Today, the family's name is associated with the murder of Rasputin. But for centuries, until the revolution of 1917, Imperial Russia's princely House of Yusupov was synonymous with a lavish lifestyle of banquets and balls set amongst priceless artworks housed in the family's palaces and estates that stretched the length of Russia.
A soup garnished with the poached marrow from the spine of a sturgeon; lark’s breasts deglazed in Madeira with truffle; spit-roasted ortolans smothered in creamed watercress; prized lamb from the salty marshlands of Normandy… why, even the salad was served with a garnish of shredded lobster meat, shaved pickled tongue and slivered truffles. These were just some of the dishes served to the guests of the Yusupovs.
Princess Zinaida Yusupova was the wealthiest heiress in Russia, capable of entertaining on a scale that could only be matched by the Tsar of Russia himself. Her son, Prince Felix, would permanently etch the Yusupov name into history books when, in 1915, he murdered the infamous monk, Rasputin.
The Yusupov’s were renowned splendid entertainers. “Our personnel was recruited from all parts of the world: Arabs, Tartars and Kalmucks brightened the house with their multi-coloured costumes”, remembered Prince Felix.
Their butler, according to the Prince, “knew all my parents' friends and acquaintances, and treated them according to his own personal likes and dislikes without regard to their rank or quality. A guest who was not in his good graces was sure to go short of wine or dessert”.
It is well recorded that the Yusupovs were one of few private families that could actually host the Russian imperial family to dinner. In February 1886 when the House of Yusupov was headed by Prince Nicolai (Zinaida’s father), The Times reported “on Saturday evening the members of the Imperial family were entertained in true princely fashion by Prince Youssoupoff and his son-in-law and daughter, Count and Countess Soumarokoff- Elston, in their palace in the Moika. This mansion, noted for its picture galleries and splendid state rooms, is one of the few wherein the Czar is entertained on a scale second only to that of the Imperial Court itself”.
Two years earlier a correspondent for the same publication wrote that he had been at “the magnificent ball and entertainment recently given by the fabulously wealthy Prince Youssoupoff to their Imperial Majesties”. The correspondent noted “while His Imperial Majesty walked about the splendid rooms with his brothers, the Empress, dressed in white satin with floods of diamonds, remained dancing in the ballroom from 11 o'clock till past 1, when a sumptuous banquet was served up, accompanied by music, in the large dining-hall adjoining”.
‘Sumptuous banquets’ were a hallmark of the Yusupov entertainment. The two menus featured on this website are from 1893 and 1905.
At the dinner in 1893 guests of the Yusupov’s dined on a variety of treats including prized lamb from the salty marshlands of Normandy; roast pheasants and partridges; and a delicate concoction of larks deglazed in Madeira and truffles.
The special guest for the night was the magnificently enrobed turban-wearing Emir of Bukhara. The Emir had arrived in Saint Petersburg the previous month to seek the Tsar’s approval for his son, Ali Khan, to be recognised as the heir to the Bukharian throne. Earlier on this day, the Emir personally bade farewell to the Tsar at the Winter Palace.
This dinner took place at the magnificent Yusupov Palace nestled on the embankment of the Moika River in the heart of Saint Petersburg. “Young Princess Youssoupoff, the richest woman in Russia”, recounted Princess Radziwill in her memoirs, “sometimes opened the doors of her magnificent Palace of the Moika to her friends, but did not do so often”.
Prince Felix was impressed with the efforts his ancestors had gone, to safe keep the princely wine collection and valuable dinner services. “The basement of the Moika Palace was a labyrinth of rooms lined with sheets of steel, with a special device for flooding them in case of fire”, he remembered. “These cellars contained not only innumerable bottles of the finest wines, but the plate and china used for big receptions, as well as a great many objets d'art for which no room had been found in the galleries and drawing rooms”.
