From pickled ox tongue and beef in champagne sauce to Leonidas chocolates and speculoos biscuits: the diet of the Belgian royal family has changed a great deal during their almost 200-year dynasty. Marianna Hunt asks what it takes to become a designated supplier – and whisks up a majestic dinner at home with the king’s select foods
Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Belgium’s King Léopold II would be greeted each morning over breakfast and his newspaper by a court officer with a sample menu of up to 30 courses for his dinner that evening. The monarch, who was famed for his enormous appetite, would cross out any dishes that did not take his fancy. His menus were embellished with pure gold leaf.
On March 17, 1870, for example, the-then 34-year-old King feasted on 20 courses, including partridges stuffed with truffle and foie gras and veal bone marrow with a Gruyère crust – interspersed with a palate-cleansing champagne and orange sorbet.
Léopold II’s love of food was so great it became a source of international conflict with the French in the early 1900s. “He declared a dish of duckling with turnips that he ate at the famous Jockey Club in Paris to be the best to have passed his royal lips,” says Jake Smith, author of Eating With Emperors. “The next day, the club’s chef failed to arrive at work and it was later discovered that the Belgian King had lured him back to his royal palace with an offer no club could match.”
Today, the life and diet of a monarch is rather different. After finishing his breakfast and newspaper, reigning King Philippe typically heads off to drive his children to school, according to the Belgian monarchy’s website. And instead of pickled ox tongues, he has been known to tuck into Middle Eastern feasts when breaking the Ramadan fast with Moroccan-Belgian families.
Food is no longer merely a means of celebration, either. King Philippe’s children – Princess Elisabeth, Prince Gabriel, Princess Eleonore and Prince Emmanuel – made headlines during the coronavirus pandemic when they cooked up baskets and baskets of home-made waffles and delivered them to locked down nursing homes across the country.
But although what they eat has adapted, food remains very important to the royal family. One way to track the changing tastes of Belgium’s monarchs is to look at the list of Royal Warrant holders: officially designated suppliers of the royal household. This distinction is bestowed on companies – which range from oil giant Shell to artisan watchmakers – that have provided goods or services to the King for at least five years and are listed on Belgium’s Register of Commerce.
Among the country’s food suppliers that carry this badge of honour are eight chocolatiers – including Pierre Marcolini, Godiva and Neuhaus – two biscuit makers and a butcher that sells everything from quail to wild boar. So how do you earn this great honour?
“The supplier has to write a letter to the palace requesting the title after five years of service and the royal household will review their application. Quality and honesty is very important in the decision making,” says Yves Callebaut of the Association of the Belgian Royal Warrant Holders.
Once they have the royal seal of approval, there is an official ceremony. “After the official reception we had a private one where we met the King and Queen,” says Bart Van Nieuwenhove of W&H, a butcher that was awarded its Royal Warrant in 2014. “They spoke to us and were very interested in our lives. The King has also visited our shop.”
The title is hard won but easily lost. It is awarded by a particular monarch to an individual rather than their company, so can be taken away on their death or on the death of the king or queen who made them a Royal Warrant holder.
Suppliers must also stick to strict rules that protect the royal family’s privacy. “We are not allowed to disclose details of which and how many biscuits we deliver,” says Ives Depoortere, chief executive of the Biscuiterie Jules Destrooper. “But it is well known that our famous butter crisps and almond thins are among the products that we supply. And we are sure that many a guest at the Royal Palace has been offered one of our biscuits with their coffee or tea.”
Royal dining chez soi
While most of us can only dream of what being a sovereign is like, we can at least get a small taste by also enjoying the sweet treats, preserves and rare wine vintages of their suppliers.
For a night in dining like a King, begin with a starter of artichoke hearts, burrata and black truffle.
The globe artichokes, which you should be able to find at Royal Warrant holding grocer Au Cochon d’Or, should be peeled, salted and boiled until soft. Peel off the leaves until you’re left with just the tender heart, then place the drained burrata (from the Belgian royal cheese specialist: La Petite Ferme) beside it. Sprinkle flakes of W&H’s finest black truffle over the top and drizzle with olive oil and honey. Serve alongside Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Argillats from Domaine Philippe Gavignet, a white wine from one of the King’s favourite cellars: Rabotvins.
For the main course, we focus on rich, decadent flavours fit for a banquet with venison haunches braised in red wine and dark chocolate.
The wild venison, a W&H speciality, should be diced and then fried until golden in butter. Remove from the pan then fry an onion, two carrots and some celery, which have been finely diced, until they are soft. Add some chopped garlic, a bottle of Château Haut Breton Larigaudière 2015 (a Margaux wine also from Rabotvins), a bay leaf, fresh rosemary and thyme.
Now put the meat back in and add 100g of Neuhaus’ finest dark chocolate – the 80 percent cocoa one from Uganda works particularly well. Make 600ml of beef stock and add that too. Cover the pan and leave on a low heat for at least two and a half hours, but as long as possible. When the flavours have matured, serve the stew with some roast potatoes, a few dollops of redcurrant jelly and a glass of the same wine.
Dessert takes inspiration from both Belgium and Italy, with a tiramisu that combines fine Brussels chocolate with Piedmont hazelnuts.
Layer a dish with biscuits – something spongy that can soak up liquid works best. Then cover it with a generous helping of Pierre Marcolini’s moorish casse-noisette spread on top and pour over a little espresso. Now whip up about 500ml of double cream with a tub of mascarpone and some Frangelico liqueur. Add a layer of the cream mixture, then another of the biscuits, hazelnut spread and coffee and continue until you have filled the dish, finishing with a layer of cream. Finally sprinkle some Marcolini chocolate drops on the top. Make sure to pour yourself a glass of Rabotvin’s Vista Alegre 10-year-old port as you tuck in.