by Eleanor Steafel, The Daily Telegraph, June 14, 2016
A proper old-fashioned afternoon tea – is there anything better? Perfect little sandwiches with their crusts sliced cleanly off, exquisite cakes with a syrupy glaze, the fluffiest scones piled high with clotted cream and tart raspberry jam… such items will provide sustenance at the street parties being held today, weather permitting, to celebrate Her Majesty’s 90th birthday .
But how do you make an afternoon tea that’s also fit for the Queen? According to her former chief pastry chef, such an event is a more formal affair where the tea must be brewed just-so, the cream cakes filled with seasonal British fruit and the jam sandwiches cut into the shape of old English pennies.
Darren McGrady was just 20 and fresh off the prep stations at the Savoy hotel in London when he joined the royal household in 1982. But over 11 years’ working his way up in the kitchens of the royal residences – and a further three as personal chef to Princess Diana and a young William and Harry at Kensington Palace – he got to know a thing or two about how to offer tea to royalty.
“The Queen is about 5ft 2 and tiny, but she eats four meals a day – breakfast, lunch, dinner, and afternoon tea,” says McGrady, who has returned to the Savoy this weekend to launch his very own afternoon tea menu inspired by the dishes he once created for the Queen herself.
The Queen's favourite cake is a chocolate biscuit cake.
“Every day, she would have what we called a 'cut cake’ – meaning she would cut a slice of it off – small cakes like eclairs or raspberry tartlets, and then scones: one day plain, the next day fruit. And two types of sandwiches: smoked salmon, or Sage Derby cheese and tomato, roast beef or jam pennies.
“She’d have that sent up every day, but sometimes wouldn’t eat much. The Queen is very disciplined, so she would usually just take a little sliver of cake and send it back to the kitchen. If it was a cake that wouldn’t keep well, it would then go to the staff for their tea.”
But there was one cake that would go back to the Queen’s dining room day after day until there wasn’t a crumb left: the chocolate biscuit cake.
A favourite of Prince William’s – he requested it for his wedding to the Duchess of Cambridge – the biscuit cake is a simple nursery treat adored by Her Majesty.
“I’ve even known chefs drive to Windsor carrying the Queen’s chocolate biscuit cake, because she was going to be there for the weekend and it hadn’t been finished,” says McGrady. “She is by no means a foodie and is very frugal with her food, but she loved that cake. So if there was some left, she’d have it brought to Windsor.
“Every week, we would send a menu up for her approval. If we were going to do, say, ginger cake for Sunday’s tea and the Queen was having Prince William over, she’d put a line through it and write in 'chocolate biscuit cake’, because that was his favourite, too.
“If we came up with a new cake, we had to send the whole recipe up to the Queen to have a look at so she could say 'No, I don’t think so’ or 'Let’s save this for Sandringham when the family are there’.”
Darren McGrady was a chef at the Palace for 11 years.
For 11 years, McGrady travelled the world with the Queen and Prince Philip, preparing everything from simple nursery food like cottage pie and roast chicken for the family when they were alone, to elaborate state banquets. For a young man from Nottinghamshire who once camped out on the Mall overnight hoping to catch a glimpse of the Prince and Princess of Wales go by on their wedding day in 1981, to find himself on the Royal Yacht Britannia preparing dinner for President Reagan, President Ford and the Queen was quite something. “There is nothing that makes you more proud to be British than sailing into Miami with a huge flotilla of tiny boats coming alongside jetting water and honking their horns while the Royal Marines band plays A Life on the Ocean Wave on the top deck and the sailors in their No.1 Dress stand to attention, while you’re in the royal galley preparing a banquet,” says McGrady, a father-of-three who now lives in the United States with his wife and teenage children.
For over a decade, McGrady, 54, baked the Royal Family’s Christmas and birthday cakes every year like clockwork – “Each member of the Royal Family would have the same one, a chocolate génoise sponge filled with dark chocolate ganache and shiny chocolate icing” – and every day he would prepare a full afternoon tea, two puddings for lunch and two for dinner.
“After a while, you get a sense of what the Queen is likely to enjoy,” he says. “She loves chocolate, so anything with chocolate in you pretty much knew she’d give a pass to. Apart from during Lent, when she gives up chocolate. She liked anything with fresh fruit like strawberries and raspberries, but they had to be in season. You try putting fresh strawberries on a cake in January, she’ll put a line through it.
The Queen's birthday afternoon tea can be taken at The Savoy hotel.
“At Balmoral, we could put strawberries on the menu every day because it was summer [when Her Majesty was in residence] and they had the most amazing produce. I loved it because we were pretty much self-sufficient for the eight weeks the Queen was there.
“To go down to the garden and pick fresh berries for dinner that night, and have someone come in with a salmon from off the estate – it’s eyes so fresh they would follow you around the kitchen – was pretty special for a young chef.”
It was during a summer excursion to Balmoral – said to be the Queen’s favourite of all her residences – that McGrady first met Her Majesty in an encounter he would rather forget. “It’s a 50,000-acre estate, and after lunch one day I thought I’d go for a walk along the river. As I was walking along I saw a lady in the distance with some dogs. She was in a Barbour and wellies and wearing a headscarf.
“As I got closer I recognised the corgis and realised it was the Queen. I stopped in my tracks and, suddenly, the dogs looked up and started barking and running towards me. I just turned and ran, with the Queen laughing behind me.”
It was also at Balmoral that McGrady got to know Princess Diana and her young sons, as the summer gave the family a few weeks respite from the spotlight and a more informal atmosphere descended on the Royal household. “She would often come down to the kitchens with the boys. I can remember William coming down in his little riding hat about to ride Smokey, his Shetland pony, but wanting a glass of orange juice first and Diana coming down to the kitchen with him.
“The family would often be away in the hills, barbecuing until 11 at night. Prince Philip loved to barbecue – he and Prince Charles are the real foodies in the family.”
McGrady moved to Kensington Palace after Charles and Diana’s divorce, where he cooked for the Princess for three years until her death. After the accident, he moved with his wife Wendy and one-month-old daughter Kelly to the United States, where he now runs a catering company in Dallas, Texas. “Watching the boys grow up, feeding them and getting to know them was wonderful. The Princess always joked we should pack up and move to America. When she died I thought, right I’m going to do it.”
Twenty years later, he is returning to the kitchens of the Savoy where he began his career to roll out an afternoon tea fit for a Queen, featuring a host of family favourites. Alongside the jam pennies and chocolate biscuit cake there is the vanilla bean shortbread which the Queen would have her chefs make for Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones when she came to visit, and the caramel banana cake that was a favourite of the princes when they were young.
McGrady says his menu is a tribute to those years spent feeding our Royal Family. “For a young chef, it really was an amazing job.”
In numbers | Partying with the Queen READ MORE ABOUT:
- Prince Philip
- The Royal Family
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- Queen Elizabeth II
- Queen Elizabeth's 90th birthday
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This article was written by Eleanor Steafel from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.