Friday, August 30, 2013


This week we finally got to try Bronnley’s beautiful line of hand and body soaps. I had trouble finding it here in the States, so I ordered a bar of the pink bouquet soap on Amazon. Then a friend reminded me about Merz Apothecary, this fancy, old-fashioned little soap and perfumery store located inside of the Palmer House Hilton on Monroe Street in downtown Chicago. I am thrilled to tell you they carry soaps sold by Bronnley, in addition to products made by fellow royal warrant holders Yardley, Molton Brown, and Penhaligon’s. It was at Merz that I picked up the cutest little bar of lemon soap that smelled lovely and that thrilled me because it was shaped like a lemon. H. Bronnley & Co. UK Ltd. holds a Royal Warrant from Her Majesty the Queen as Toilet Soap Makers.


According to publicity materials I got from the company, Bronnley was founded by a young James Bronnley in 1884. He began his business in London but soon expanded to a Northamptonshire factory, which is still in use today. The company touts itself as one of the only British-owned soap makers still in existence. It carries a full line of triple milled soaps in scents like lemon and neroli, lavender, lime and bergamot, orchid, hibiscus, and rose. This process of triple milling the soap apparently makes it last longer—it is somewhat thicker and what the company calls “luxurious” than other bars soaps I’ve used.
I like Bronnley as a hand soap but didn’t care to shower with it. It really does feel a bit filmy and hard to rinse off, much like my impression of Yardley bar soaps. While I like the smell of both the lemon and the pink bouquet soaps, I also couldn’t use them on my face without somehow getting soap in my eyes.
Once I realized the Bronnley soap could serve no routine function at our house, I plopped it down one day in the soap dish of our guest bathroom. There, no one is really using it, but at least it looks pretty for visitors.

Diana, Princess of Wales, was relegated the same kind of guest status when she married into the royal family in 1981. She was just 20 years old, blonde, tall, slender, and virginal. Next to Charles at State visits and lavish banquets, she was a stunning sidekick, but no other place was really carved out for her. Even in a televised interview announcing their engagement, Charles suggests Diana—who had never shone academically or in her career as a school teacher—would make a good housewife. He didn’t seem to expect much else from her.

Such expectations underestimated Diana, specifically it overlooked that she could (and would) ground-breakingly transform the image of the royal family. With her as its newest ambassador at the start of the 1980s, it was set to become more personable, more compassionate, more fashionable, more innovative, more cosmopolitan.
Where to buy: My contact at Bronnley assured me they'll soon be exporting Bronnley to the United States via their website. In the meantime, you can find it on Amazon or at Merz, 17 E. Monroe St. in Chicago. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


A little bit of fuss has been made in the past couple of days over the release of the first official photographs of Prince George. Rather than hire a professional photographer, William and Kate opted to have Kate’s dad take amateur photographs of the newborn in the family’s backyard...err garden. You can see them here. This  outsourcing (insourcing?) may have come as a bit of a snub to the many professional photographers who hold royal warrants and routinely take photos of events and meetings and royal family members new and old. Among this bunch, Paul Burns was the first to receive a royal warrant—from HRH The Prince of Wales as “Social Photographer.”

Burns began his photography career in 1987, first as a photojournalist in Wales and then covering events in Bristol. His career changed markedly in 1994 when he began photographing Prince Charles routinely. The prince travels frequently on behalf of the Crown, and his comings-and-goings must always be documented. After spending a continuous five years in service to the prince, Burns was granted a royal warrant as “Social Photographer” in 2000. He continues to photograph the prince as well as all of the members of the royal family.
You can view a gallery of his photographs of royal events here. Here’s a gallery of his celebrity portraits.

If you want to meet Paul and find yourself in Bristol sometime soon, he still takes studio portraits of the masses. It’s just doubtful yours will wind up on page 6.
For more snarkiness on the quality of Michael Middleton's photos, you can view a special interactive feature done by the Guardian's photo editor, Roger Tooth. (Good God, I hope he never looks at this blog!!!). If that's not mean-spirited enough, don't miss Jonathan Jones' editorial calling it “no more authentic than Marie Antoinette dressing as a shepherdess.”

