It’s the hottest day of the year so far and Chatsworth is a countryside idyll. Lambs are gambolling in the fields, sunshine is glittering on the River Derwent, dozens of picnickers are out in the park - and we’re sitting down to a fine afternoon tea.
The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s estate has long had the business of tea, scones and cake down to a fine art.
More than 15,000 afternoon teas are served every year in Chatsworth’s restaurants, set within the stately home’s 18th century stable block, and now an eatery has opened there dedicated to serving that most civilised of meals. The new restaurant, called The Flying Childers, has been created in what used to be part of the stables’ shops. The origin of the name requires something of a history lesson, helpfully printed in the menu.
Flying Childers was a stallion bought by the 2nd Duke of Devonshire in 1719. He won races at Newmarket and York, and has been cited as the first truly great thoroughbred racehorse. Paintings of said steed have been hung on the walls of the 58-cover restaurant, a contemporary space with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the courtyard and furnished with comfortable grey armchairs and sturdy wooden tables.
All of the crockery and teaware in the Flying Childers has been provided through a partnership with pottery firm Wedgwood. The teapots, plates, cups and saucers are all sourced from the company’s Butterfly Bloom and Daisy collections - ornate, floral patterns, images of birds and the colour pink predominate. Golden cutlery adds a fittingly regal touch.
Welcomed in by cheery staff, after taking our seats the only choice we have to make is which tea to drink from a list of 13 types. We go for the Wedgwood Original - a strong, dark, specially-prepared variety with leaves from India and Kenya - and the traditional English Afternoon variety, a lighter drink.
The food begins with a ‘pre-starter’ - a beetroot macaroon, split over servings of goats’ curd, accompanied with tomato jelly and chunks of golden and heritage beetroot.
A savoury macaroon might seem a strange concept, but the sweetness of the beetroot complements the strong, pungent curd well, with the vegetables adding further tang and depth of flavour.
Then come generous platters of sandwiches. These aren’t particularly dainty - instead they’re thickly cut offerings of soft smoked salmon and dill mayonnaise; fresh, creamy free-range egg mayonnaise and cress; cucumber with cream cheese, and good-quality roast ham with punchy tomato chutney.
We’re not rushed in any way by the staff, and following a pleasant interval the cake stands arrive. On the top tier there are miniature Stilton and walnut scones - another successful, out-of-the-ordinary savoury combination - and the afternoon tea staple, sultana scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream.
The bottom tier is laden with delights, too. A sharp, smooth passionfruit posset topped with a thin slice of Cavendish banana (selected, of course, because of the Devonshires’ family name) acts as a palate cleanser, while a tiny strawberry savarin soaked in mint syrup is a stickily sweet treat. A white chocolate pistachio and cranberry florentine offers crunch, an intense nutty flavour and ripe fruitiness, and the chocolate mousse is rich, dark and peppered with warm spices.
And there’s still more to come. The Wedgwood macaroon is infused with fragrant Earl Grey tea and filled with a decadent dark chocolate ganache. It’s light blue in colour and decorated with white piped icing, inspired by Wedgwood’s Jasperware.
Finally, the Bakewell cheesecake, finished with fresh raspberries, packs a powerful almond flavour - a whole tart condensed, almost.
Two hours have passed enjoying the tea. As is the way, the servings may be small but the cumulative effect means we’re left feeling full. As tea purists we didn’t upgrade to the luxury option, either: the same menu served with a large glass of Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé champagne and a Rose de Reims biscuit, a pink confection traditionally dipped in champagne.
In fact, our only niggle comes with the tea itself. There isn’t enough of it: or not enough for us tea fanatics, anyway, and we ask for hot water several times to keep the pots topped up, which maybe the staff should do as a matter of course.
However, feedback generally has been ‘fantastic’ since the launch at the end of March, says catering operations manager Richard Palmer.
Chatsworth had decided they needed a dedicated space for ‘high-end quality afternoon tea’, as well as extra space to serve tea on wedding days.
“It’s a calm and tranquil oasis away from the hustle and bustle of a busy day,” said Richard. He agreed it was vital for customers ‘not to feel rushed’.
“It’s not an in-and-out type of affair. We’ve pitched this more as a ‘special occasion’ afternoon tea, with a number of courses, and a number of selected individual cakes and pastries that combine together to create an experience.”
Meanwhile head pastry chef Victoria Wilson was tasked with assembling a ‘good balance of flavours and textures’. She’s particularly proud of the blue macaroons - each one is hand-piped by a Chatsworth apprentice and the flower design ‘complements the crockery’, she says.
Richard’s a fan of the Wedgwood too, it seems. “It’s nice to have something different.”
And should anyone be curious as to how such fancy china is cleaned - it’s given a rinse but, bravely, still goes in the dishwasher.
n The Wedgwood tea is £35 per person, champagne option £45. The Flying Childers is open from midday to 4pm on weekends and holidays. Booking online only at www.chatsworth.org, but walk-in customers are accepted.