Friday, March 9, 2012

The world's most expensive sandwich


Some years back, I had the world's most expensive sandwich. I know some people who get a kick out of having the world's most expensive "something" but I'm not one of those. I love luxury -- no backpacking travel logistics for me -- but I'm also pretty much a value person, so I like luxurious travel experiences at reasonable prices. And, yes, that's possible if you look hard enough, especially on the Internet, and if you read Travelife Magazine, the Philippines' leading travel & lifestyle publication.

HISTORY IN THE HOUSE

Anyway, many years ago, we spent a week at Cliveden, one of England's most glamorous country house hotels, and an especially historic one. Cliveden was once owned by the Duke of Westminister and then by William Astor; and it held the distinction of being the only private home Queen Victoria stayed in several times.


She reportedly loved Cliveden and was great friends with the owners, so she and her retinue would arrive by royal barge from Windsor Castle down the Thames. Cliveden is a 376-acre estate, you see, and the main house is on a hill, but you can access the river by a ten minute walk down.

Cliveden also gained some notoriety as the venue for the John Profumo/ Christine Keeler spy scandal at the height of the Cold War. If you keep up with history, you'll know that this was the biggest scandal of its day, and it took place right in Cliveden's swimming pool and in a little cottage by the river.



PERFECTLY RUN HOTEL

At that time, Cliveden was run by the Von Essen Group, a German luxury hotel company and they operated it very well. It's been taken over by now by Red Carnation, a large British hotel group, and I haven't returned since; but then it was pricey but perfectly run in a very British way (meaning very understated and no in-your-face service), so it was a great favorite of international financiers who would retreat here for de-stressing and to celebrate private events.

In fact, at the time we were there, a wealthy French financier's entire family was taking over most of the hotel -- apparently they were flying in from all over Europe -- so that they could have the baptism of a baby in the beautiful golden room that once belonged to Madame de Pompadour, mistress of French King Louis XV, that William Astor had purchased in France in its entirety and transported to England, lock, stock and barrel.

At Cliveden, he painstakingly recreated Madame de Pompadour's favorite room exactly as it once was. I took a peek as the room was being prepared for one of the baptismal festivities by some florists and event planners, and it looked absolutely beautiful.


HAUNTED PASTS

Meanwhile, we had a beautiful suite on the second floor that was furnished almost to its original state. As the existing house was over 200 years old and this was probably one of the bedrooms of the owners, I was sure it had dozens of ghosts. Historic English hotels, in particular, are notorious for ghostly encounters and I'm certain Cliveden has its share -- although I've never heard stories about ghosts here, the way you hear about sightings in other famous hotels.


A BIT OF A SPLURGE

It was a very good time for the world, and the international markets were all at record highs so many people were flush with cash. Perhaps that was why in a fit of madness, just before checking out of Cliveden and flying from London back to Asia, we decided to hire the authentic antique longboat operated by Cliveden for a ride up and down the Thames.


It was the Suzy Ann, which was built in 1911, and for lunch -- which we'd decided to have on the boat -- we ordered the famous Cliveden sandwich. I don't know if they still have it on the hotel's offerings now that Cliveden is under the Red Carnation group, but back then, the famous Cliveden clubhouse sandwich was reportedly the most expensive sandwich in the world. The chartering of the boat wasn't exactly cheap either; but it was the sandwich that took my breath away.

ONCE IN YOUR LIFE

Looking back at it now, I guess it's one of those things you feel you have to do at least once in your life. But, if I remember right, the sandwich (it was big so we halved it) cost over 200 pounds at a time when the British pound was at an all-time high -- it was close to 200 yen per pound. I don't even dare calculate now how much it cost then, but it was certainly very expensive.

It also took 36 hours to order because so many ingredients for the sandwich had to be specially ordered or prepared. On the appointed time and day of our cruise down the Thames, a car was waiting in the driveway of the hotel to take us on a very short drive down to the Thames where our longboat and skipper were waiting.


A few minutes after we arrived, a handsomely outfitted butler arrived and very formally handed the sandwich to the skipper. It was placed in a large wicker basket with starched linens, and accompanied by flowers. The butler also brought with him a bottle of champagne, as we had ordered a bottle to have with our record-breaking sandwich, of course.


Then we were off on our sail. The Thames is simply lovely -- so lovely, in fact, that one of the things on my bucket list is to charter a luxury houseboat to slowly sail it the entire way -- and it was wonderful to be in such a quiet and yet comfortable boat. Somewhere midway, our skipper asked us: "Would you like to have your sandwich now?"

SANDWICH TIME

Yes, we did. With lots of flourish and formality, he reverently took out the packed sandwich, which had already been cut in half at our request, and placed it on two porcelain plates. We had these with the champagne.

What's inside the world's most expensive sandwich, you may be asking.


I can't remember everything as it had at least 20 ingredients, including slices of the finest quality beef, foie gras, aged Parma ham, very special quail eggs from some pedigreed quail, handmade fresh mayonnaise, and organic vegetables from some royal estate.

How did it taste? You would think that all the flavors would simply mesh together since there were over 20 ingredients in the sandwich -- but actually, the sandwich tasted truly delicious, and it was particularly sublime having it with champagne on this beautiful boat that sailed past incredibly picturesque villages and houses.

Now the million-dollar question: Was it worth the money? I guess you just have to look at things philosophically: it's one of those things you just have to do at least once in your Travelife.


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