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


I guess it was this past spring that I first started seeing ads on the Royal Warrant Holders Association website for the Coronation Festival held in mid-July. The festival commemorated the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
The royal family attended the event, of course, but it was special because the general public was invited too. You needed only to buy a ticket. In addition to a fashion show, dramatic arts performances, and a huge concert at the end of the evening, you could spend the day visiting tents set up by hundreds of royal warrant holders: Jaguar, Bendicks, Hunter Boots, Prestat, Clarins, GlaxoSmithKline. The list goes on and on.
I’ve had dreams about things like this, you know? But as soon as I read about the event I knew there was no way I could go. We definitely couldn’t go and take the whole family…and it felt like too much of a luxury for me to go alone.

I’ve avoided the photos and the write-up of this since it happened. Who wants to see a bunch of great pictures of something they missed, of something they really wanted to go to and couldn’t?
 Yesterday I gave in, though, and I’m so glad I did. The photos (courtesy of Theo Cohen Photography) are just amazing. I started getting excited for all of the other royal warrant products out there that we have yet to review. I also started saving my money; if anything remotely like this ever happens again, I'm not missing it.

Monday, August 12, 2013


The best thing about writing this blog is that I get to learn about British history and culture while also trying really standout British products. They can’t all get four-star reviews, but this week I’m forced to give out just that. Prestat Ltd holds a royal warrant from Her Majesty the Queen as “Purveyors of Chocolates.”

Prestat proclaims itself the inventor of the chocolate truffle, which was enough to make me first stop and take pause. The business was started by a French immigrant to Britain named Antoine Dufour—unofficially in the 1890s and officially in GB in 1902. That its current owners do not know the complete company story and have been working tirelessly to archive its past is definitely some of Prestat’s charm. You can read so much more about that search right here. One of my favorite little tidbits is that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl was a big Prestat fan. He even centered one of his more macabre novels for grown-ups, My Uncle Oswald, around the chocolates. Here’s a little excerpt:

“I opened a drawer and produced a box of chocolate truffles. Each was identical. Each was the size of a small marble. They were supplied to me by Prestat, the great chocolateers of Oxford Street, London. I took one of them and made a hole in it with a pin. I enlarged the hole a bit. I then used the head of the same pin to measure out one dose of Blister Beetle powder. I tipped this into the hole. I measured a second dose and tipped that in also…”

Prestat today makes chocolate truffles that are quite a lot bigger than a small marble, hot chocolate, chocolate bars, and wafer thins. We sampled the London gin truffles and thought they were amazing. Picture a white chocolate/lemon/gin exterior with a bit of a fizzy aftertaste (achieved by using popping candy as an ingredient) encasing a creamy milk chocolate center. 

We also tried four of the miniature chocolate bars: a milk chocolate, dark chocolate (70% cacao), dark chocolate raspberry, and milk chocolate with roasted almonds and sea salt.

These chocolates stand out not only for their taste but for the bold and brash designs of the packaging and website content. In the early 2000s, artist Kitty Arden—who is famous for her distinctive dressing gowns, pet coffins, and paintings—designed this packaging in primary and secondary colors and prints to rebrand and revive Prestat—to turn it into a show-stealer.

Not so long ago, a young woman named Diana Spencer did that for the British royal family. My copy of Vanity Fair came in the mail just the other day, and there was Diana’s famous 1997 photograph by Mario Testino on the cover. I knew that, even though I’ve avoided it for quite awhile, it was time to start writing about Diana. Diana the show-stealer. In the 1980s she took the focus off of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and Prince Charles and kept it on herself for the better part of two decades. It explains, in part, why Americans know so much about Diana, so little about the royal family she married into.