Amongst the dining services was a set from Sèvres that had been gifted to the Yusupov’s ancestors by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of France. So numerous were the family’s collections, that the dinner service had been lost and forgotten in the Moika’ cellars until rediscovered by the Prince in the twilight years of Imperial Russia.
Prince Felix was almost six years-old when his parents hosted this dinner for the Emir. From an early age he was used to playing witness to a myriad of exotic guests and strange outfits and protocols that passed through the door of the family homes.
“When I was a small child”, remembered Prince Felix “my mother became acquainted with one of the stranger forms of Chinese politeness”. The occasion was a visit by the representative of Imperial China’s Qing dynasty, the Marquess Li-Hung Chang.
“At the end of the meal, two of Li-Hung-Chang's Chinese attendants brought in a silver basin, two peacock feathers and a napkin. The Mandarin took one of the feathers, tickled his throat with it ... and vomited his entire dinner into the basin”, recalled the Prince.
“My mother was horrified, and turned an inquiring glance upon the diplomat seated on her left, who had lived in the East for many years. ‘Princess,’ said he, ‘you should consider yourself highly flattered, for such behaviour on the part of Li-Hung-Chang is a tribute to your delicious food; it is meant to convey his Excellency's readiness to start his dinner all over again.’"
Prince Felix also recalled a dining dilemma unique to a young boy of such upbringing. “One of my father's whims consisted in continually changing dining rooms. Almost every day we dined in a different room, and this complicated the table service to an uncommon degree. Nicholas [older brother to Felix] and I, who were often late, were sometimes obliged to run all over the house before discovering where dinner was being served”.
The princely monograms on both menus featured on this website carry the Cyrillic letter “Ю” for Yusupov (Yusupova) surrounded by the Cyrillic letters “С” and “Э” for Sumarokov-Elston.
As Princess Zinaida was the only child of Prince Nicholas, and therefore there were no male heirs, Tsar Alexander III issued an ukase (imperial decree) upon the marriage of Zinaida to Count Sumarokov-Elston, allowing the new husband to take the title Prince Yusupov, in addition to being a Count, to ensure the family’s Princely name continued through to Zinaida’s children and future heirs.
Queen Marie of Romania remembered the Yusupovs for their “lavish hospitality and good cheer”. The Queen gushed over Princess Zinaida describing her as a “young and an exceedingly attractive woman. Her grey eyes were luminously clear and intense, her smile enchanting; her hair, smoothly drawn back, left her forehead bare, which was unusual in those days of fringes and frizzled coiffures. An attractive woman full of kindness, eager to spread joy around her”.
“Her husband”, continued Queen Marie, “was somewhat heavy, but he too was kind and his hospitality knew no limit”.
The second menu on this website is from a 1905 dinner held at the Yusupov’s stunning medieval Volkov Palace in the heart of Moscow.
“Our Moscow house was built in 1551 by Tsar Ivan the Terrible”, recalled Prince Felix, “the Tsar used it as a hunting lodge, for it was then surrounded by forests”.
The house, he continued, “had retained its sixteenth-century character; great vaulted halls, medieval furniture, richly wrought gold and silver plate. All this oriental splendour was a wonderful setting for the receptions given by my parents. Foreign princes who had been to them declared that they had never seen anything like them”.
The second-floor dining room - with its arched ceiling and one of many huge heating stoves covered in 17th century Dutch tiles - is depicted on this menu which offers guests everything from spit-roasted ortolans in watercress cream, to lobster medallions flamed in cognac and a dish of Poularde à la Néva served with an elaborate Russian salad.
Given the locality, it was fitting that guests started dinner with a soup named after the host city. Consommé Moscovite, based on sturgeon and cucumber, was truly a regal Russian soup right down to the poached diced marrow of the sturgeon spine, vésiga, which garnished it.
As guests arrived for this dinner they would have marveled at the restoration work that had been steadily undertaken by Princess Zinaida since 1892. The palace was equipped with secret tunnels connecting it to the Kremlin and other exits dotted throughout the city. “During the restorations carried out by my parents”, recounted Prince Felix, “… one of the entrances to this passage was discovered. On going into it, they found a long gallery with rows of skeletons chained to the walls!”
