SHE COOKED DINNER FOR THE PRINCESS
Then Maria Colquhoun drove fifty miles to get mushrooms for Elizabeth’s breakfast at Vancouver Island’s Eagle Crest, where millionaires pay fifty dollars a day if their social standing can pass the security check
MRS. MARIA COLQUHOUN, a hearty ruddy Irishwoman who has cooked hash for miners and Scotch woodcock for Princess Elizabeth, feels she knows as much as any living person about the complicated but rewarding business of feeding people who can afford to eat anything they wish. As the chef of Eagle Crest a Vancouver Island hostelry so exclusive that they check your social standing with your home town by longdistance phoneshe spends her days catering to the appetites of the wealthy.
At fifty-three Maria Agnes Colquhoun is a big black-haired woman with a hearty laugh, a tendency to salty language and a mean hand with a salmon kedgeree. She has cooked for movie stars such as Joan Fontaine, Ann Miller, Brenda Marshall, Bill Holden, and for a variety of other
celebrities running from hotel magnate Conrad Hilton Sr. to Prince Axel of Denmark. But there were days when Maria Colquhoun herself cruised the Mediterranean in Italian luxury liners, drove a monogrammed Cadillac and entertained lavishly in a fine San Francisco apartment.
Though she’s never had a lesson in cooking, and was once so green at the job she couldn’t draw a chicken, she has seen service as chef in four of British Columbia’s toniest caravansaries: Harrison Hot Springs Hotel, a spa in the Fraser Valley where Vancouver socialites take the waters; the Sylvia Hotel on Vancouver’s English Bay where patrons are invited to Dine In The Sky; Malibu Lodge, an exclusive hideaway on Princess Louisa Inlet where guests arrive by private plane; and Eagle Crest, a lodge so rarefied it tends to make the
other three look like lunch counters. When Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh paused for a three-day respite after their recent cross-Canada tour it was at Eagle Crest that they stayed and it was Maria Colquhoun who fed them.
At Eagle Crest the paying guests (twenty to fifty dollars a day) dine by candlelight at a long English refectory table in a baronial dining room with massive metal-studded doors, a bar of burnished copper and a Guatemalan wall panel of Aztec Idue. An English butler stands stiffly at attention and hash or mulligan is never served. A great log lodge, set in three hundred acres of forest and landscaped gardens near Qualicum Beach, about a hundred miles north of Victoria, it commands a view' of sea, islands and mountains.
The main lounge has a fireplace that reaches
to a twenty-seven-foot ceiling and burns seven-foot logs. The floors are of oak planking. One suite —which the Duke of Edinburgh used—has a boulder fireplace draped in tartans and a complete collection of mounted B. C. animals, as well as a collection of old Scottish weapons and firearms.
The place was built in 1936 by Senator A. D. McRae, a multimillionaire who wanted a hideout. One hundred men worked a year building it. Among other things they cleared a half mile of beach of rocks and boulders which weighed up to thirtyseven tons. The estate was bought after the senator’s death by two prominent Vancouver realestate men, E. L. Boultbee and F. S. Sweet, in 1948. They use small lodges on the property as summer residences and leave the main one for paying guests.
“The terrifying thing about feeding guests in a place like this,” Mrs. Colquhoun points out, “is that they’re in a position to criticize. When you’re paying fifty dollars a week you expect some shortcomings. But when you’re paying fifty dollars a day you just don’t put up with them—you squawk.”
When Eagle Crest was chosen as a royal waypoint guests were given until Sept. 15 to clear out. Hundreds wrote in requesting reservations for October—the month which encompassed the royal
stay—and were refused. Eagle Crest was to be exclusively the Princess’. Mrs. Colquhoun was asked to stay on and do the catering and cooking.
“I sat down with note pad and pencil and went to work on my menus,” she says. “We had no instructions about food for the Princess. But having lived in England and Scotland I had a pretty good idea.”
Elizabeth's Not Crazy About Soup
Mrs. Colquhoun swiftly ordered a pound of caviar from New York and had it flown to Eagle Crest in dry ice. Then she slipped over to Vancouver, scurried about the wholesale houses and picked up some crystal sugar and pure Scotch oatmeal.
At midnight on an October Monday a phone shattered the peace of Eagle Crest. The Princess would arrive for tea Tuesday. She had not been expected until Wednesday. In blue-striped woolen pyjamas Mrs. Colquhoun padded downstairs in her bare feet to the kitchen. She put a great pot of soup she’d cooked that afternoon into the icebox to cool. Her plans for the royal meals were well laid. At 8 a.m. she was back in the kitchen skimming the fat off the soup.
“It was real good soup, too,” she says. “And
economical. I used four chickens and after they’d boiled a few hours I cut off the breasts for the Princess’ creamed chicken and mushrooms. 1 used the rest of the meat for sandwiches for the staff. Then I threw the bones back in and boiled the hell out of them. The only thing was, the Princess doesn’t like soup much.”
