If music be the love of food, play on. A trip to the opera is as inconceivable without a culinary interlude as it would be without a conductor or that tool braying the grammatically correct yet wholly irritating ‘Bravi!’ at the curtain call. Thus from this autumn, the Royal Opera House offers you the capriccio of its new afternoon tea in the light vastness of its Paul Hamlyn Hall.
Eating at Covent Garden is already an enjoyable, if wallet-desiccating, experience. There is cold dinner in three stages, before and between acts, in the Crush Room; there are smoked-salmon sandwiches at the bar which cost more than your ticket. I generally stretch to a bag of crisps, peanuts if I’m feeling flush or drunk on the music.
You wouldn’t quite describe any of it as inspired, but it doesn’t need to be. Now afternoon tea, that needs some inspiration, a lightness of touch both conceptually and in execution. Luckily, here Claire Cook is wielding the baton (or the palette knife, as the case may be).
The menu is traditional, but the execution is supreme. A blini is generously laden with smoked salmon and a fraction of a caper; salt beef and a cornichon sit between two slices of bread which look like they come from a doll’s house’s oven. Even a simple cream cheese and cucumber finger sandwich is unusually spry.
The scones are not the lightest I’ve had and the strawberry jam is a little anaemic, but they pass, and the sweets are immaculate. The oblong Opéra Gâteau (familiar to fans of the recently-returned Great British Bake-Off as a mighty task) has layers hardly a couple of millimetres thick and a couple of bars of edible score on top of the glossy chocolate icing. The pistachio éclair, fifth-finger-sized, was covered in bobbly crunchy ‘praline grains’.
The other two sweets were too sweet for me. A mandarin and kumquat amandine was standing in for that afternoon-tea stalwart, miniature tarte au citron, but the necessary sharpness was gone, and as for the banoffee macaron – well, frankly, banoffee is the devil. There was nothing wrong with their construction, of course.
There is, naturally, a tea menu, with your choices lasciviously described (‘tender silver tips’, ‘visually enhanced’, ‘just as Earl Grey himself liked it’). I went for Opera Afternoon, as especially devised by ‘specialist tea maker’ My Cup of Tea, and I’m not sure it was the best choice: nothing needs ‘the rounded sweetness of Bourbon vanilla’ apart from vanilla ice cream or, conceivably, the few remaining Bourbons.
And while I took the mick out of the tea cocktails, camomile tea with peach juice was surprisingly refreshing, and pretty too, dressed with camomile flowers and marigold petals. I’d still pass on Belvedere vodka ‘infused with loose melissa, peony and wild rosehip petals’, though.
The major disappointment, to be frank, was the lack of operatically named consumables. Where was the Joyce diDonut-o? The Joseph Café-ja? Even the Banana Netrebko? Claire Cook may be a whizz with the whisk, but she has some distance to go when it comes to naming her delicacies.