A year later, in 1906, the American Ambassador arrived at Volkov Palace to prepare to accompany the young Prince on a wolf hunt. “The walls are about four feet thick and the rooms are all vaulted”, Ambassador Meyer wrote is a letter to his family. “It takes up an entire block, with a garden surrounding it. You enter the courtyard, which is bounded on three sides by the house and stable, and drive under an arch where the formal entrance is, by an outside stairway with stone steps”.
Nearby, the Yusupov’s owned another estate called Archangelsky which Queen Marie of Romania visited when she was still a Princess during the festivities for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. She remembered the Yusupov’s hospitality extended to “a Roumanian gipsy band, horses to ride, boats on the river, carriages of every size and shape, dancing, picnics, moonlight suppers and endless parties de plaisir, visiting other country houses in the neighbourhood, and at all hours of the day and night the wild, wailing, laughing, sobbing gipsy melodies accompanying our every move; ravishing music vastly adding to the emotional excitement of those somewhat irresponsible days”.
“Somewhat irresponsible”, indeed, as revolution hovered in the short years ahead.
From the private Royal Menu Collection of © Jake Smith
7th February 1893
(26th January in the Julian calendar)
Consommé au goût de tomates
Condensed tomato consommé
Crêmes de concombres
Cream of cucumber soup
Small pies to accompany soup
Filet de turbot à l’Américaines
Filets of turbot garnished with slices of lobster tail and dressed in a lobster, tomato and
white wine sauce
Selle de pré-salé
Saddle of “salt meadow lamb” from sheep that have grazed the salty marshlands of Normandy
Mauviettes en nids
Larks deglazed in a truffle and Madeira sauce sitting inside a hollowed out crouton in the shape of a nest.
Sorbet au Marasquin
Sorbet flavored with Maraschino liqueur
Faisans et perdreaux
Pheasants and partridges
Asperges, sauce Maltaise
Asparagus dressed in a Maltaise sauce made by
mixing blood orange juice and orange peel
through Hollandaise sauce
Ice-cream flavoured with hazelnut and chocolate sitting atop a layer of sponge cake and surrounded with an almond glaze
10th April 1905
(28th March in the Julian calendar)
Sturgeon and cucumber soup garnished with mushrooms and diced vésiga (marrow from the spine of a sturgeon)
Small pies to accompany the soup stuffed with a variety of savoury mousses
Homards à l’Americaine
Lobsters medallions that are first sautéed before being quickly poached with shallots, tomato, white wine, cognac, tarragon and cayenne pepper; and arranged back in the lobster shells before being dressed in a sauce made from the reduced poaching liquid seasoned with lemon juice and chopped parsley.
Côtelettes d’Agneau, S-ce Avignonaise
Lamb cutlets dressed in a an Avignonaise sauce made from a Béchamel sauce base mixed with parmesan cheese and garlic and thickened with egg yolks
Poularde à la Néva
Boned poulardes (spayed hens not less than 120 days old) stuffed with a mixture of chicken forcemeat mixed with cubes of foie-gras and sliced truffles, which are then poached in a white wine stock, cooled, and then coated first with a white chaud-froid sauce before being decorated with ornately cut mushroom slices and sealed in a layer of aspic jelly.
Faisan & Brochettes d’ortolans au cresson
Roast pheasants and spit roasted ortolans dressed in a watercress purée
Salad (It is traditional to serve Poularde à la Néva with a Russian Salad made from boiled potatoes, carrots, turnips, peas and beans bound in a mayonnaise and garnished with pickled ox tongue, truffles and shredded lobster meat).
Asperges S-ce Hollandaise
Asparagus served with a Hollandaise sauce made from butter, lemon and egg yolks
Mousse à l’Ancienne
Frozen mousse made from vanilla syrup blended with a meringue
mixture and then coated in an apple jelly