The main staples for the royal table were two twenty-pound prime rib roasts of beef and a sixteen-pound ham. They helped feed the royal couple, a lady-in-waiting, two equerries, two valets, a footman, three ladies’ maids, a Scotland Yard man, as well as the Eagle Crest staff: a hostess,
housekeeper, chef, assistant chef, vegetable boy, two dishwashers, two chambermaids, butler, steward, tablemaid and two gardeners. The royal visit began at teatime Tuesday and ended with Friday breakfast.
The only minor food crisis occurred over mushrooms. Mrs. Colquhoun had ordered five pounds, fresh. But the Princess couldn’t stop eating them. By the time the final breakfast came along they were all gone—and she was asking for more. Late at night Mrs. Colquhoun drove twenty-five miles to Nanaimo to get another basket.
Both Princess and Duke were punctual to the minute for their meals. In fact she found the Princess penalizes
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herself if she’s late. She had set teat ime at 4 p.m. and one day, with the tea hot, she failed to appear. At 4.30, after an afternoon’s fishing, she and the Duke turned up. Mrs. Colquhoun hurried to make fresh tea but the royal butler frowned and said the Princess wouldn’t like it—if she was late she’d want to drink her tea cold. The royal discipline prevailed and the Princess drank lukewarm tea.
The Duke liked Mrs. Colquhoun's first dinner so well he went back to the kitchen to personally congratulate her on the baked ham, which was served with pineapple slices, creamed cauliflower, French green beans, whipped potatoes and tossed green salad. Dessert was blueberry pie with whipped cream. Mrs. Colquhoun found the royal pair preferred their caviar served as a savory at the end of the meal. ’They had it with chopped onions, chopped white of egg, sieved yolk of egg, lemon slices and thin toast wedges.
After the roast-beef dinner came a savory of Scotch woodcock, scrambled eggs and anchovies. Another savory was Welsh rarebit. One luncheon dish was roast pheasant with an old-fashioned stuffing of bread crumbs, onions and spices. The accompanying salad was orange and avocado and the dessert was trifle.
When the royal party left there was plenty of food left over and Mrs. Colquhoun prepared a cold roast-beef buffet for twenty-six guests of Mr. and Mrs. Boultbee and Mr. and Mrs. Sweet. The Boultbees and Sweets were at Eagle Crest during the visit but stayed in their cottages on the grounds.
One Colquhoun dish which royalty missed is barbecued chicken, a Saturday-night feature at Eagle Crest. She marinates thirty half spring chickens overnight in sauterne and spices, wraps each in tinfoil and has them grilled over an open fire and bathed again in sauterne just before eating. Potatoes greased in butter and baked in tinfoil and steaming casseroles of corn and green peppers help complete the meal.
Mrs. Colquhoun has long been familiar with this sort of exot ic dish although she didn’t learn to cook until she was edging fifty. Once her father, a wellto-do Victoria barrelmaker, gave her a four-thousand-dollar Cadillac convertible, in the days when automobiles were still toys. It was painted white with her initials in gold on the door.
She was married at twenty-five to Robert T. Colquhoun, a thirty-fiveyear-old businessman in the wholesale liquor trade. They lived in San Francisco and entertained lavishly. For five years they toured Scotland, Cyprus and Turkey, and vacationed in Cannes and Nice. On yacht trips through the Mediterranean Mrs. Colquhoun cultivated a taste for rare dishes which was to stand her in good stead later in life. The best cooking she found on the island of Cyprus where she ate lamb, sliced with onions and mushrooms on a skewer, marinated in wine and cooked over charcoal.
Back in Vancouver her husband entered the brokerage business and Mrs. Colquhoun entertained for groups of two hundred in their Shaughnessy Heights home. Hard times came and an enforced separation — Colquhoun joined the British Army—ended in divorce. By 1944 Mrs. Colquhoun found she had to have a job. So she went to work in a Vancouver delicatessen.
“I was pretty green,” she says now.
“I’d never drawn a chicken or a turkey. The German owner of the delicatessen showed me how.” A month later she got a better job—as cook in a mining camp at Hedley in the wild interior of the province.
She says she'll never forget her first, night in the camp. She made a cake so big it was a yard square. In the excitement of lifting this culinary monster from the oven it fell on the four and shattered in a hundred pieces. Nothing daunted, she sa vaged the wreckage, stuck it together and covered it in a fast-hardening seven-minute icing. The miners said it was the best pudding they’d ever tasted.
Though she thought she was practicing on miners she soon came to realize they are the fussiest eaters alive. Months later a famous hotel chef in Vancouver told her if she was good enough to please miners sh • was good enough to please anybody.
The mine buildings were perched on a mountaintop like an eagle’s nest and to get there Mrs. Colquhoun had to cross over a deep canyon in a bucket, on a cable.
Back from the mine six months later Mrs. Colquhoun managed a cafeteria concession in a big Vancouver shipyard. It. ran twenty-four hours a day seven c ays a week, with meals every four hours. She often got. up at. 3 a.m. to work.
