What do Bluebird, Buckingham Palace, Claridge’s, Sandy Lane, Sofitel Dubai, The Ritz, The Wolseley and the House of Commons all have in, er, common? Maestro pastry chef Claire Clarke MBE. Yes! She’s sprinkled her fairy dust on them all. Now it’s the turn of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden to benefit from her sparkle. Claire has composed an afternoon tea to be served in the Paul Hamlyn Hall. Conservatory is too mean a word for this vast glass vaulted space named in honour of the late philanthropist and publisher Lord Hamlyn. More like Kew Gardens crossed with Syon Park. A Paxton moment. No room for understatement.
Henry James wrote in The Portrait of a Lady, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” It’s pure indulgence by its very nature. Afternoon tea is a superfluous meal to be enjoyed while lesser mortals, nine-to-fivers, toil. Let the rich eat cake. Add a crystal palace, edible compositions by the UK’s leading pâtissière for over a decade (The Caterer’s words and just about everyone else’s), a flute of Ruinart and musical accompaniment by a classical pianist selected by The Royal Ballet and the ceremonial gastronomic extravagance is raised an octave or two. Music to our ears, so to sing.
The tea. Tea for two by Soho based specialists My Cup of Tea. White Jasmine has a light delicate flavour, the flowers layered between whole green tea leaves. Opera Afternoon harmonises black teas from China and Sri Lanka with the rounded sweetness of Bourbon vanilla. The savouries. Like movements in a symphony, variations in lightness and colour at once distinguish each one and complement each other. Severn & Wye smoked salmon blini; carrot and coriander humus on pear and walnut rye bread; cucumber and cream cheese on sourdough bread. The sweet savouries. Scones are accompanied by Dorset clotted cream and homemade seasonal strawberry jam. Lady Grantham would approve. The sweets. Exquisitely presented nostalgia is key to Claire’s creativity. Perennial favourite banoffee takes the form of a macaroon. A pistachio éclair with praline grains is a dolce diminuendo in subtle green. Glittering gold leaf performs a grace note atop a mandarin and kumquat amandine. A floating bar of music is the icing on the cake on Opéra Gâteau – a crescendo in chocolate.
Claire, still in chef whites, joins us for a chat. “I wanted my afternoon tea at the Royal Opera House to be traditional. This isn’t the place for modern interpretations. I’ve stuck to classical roots. My catering company is more about content – substance over style. All the ingredients are British. And there’s nowhere more British than the Royal Opera House. I’ve previously worked a lot in the West End.”
She also spent five years as head pastry chef for Thomas Keller at Napa Valley’s triple Michelin starred French Laundry, reputedly America’s top restaurant. “I’m just back from celebrating my somethingth birthday there!” Claire confides. “I was in the garden of the French Laundry last week. Working at the French Laundry is like army boot camp – but in a good way. One where everyone wants to be fit. The staff are in the best five percent in the world. Everyone’s so passionate about giving the customer a special experience they’re prepared to go to extremes. Even the gravel outside has to be raked a certain way.” This perfectionist streak is clearly shared by Claire in her passion for pastry.
You don’t need to buy an opera ticket to enjoy afternoon tea in the Paul Hamlyn Hall although it would make the perfect prelude to Parsifal or Pagliacci. It costs £47.50 (for no champers knock a tenner off). Time for one more musical metaphor. Claire Clarke’s performance at the Royal Opera House really does hit all the right notes. A midsummer afternoon’s dream (that’s two).