Biographers of Prince Charles mostly argue the same thing about the prince’s relationship with Diana: he had slept around Britain for all of his 20s and still had no long-term relationship to show for it; he was starting to feel like the British public and his parents expected him to get married; he was in love with Camilla Parker Bowles (who was married, who was not viewed as an appropriate mate by his parents); when he met Diana it seemed like the right thing to marry her and be done with it.

It’s not so romantic, that. Settling. It’s also somewhat hard to believe. Diana was beautiful and well-spoken and fun. She took the royal family by storm in good ways and bad, and she took the British press by storm too. They adored her. They made her the most photographed woman in all of the world. That Diana’s husband was married to her but pining for someone else for years is something most people found difficult to believe when the news first came out.

Maybe that’s why Vanity Fair can still feel confident putting a long-dead princess on its cover, why the British press can still compare Kate as a mother with Diana as a mother and know people will remember what they’re talking about. She was a show-stealer.

Among the royal warrant holders, Prestat is a show-stealer too.

Where to buy: My Prestat chocolates were hand-delivered by my in-laws, fresh off a trip to London. You can find them in the U.S. at Chelsea Market Baskets in New York City; they will also ship them to you in cool weather. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Summer was slow to come to Chicago this year—so slow that at times it seemed like we might jump from an extended winter into a rainy spring and then back into a cool and windy autumn. The temperatures have held pretty steadily in the 80s for the past couple of weeks, though, and I’ve put my missing summer fears right behind me. 

Nowhere is summer more evident than in all of the yummy fruits and vegetables we’ve been picking up at farmer’s markets this week. I visited the one in Hyde Park on Thursday morning and the one in Daley Plaza on Thursday midday to bring home local sweet onions, tomatoes, basil, peaches, blueberries, and poblano peppers. Tonight we feasted on chicken enchiladas filled with tomatoes, grilled onions and roasted peppers and covered with a poblano-cilantro cream sauce. All I can say is wow. As our food was cooking I cut up tomatoes for pico de gallo, and Nathan and I squeezed a bowl of lemons to make a big, beautiful pitcher of lemonade we drank out on our front balcony tonight. It’s hard to imagine feeling more connected to the land—even if you live in a large urban agglomeration like I do and “local” actually means “southern Michigan”—than by eating its food.

I’ve struggled this year with reconciling my desire to eat healthy and local with my desire to write a blog that involves me ordering British packaged foods from websites like Amazon. Reading this blog could pretty easily suggest to you that the royal family never eats anything besides cookies, crackers, and condiments, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Queen Elizabeth grows a 40-acre garden at Windsor Castle that contains such crops as strawberries, sweet corn, beets, and carrots.

In the coming weeks I plan to do my homework on some of these local producers patronized by the royal family. I don’t have the luxury of visiting them to buy fresh eggs, milk, beef, chicken, fruits, and vegetables, but I’ll try to figure out as much as I can. It’s interesting and very timely—this royal practice of eating fresh and local—and I want to highlight it as much as possible.

I'm headed back to the front balcony, but if you're interested, here's that amazing recipe:

Chicken Enchiladas with Poblano Cream Sauce 
(adapted, just slightly, from a Better Homes and Gardens recipe)

3 fresh poblano chile peppers
2 fresh jalapeno peppers
1 lb. shredded cooked chicken
1 cup diced seeded tomato
1 large yellow onion
12 medium flour tortillas
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup snipped fresh cilantro
1/2 tsp. sea salt
freshly ground black pepper, too taste
queso fresco, optional

1.) Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Cut chile peppers in half lengthwise, discarding stems and seeds, and lay flat (cut sides down) on a foil-lined cookie sheet. Cut onions into large chunks and also place on sheet. Bake for 25 minutes or until peppers are charred and tender and onions are starting to brown at edges. Let cool for 15 minutes before loosening skin away from peppers. Chop peppers and onions into small pieces and set aside.