Her next job was in the RCA F onicers’ mess at Vancouver’s Jericho Baa .h station. The first Sunday her turkey-cleaning training stood her in good stead. “There were eight turkeys for dinner,” she remembers. “The staff didn’t know what to do. One man said he’d get sick and never be able to eat turkey again if he had to clean them. So I said, ‘For gosh sakes give me the works and I’ll do them all.’ They stood around and gawked. It was the proudest moment of my life. I felt 1 was on my way.”
The war over, Maria Colquhoun went to Harrison Hot Springs as pantry chef where she found herself making hors d’oeuvres, fruit and fish cocktails, cold meat, desserts and salads for a hundred people at a time. Then she heard about the beauties of the Malibu Club on Princess Louisa Inlet, an arm of the sea that knifes deep into the mountains north of Vancouver. Here she found herself making salads for movie stars who arrived by private plane and yacht.
“A salad’s an important thing,” she says. “Too many are spoiled by too much dressing. In a tossed salad particularly, only put in enough dressing to coat your greens. More can be added to taste. Don’t make salads soggy. Everything s got to stay crisp.”
Her fame spread. The Sylvia Hotel hired her as chef and from there last June she went to Eagle Crest. In her steady progression from miners to millionaires Maria Colquhoun has amassed a good deal of horse sense about food and what to do with it.
Some Kedgeree tor Breakfast
She has a horror of hors d’oeuvres (“a ridiculous custom -should be abolished”) as well as of menus in French, except in France. And one secret of good cooking, she believes, is the avoidance of too many spices.
“This modern craze for garlic is nuts,” she says. “I’m ab.o'utely against it. You spoil a good steak when you use garlic. It s tine with spaghetti dishes and in French dressing. But I’d rather have a garlic specialty than flavor too many dishes with it. Sometimes it’s like putting an ex ra layer of powder on your face because you’re too lazy to use soap and water.”
An economical dinner, Mrs. Col-
quhoun has found, is boiled tongue. She slices it and serves it hot in a sauce made from a small part of the sto*k, some sherry, a little maraschino cherry juice, slivered almonds and chopped maraschino cherries.
It was in Turkey that Mrs. Colquhoun became familiar with kedgeree
a dish made of leftover fish which she thinks most Canadian housewives would welcome. She uses salmon mixed up with rice, hard-boiled egg, butter, salt and pepper. “A good cheap dish,” she says. Her customers get it for lunch and like it so well they sometimes order it for breakfast.
Maria Colquhoun can’t understand the craze for canned vegetables (“it’s laziness —lack of imagination”) and she prefers a wood stove to gas or electricity. The old-fashioned heat, she says, preserves the moisture in meat, especially beef. The stove at luxurious Eag e Crest is the old-fashioned kind.
She a’so has definite ideas about beef, a meat she thinks is often ruined by too much cooking. “If you want it cooked through why not buy pot roast?” she asks. “And never reheat beef it’s a crime. Serve it cold as long as you can, then make shepherd s pie.”
She shuns electric mixers. “1 can tell by the feel when a cake is ready for the oven.” And her opinion of Canadian restaurants is pretty low. “Mostly I’d rather have a fresh-boiled egg, some toast and a pot of tea at home than dine out anywhere,” she says, if she does eat out she orders a simple meal: mixed grill, tossed salad
and coffee—nothing more.
She believes American women use more imagination in their cooking than Canadians. “They’re not afraid to experiment.” For instance, she says, few Canadians would dare to try this dish: cubed potatoes and shredded
dried salt cod with chopped parsley and chopped garlic, heated but not fried in a good quantity of oil, with beaten eggs thrown in to take up the oil. She hasn’t any idea what this is called but it’s a favorite with her.
Irish Stew and Truffles
Details, she says, are important in cooking—too many people skip over them. She chops her parsley without washing it. Then she puts it into a piece of muslin and rinses it, squeezing all the t me. She shakes it out of the muslin green and fluiiy. It’s the final touch of color and flavor for any dish.
In her years of cooking Mrs. Colquhoun has hit on a number of tricks. She never fries anything she can possibly bake. Bacon and sausages, she says, are better grilled in the oven, the fat drained off’ in ¡he warmer on paper toweling. “Stay away from frying,” she warns. “Why fry steaks, even? They’re better grilled.”
“Cooking’s an art, like painting pictures,” she says. “Sometimes you learn; sometimes, more often I think, it’s born in you. If what you place on the table doesn’t give you a thrill every time you’re not much of a cook. It would be fairer to send your family down to a hotdog stand.”
She has one cooking joke she tells on herself: Cnee, long ago, when she
had an apartment in Cannes, her husband told her he was bringing a wealthy gourmet to lunch next day. Together with her French chef she planned an elaborate menu—chicken and truffles. Her guest ate the dish but said not a word. A few nights later she and her husband went to dinner with him at the Casino in Nice.
“What did he find on the menu?” grins Maria Colquhoun. “Irish stew. He ordered two portions. And I know how to make the best Irish stew in the world. Chicken and truffles indeed!” *