to Mac Con Iomaire and Maher (3). As Goldstein observes, Ireland has suffered twice—once from its food deprivation and second because these deprivations present an obstacle for the exploration of Irish foodways (xii). Writing about Italian, Irish, and Jewish migration to America, Diner states that the Irish did not have a food culture to speak of and that Irish writers “rarely included the details of food in describing daily life” (85). Mac Con Iomaire and Maher note that Diner’s methodology overlooks a centuries-long tradition of hospitality in Ireland such as that described by Simms (68) and shows an unfamiliarity with the wealth of food related sources in the Irish language, as highlighted by Mac Con Iomaire (“Exploring” 1–23).

Recent scholarship on Ireland’s culinary past is unearthing a fascinating story of a much more nuanced culinary heritage than has been previously understood. This is clearly demonstrated in the research of Cullen, Cashman, Deleuze, Kellaghan, Kelly, Kennedy, Legg, Mac Con Iomaire, Mahon, O’Sullivan, Richman Kenneally, Sexton, and Stanley, Danaher, and Eogan.

In 1996 Ireland was described by McKenna as having the most dynamic cuisine in any European country, a place where in the last decade “a vibrant almost unlikely style of cooking has emerged” (qtd. in Mac Con Iomaire “Jammet’s” 136). By 2014, there were nine restaurants in Dublin which had been awarded Michelin stars or Red Ms (Mac Con Iomaire “Jammet’s” 137). Ross Lewis, Chef Patron of Chapter One Restaurant, who would be chosen to create the menu for the state banquet for Queen Elizabeth II, has maintained a Michelin star since 2008 (Mac Con Iomaire, “Jammet’s” 138). Most recently the current strength of Irish gastronomy is globally apparent in Mark Moriarty’s award as San Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 (McQuillan). As Deleuze succinctly states: “Ireland has gone mad about food” (143).

This article is part of a research project into Irish diplomatic dining, and the author is part of a research cluster into Ireland’s culinary heritage within the Dublin Institute of Technology. The aim of the research is to add to the growing body of scholarship on Irish gastronomic history and, ultimately, to contribute to the discourse on the existence of a national cuisine. If, as Zubaida says, “a nation’s cuisine is its court’s cuisine,” then it is time for Ireland to “research the feasts as well as the famines” (Mac Con Iomaire and Cashman 97).

Conclusion

The Irish state banquet for Queen Elizabeth II in May 2011 was a highly orchestrated and formalised process. From the menu, material culture, entertainment, and level of consultation in the creative content, it is evident that the banquet was carefully curated to represent Ireland’s diplomatic, cultural, and culinary identity.

The effects of the visit appear to have been felt in the years which have followed. Hennessy wrote in the Irish Times newspaper that Queen Elizabeth is privately said to regard her visit to Ireland as the most significant of the trips she has made during her 60-year reign. British Prime Minister David Cameron is noted to mention the visit before every Irish audience he encounters, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague has spoken in particular of the impact the state banquet in Dublin Castle made upon him. Hennessy points out that one of the most significant indicators of the peaceful relationship which exists between the two countries nowadays was the subsequent state visit by Irish President Michael D. Higgins to Britain in 2013. This was the first state visit to the United Kingdom by a President of Ireland and would have been unimaginable 25 years ago. The fact that the President and his wife stayed at Windsor Castle and that the attendant state banquet was held there instead of Buckingham Palace were both deemed to be marks of special favour and directly attributed to the success of Her Majesty’s 2011 visit to Ireland.

As the research demonstrates, eating together unites rather than separates, gathers rather than divides, diffuses political tensions, and confirms alliances. It might be said then that the 2011 state banquet hosted by President Mary McAleese in honour of Queen Elizabeth II, curated by Ross Lewis, gives particular meaning to the axiom “to eat together is to eat in peace” (Taliano des Garets 160).

Acknowledgements

Supervisors: Dr Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire (Dublin Institute of Technology) and Dr Michael Kennedy (Royal Irish Academy)

Fáilte Ireland

Photos of the banquet dishes supplied and permission to reproduce them for this article kindly granted by Ross Lewis, Chef Patron, Chapter One Restaurant ‹http://www.chapteronerestaurant.com/›.

Illustration ‘Ireland on a Plate’ © Jesse Campbell Brown

Remerciements

The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their feedback and suggestions on an earlier draft of this article.

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Keywords


Ireland; diplomatic dining; state banquet; curate; culinary diplomacy; gastrodiplomacy



Copyright (c) 2015 Elaine Mahon

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