2.) Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Spray nonstick cooking spray on a 13x9 baking dish.

3.) To make filling, mix cut up tomato, chicken, and half of the peppers and onions in a large bowl. Fill eat tortilla with 1/3 cup of the filling. Roll tightly from one end to the other, leaving the ends open.

4.) Bake in oven for 20-25 minutes, until tortillas are beginning to brown.

5.) To prepare poblano cream sauce, blend remaining peppers and onions, cilantro, sour cream, whipping cream and salt in a food processor until smooth. Pour into a saucepan and heat over medium heat for 8 minutes, until warm and bubbly. Pour over enchiladas as you pull them out of the oven. Serve with fresh cilantro and queso fresco, if desired.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Just a couple of weeks off of our adventures with Veuve Clicquot, another Frenchie joins the list of royal warrant holders: Clarins Ltd has held a Royal Warrant from Her Majesty the Queen since 2007 as “Manufacturers of Skin Care and Cosmetics.”

This past week my friend Jeannette and I made our way through the tangle of cosmetics counters at the State Street Macy’s in Chicago to visit the Clarins counter. We were in search of Clarins hand and nail treatment cream because I’d read that it is so popular with the Queen she sometimes sends her ladies-in-waiting out for emergency supplies of it. Under the Clarins banner, we were greeted by an insanely knowledgeable woman who was happy to talk about the company.

 Jeannette and I heard the usual sales spiel you might hear at a cosmetics/skin care counter in a department store: Our product is better than all the rest; these are the awards we’ve won recently; this product here is our bestseller—other women are buying it in droves and you should too; some of this stuff might seem expensive to you now, but in the future you’ll be glad you’ve been using it. She surprised us by adding that selling expensive cosmetics isn’t important to Clarins and that we could buy those anywhere—even at a drug store. If we're on a budget, we should focus on skin care and not cosmetics. We also liked that Clarins is plant-based and not tested on animals.

Next she gave us a miniscule sample of Clarins double serum, which (at $85 for a bottle) is expensive but excellent. Jeannette and I both bought $30 tubes of the hand and nail treatment cream.
The Clarins representative was a fountain of information about skincare, but I stopped her dead in her tracks when I mentioned that Clarins has a royal warrant from the Queen, which is essentially a royal seal of approval, and that I write a blog about such products.

She sort of took me in for a second before responding haltingly: “I didn’t know that. The royal family is, you know, definitely way up here (she held her hand above her head) when it comes to endorsements and recommendations and so on, but what we measure our products by are things like magazines.” She paused to show us a binder on the counter that contained several laminated articles from fashion magazines about Clarins’ double serum. “This is where we look for approval. Places like Allure and Elle and Vogue.”

Translation: Queen Elizabeth’s recommendation isn’t selling our products, honey.

Point taken, but the Queen is still purchasing Clarins in bulk. In addition to the hand and nail cream, every guest who stays at Buckingham Palace has Clarins toiletries and skin care products placed in their rooms.

Of course, not every guest to the palace is an invited one. In what was deemed a hugely embarrassing breach of palace security, 31-year-old Michael Fagan broke into the Queen’s bedroom at Buckingham Palace in July 1982. The Queen was asleep when a barefoot Fagan (he later admitted he’d lost his shoes on the roof after shimmying up a palace wall) opened the curtains to her bed to peak in at her. The startled Monarch talked calmly with Fagan for a full 10 minutes while she waited for her security to discover his presence. Finally, it was a footman who rescued her. Fagan was later admitted to a mental institution.

While the verdict on Fagan was pretty clear, I’m not sure I’ve reached my own about Clarins hand and nail cream. It’s so expensive that I’m rationing it and probably not using enough of it…but I don’t notice it doing much for my hands. Over time it promises to eliminate age spots, but I don’t have any now. It’s also supposed to be good for my cuticles but, as I type this, I spot a hangnail on my pinkie.

Where to Buy: Visit the store finder on Clarins’ website.

