Solving problems outright – or shrinking anomalies at least – are tasks which have tested the patience, time and wherewithal of people simple and gifted alike for as long as our species has been curious about fixing and tinkering, no matter whether in the shed at the bottom of a garden or at the outer limits of thought and scientific exploration.
The opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey shows our nearest and dearest ancestors ushering in the Palaeolithic Age by wielding the bones of their prey in a just discovered, aggressive manner which will make far simpler the process of reducing once upright animals to stripped bare skeletons when the body parts of already dead animals are used as weapons in the process of killing beasts to feast on them.
When men in sheds open their toolkits to make easier their compulsion to dismantle motorbikes or washing machines, they might like to pay a debt of gratitude that a discarded fibula and the dawning of cognition in apes has led to the humble efficiency of a hammer, and that the process of natural selection to which they cannot prise themselves began – at least as the immortal film has it – with the role of violence a newly thinking ape understands is necessary in the race for survival of the fittest.
Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke ascribed the potential for evolution to the stark, unfathomable presence of the monoliths, whose veneers are as inscrutable as some viewers find the film and its allusions. Its prescience cannot be disputed however, for the silent but dominating monoliths share in appearance and a comparative transformation in agency the server farms which today stand equally erect and whose mechanisms lie beyond the comprehension of most of the contemporary tribe, much like the monoliths dumfounded the apes but also altered their behaviour.
The remainder of the film and its voyage into deep space is a reminder that, beyond the realm of fancy, having built rockets able to break free of our atmosphere may well be the last word in human achievement, the efforts of an assortment of mathematicians, physicists, engineers and however many other beggaring intellects are required to fill in a blank piece of paper with directions to and instructions how to return from the moon resulting in the removal of a barrier lesser mortals still cannot get to grips with.
All of which brings us to cucumber sandwiches, for they remain a problem of all mankind, and I have yet to hear anybody put up a spirited defence as to why they are still considered a good idea, solution to anything – let alone hunger – or improvement on the circumstance of humanity. We have come a long way from the coarseness of apes to the refinement of Newton, Darwin, da Vinci and Michelangelo, but cucumber sandwiches still stump us all. Deliberately soggy bread barely appeals to ducks any longer, but the connotations of good social breeding and virtue which their flaccid form transmits bypasses any disagreeableness a sandwich filled almost entirely with water inevitably consists of.
To mark the Queen’s 90th birthday, Will Torrent – whose name and career both came as news to me – has devised, along with Nathan Outlaw and his team, a celebratory afternoon tea at The Capital in Knightsbridge, one of London’s five-star hotels and now home to another restaurant showing off Outlaw’s deft and imaginative fish cookery. With his eponymous Cornish fish restaurant now holding two Michelin stars and having been already granted a single star for his London venture, expectations were high that his skill, combined with the patisserie talent of Torrent, would result in a mix of sweet and savoury courses befitting the historic occasion and landmark venue.
There are many reasons why these were sadly dashed, most notably of all the underwhelming presence of fish dishes demonstrating Outlaw’s touch being included in the Royal Afternoon Tea menu. Although smoked salmon with whipped cream cheese and served on crumpets were good and made for a topping to that most English of products I hadn’t imagined they could pull off, Outlaw’s obvious presence ended there, which made the choice of partnership with a chef whose cookery is almost exclusively dedicated to fish less interesting than it first appeared. A verjus and chive butter did little to suggest cucumber sandwiches – inevitably cut into fingers – should not be condemned to the castoffs stockpot of kitchen history, while a filling of pulled ham hock and piccalilli struggled to assert itself at all.
The lack of flavour in these sandwiches, considering the saltiness of ham hock and the typical strength of its accompaniment, was as startling as it was disappointing, suggestive first of a too long period of chilling wiping their potential away or parsimony with the amount of filling. Replenishing sandwiches took a length of time that made it clear they were being made fresh and to order, so no fridge was at fault: rather an underpowered recipe and a light hand responsible for filling them were their downfall. Comfortably top of the pile of the sandwich and savoury courses was potted coronation chicken with pickled red onions, although I can’t easily forgive its underhandedness, which seems an accusation out of all proportion to level at what may just be food, but one justified by its promise on the menu not being carried over to the plate.
Steady yourselves for the cunning of this course – there was no pot in sight. Potted shrimps, set in nutmeg flavoured butter acting as both a preservative and binding agent, are not individually shelled shrimps, which deserve another designation on a menu, so long as we avoid prawn cocktail, for potted shrimps are demonstrably not that either. A dish of potted duck, similarly, may not quite be duck pâté or rillette, but it has enough in common with both and also plenty to define itself against either of those preparations. That categorisation is the pot itself – no mere presentation device – and coronation chicken already deposited on a good, crisp crostini has been shed of its container, so removing the means by which any potted ingredient is served and the method of eating one who has chosen something potted is rightly anticipating. This is not just a pernickety and neurotic complaint, for in this instance the menu did not deliver its side of the bargain, and the kitchen sets the terms of the agreement in the first place.
A shame then, for as routine a filling or topping as coronation chicken has long been – which does nothing to dissuade me of my pleasure in it done well, as here it was – I have yet to receive a promise, here broken, of it arriving potted and therefore its entire texture having been altered in a way I am yet to experience but enjoy in the assortment of genuine pâtés or rillettes I expected from its description this course inferred it would take as inspiration, in terms of both mouthfeel and dependence on cutlery to spread the contents of this pot onto another ingredient. Perhaps this coronation chicken was once in a pot, but it is also true that a piece of beef once belonged to a cow: menus hardly feel the need to state such an obvious comment, which coming from the other side makes me wonder why this one would deliberately pretended an element was something it no longer was or might never have been. In any setting this is a concern – in a five-star hotel where service and cookery are under added and warranted scrutiny, such a letdown cannot be ignored.
More happily, neither could the parade of self-styled sweet delights, all of which were far more consistent in their quality than the savoury selections could muster, while also being indicative of everything served. Despite the plain scones putting the potential of the chocolate and cherry versions in the shade, this meal didn’t so much fizzle out as never get going, for nothing could be singled out for overwhelming praise, and a series of nibbles deserves a highlight as much as any other lunch or dinner. Just like the kitchen didn’t deliver potted coronation chicken, so too did it stop short of providing a dish of proper stature, or a new addition to the culinary memory. Missteps though are as common in cookery as they are in the vaunted tradition of afternoon tea itself, the travails of monarchies wherever they cling on and the filmographies of auteurs, but with the exception of Kubrick’s more than most, being as it is another towering achievement.