Words by Karen Yates
How could a girl resist an invitation to an afternoon of cocktails and cakes at The Royal Horseguards hotel? I couldn’t, which is why I found myself at the Equus bar in this historically fascinating and recently refurbished five-star hotel on the Thames, sipping cocktails named after former residents and locals including Lord Kitchener, Gladstone, Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill, who frequented the hotel during the war and even after becoming a Conservative continued to be welcomed into The National Liberal Club, still homed here. What would he have made of today’s coalition, one wonders?
Apropos of nothing but brilliant nonetheless, it was a young Churchill, then a rising politician, who came up with what is arguably the best-ever food review. Asked about his supper the previous night, he said: “It would have been splendid… if the wine had been as cold as the soup, the beef as rare as the service, the brandy as old as the fish, and the maid as willing as the duchess.”
Indeed one of the highlights of the event was, for me, the Churchill cocktail, made with homemade Cuban cigar tobacco syrup, bourbon and aromatic bitters, which we savoured with a teacup of creamy haddock broth with a pea foam and a potato crisp. “It’s like fish and chips in a cup,” someone said, and so it was, the smoked fish flavours melding beautifully with the deep, dark, peaty smokiness of the cocktail.
But cakes as well as cocktails was the theme of the afternoon and those who like sweet things will love the rainbow of imaginative treats dreamed up here. Spanish pastry chef Jacobo made lollipops using his does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Antigriddle machine, the top of which sets liquid fruits at -2C to create lollipops that instantly melt in the mouth.
Jacobo had also made exquisite strawberry daiquiri macaroons filled with a rum-infused white chocolate ganache, and plain mini cupcakes topped with violet butter cream and passion fruit tapioca. Both tasted as delightful as they looked.
Executive Chef Ben Purton made the savoury bites. As he created very popular canapés – gone as soon as he put them down – from ingredients including Parma ham, rocket, sundried tomatoes, smoked salmon, rye bread, capers and his favourite Sussex Charmer cheese, he told us how the kitchen had been insanely busy during the Olympics. Speaking of heroic performances and busy kitchens, MasterChef fans should keep an eye out for Ben and his team in the next series, the bit where contestants have to work in real kitchens. “I can’t say any more than that,” said Ben, after he’d told us pretty much all we need to know.
On to the cocktails, let’s face it the real reason most of us were here. Canadian mixologist Adrian Murfin made gin-based cocktails for us (the house is Tanqueray; he also recommends Sipsmith), starting with the apricot cocktail (£12.95), followed by the super-dry, Martini-style Lord Kitchener (£13.50, as are all the signature cocktails). Other eponymous tipples are the previously mentioned Churchill, the Gladstone (four-time prime minister and founder of The National Liberal Club), the Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming (leader of the secret intelligence service, based here during the First World War), and the George Bernard Shaw, who often met fellow scribe HG Wells here. Or try the cavalry cocktail, created by Andy Pearson for Help For Heroes; all profits go to the charity.
The Cocktail and Cake Liquid Afternoon Tea menu is available until 14 October 2012. To book, or to find out about other events at the hotel, visit their website here.
Photographs by Karen Yates and Sophie Draper
Freelance food writer and editor Karen Yates has written numerous features, reviews and interviews for glossy magazines including Country Living, Coast, Food and Travel, Fork and BBC Good Food. See more of her cuttings here.