Of note: while Fagan probably never got any complimentary bath products from the palace, he claims he did get his shoes back. You can read the full version of a somewhat incredible interview he gave last year here.

Friday, August 2, 2013


A few weeks ago my mom gave me—by way of a friend who had just traveled to Scotland—a box of Bendicks chocolate mints. I’d never heard of Bendicks before we started this project, and I had a hard time getting my hands on them here, so I couldn’t wait to dig in. Bendicks of Mayfair holds a royal warrant from Her Majesty the Queen as “Manufacturers of Chocolates.”

My box of Bendicks contained not only bittermints, which the packaging described as “the original and most famous Bendicks mint,” but also the rest of its mint collection: chocolate mint crisps, Victorian mints, and dark English mints. Here’s a simple note on each one from the packaging, just so everyone is caught up:
-Bittermints: “Firm fondant, with a powerful mint oil, enrobed in intense dark chocolate…”

-Chocolate mint crisps: “crisp honeycomb pieces in dark chocolate, flavoured with peppermint oil”
-Victorian mints: “dark chocolate with a soft peppermint fondant centre”

-Dark English mints: “dark chocolate baton infused with fresh English Black Mitcham peppermint oil”

The mint collection box intrigued me. There was something of a ritual to making your selection from the rows of brightly wrapped chocolates, neatly unwrapping it, and slowly savoring the taste. I picture British women of a certain age buying the mint collection and saving it for a visit from their children or grandchildren. “How about we all take a minute to have something sweet?” they’d offer after a couple of hours. It reminded me of my own childhood visits to elderly female relatives who would produce a half gallon of good ice cream or a little tin of fancy cookies even when we’d make an impromptu visit to their house. My sister and I would always wonder out loud, later, how does she keep from eating it herself? How does she save it for us?

I loved all of the mints in this box but the bittermints, which had a mint taste that was too strong. I found it impossible to swallow one without sneezing.

We’d just opened our Bendicks mint collection box when I left our house early one morning to run my first half marathon. I had nervously packed up half the house to somehow take along with me, just in case I needed it, when I spotted the mints. I toyed with the idea of slipping one into my back pocket, just in case. Maybe it would come in handy somehow during the race. The only thing that stopped me was realizing how hot it was outside.
I think the British royal family lives in a pretty constant state of survivor mentality. These people always need to have something in their back pockets, a trick up their sleeves just in case.

On May 20, 1974, Queen Elizabeth’s daughter, Princess Anne, was leaving a London film screening for Buckingham Palace with her husband and her bodyguard when a white Ford Escort swerved to block the Rolls Royce in which she was riding. The car’s driver, Ian Ball, then fired six shots that struck a journalist, a police officer, a passerby, and Anne’s bodyguard. Ball managed to get into the car briefly with the princess, but in the presence of so many witnesses he then left the car abruptly. He was later apprehended by a policeman.
At the time—and even years later—the royal family tried to laugh this incident off.  Anne is tough, they wanted everyone to know, and perhaps she is. But in an interview in the 1980s, after she again made joke of the seriousness of the whole incident, Anne faltered a little. Right around 6:30 in this video, Princess Anne’s husband says to her: “It never occurred to me that I might end up in that sort of situation. I think you had thought about it probably.”

Even though this interview seems way too flippant and glossy to capture what these people must have been feeling that day, there’s this rare moment of honesty where Anne acknowledges Mark's comment with a very sober facial expression and a little nod of her head. Of course she’s considered how dangerous it is to be the Queen’s daughter when the Queen has so many enemies. She must think about it all the time.

Perhaps long before the rest of us were thrust, really thrust, into the daily reality of terrorism, the British royal family knew all too well what a bitter mint it is to swallow.

Where to Buy: My mint collection came from Scotland, but you can also find these on Amazon.

Photo credit: The second photo above is courtesy of Theo Cohen, who photographed the 2013 Coronation Festival at Buckingham Palace.