DIARY: Visiting the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace.
RECIPE: Palace finger sandwiches.
It’s not often I drift off to sleep during a bath, but my tub at The Goring in London’s posh Belgravia is so luxurious and filled with bubbles, wherein swims my flock of complimentary rubber duckies, that my eyes close inexorably. We have, through some magic Diane always works on desk clerks and hotel managers, been upgraded to a suite, with a luxurious huge bed and a round bathroom in a tower, with the generously sized clawfoot tub in the middle of the marble floor. There is a table for drinks and a book along side, and the gentleman’s portion of Johnny Black is well depleted.
On our arrival the previous day, the bowler-hatted doormen welcome us back. We have stayed here before in pre-Royal wedding days, when this was just a discreet establishment place, well sited behind Buckingham Palace for visiting plenipotentiaries. The hotel has been in the same family for 100 years and was beginning to show its age, but it was well on the way to being spruced up before the arrival of the parvenu Middleton hordes, and now it is positively gleaming. On one visit, the friendly doorman informed us, confidentially, that Lady Thatcher was lunching with the PM from Oz in the dining room. Diane found an excuse to visit the maitre d’ and discuss fictitious reservations, just so she could catch a glimpse of the great lady from Grantham. I slipped off to the welcome embrace of the lounge for an early afternoon beverage.
This visit, if there are any celebrities at the hotel, they are well hidden or keeping to their rooms. With the afternoon to spare, we wander round to the nearby Royal Mews. It houses a magnificent collection of carriages, cars and conveyances. The Gold State Coach is spectacular. The matched gray horses which pull the carriage are aristocratic, living in spotless stalls and pampered by uniformed grooms. They are taking the gleaming four-ton behemoth out for a practice run as we arrive. The limousines, ancient and modern are worth the visit alone.
At some point Diane and I get separated and I find myself alone at the entrance to the State Rooms. A matronly woman is disappearing down a corridor, followed by a pack of little dogs. Seeking information, I follow her into a large, sun lit drawing-room. “Oh, you’re just in time for our cream tea,” she says. I look behind me, assuming she’s speaking to someone else, but there’s no one. I smile nervously, because there’s no doubt I’m in the presence. Where’s Diane when I need her, I fret. But the presence has seated herself in front of a tea service.
“Milk?” she asks. I nod silently. “One is a milk-first person,” she adds, seeing that I’m temporarily struck mute and pours for both of us. “Do try these,” she prompts, pointing to a stack of delicate finger sandwiches. “There’s cucumber or smoked salmon. The cucumber are white bread, the salmon brown.” She helps herself to two of each and I do the same. They’re delicious. The tea is perfect.
Next she offers me a scone. Given that she is a milk first person, I expect her to apply the clotted cream first and the strawberry jam second in the Devonshire style and she does not disappoint. “Does the Duke of Cornwall eat his scones in the Cornish style, with the jam first?” I wondered. A steely eye stopped me in my tracks.
“I’d love to see how the sandwiches are made, Ma’am,” I say, thankful to change the conversation and even more thankful that I remember to pronounce it “Ma’am as in ham, and not Marm as in harm.” Magically, there’s an elegant elderly gentleman beside me. “Bunny,” she says, “Our guest would like to see Chef and ask some questions.” I’m whisked away.
Long corridors later, we are in the Royal kitchens. The Private Secretary hands me over to the stout man in the toque blanche. He is not the top chef, but the chef in charge of sandwiches. He produces thousands a year and on the days of the garden parties, he brings in a huge team of assistants to help. He’s very willing to demonstrate the special way Buckingham Palace sandwiches are made. The loaves have been baked the day before, and make better sandwiches the next day, he tells me. First, he sharpens a long knife with a steel to ensure a perfect razor edge. Starting from the bottom of each loaf, he carefully removes the bottom crust, then slices off eight long thin sections. This is the secret of the palace finger sandwiches, slicing the loaf lengthwise. The top crust is discarded, perhaps to feed the ducks in the palace pond.
The slices are spread, quite thinly, with cream cheese, and then peeled and delicately sliced English cucumber rounds are placed neatly on top. Fresh black pepper is ground over to provide some seasoning. Each long sandwich has all the crusts cut off, very carefully, and sliced to make a perfect set of eight sandwiches. The loaf makes 32 in total.
The process is repeated with a brown loaf. This time the bread is spread with mayonnaise, the thin leaves of smoked salmon laid out and pickled capers, drained, sprinkled on top. A selection of sandwiches are laid out decoratively on a platter of pierced English Creamware. If chef is making egg salad sandwiches, he says, he alternates the layers with brown and white bread, but at the palace cucumber is always on white and smoked salmon always on brown. The platter is put on a large silver tray and dispatched for some royal person’s late afternoon tea.
PALACE FINGER SANDWICHES
- 1 loaf of day old white or brown bread — makes 32 finger sandwiches
- 225 g tub of light cream cheese, or
- about ½ small jar of light mayonnaise
- 1 peeled and thinly sliced English cucumber or
- 150 g packet of smoked salmon, or
- 150 g packet of gravlax
- about ½ jar of pickled capers
- ground black pepper
- Cut the bottom crust off the whole loaf using a thin sharp knife (not a bread knife).
- Slice into 8 slices from the bottom up, discarding the crusty top of the loaf.
- Apply the spread sparingly to both sides of each pair of slices, layer on the filling, and season with freshly ground pepper, or pickled capers.
- Cut the crusts off carefully all round each slice, then cut each long slice in half, cut the halves in half and then cut the quarters in half to make 8 finger sandwiches from each slice.
- Place decoratively on a platter, cover with plastic wrap and store in the fridge until ready to be served.
- Decorate the platter with sprigs of fresh parsley, fresh dill, tiny pickled gherkins, or tiny sweet tomatoes.
Categories: Market to Table