I’M raising a cup of Darjeeling in the finest Wedgwood china during afternoon tea at Chatsworth, in honour of a horse called Flying Childers. In fact, we’re in the restaurant named after this 18th Century stallion once owned by the second Duke of Devonshire.
With six wins out of six the Duke wouldn’t sell him for his weight in gold. No matter that three of those wins were walkovers, the old boy (the horse, not the duke) went on to sire a champion called Spanking Roger.
And spanking, as in spankingly good, is how I’d describe the twelfth duke’s Wedgwood Afternoon Tea which costs £35 a head. Why, you could almost buy a Wedgwood china sugar bowl for that money. An extra tenner gets you a glass of champagne.
Our table top can hardly be seen for pretty, delicate Wedgwood in bright patterns and colours. There are plates, teapots, cup and saucers, a sugar bowl, milk jug, tea strainer bowls, gold coloured Wedgwood cutlery – a cake knife, fork and spoon – with a Wedgwood china dish to rest them in. Only the sugar cubes aren’t Wedgwood. “When it arrived we were terrified of breaking anything,” says café manager Meire Heard. So are we and I nearly succeed when my tea cup tips over.
The new menu was launched in March and has been a hit. Chatsworth has invited my wife and I as guests to see just how good it is. The restaurant is in a glazed arcade which runs the length of one side of the old stable block and the first thing you notice is a painting of the eponymous horse.
Walking to our table we pass a party of Japanese women enjoying their scones and jam. The way the Flying Childers does it, this English tea ceremony is almost as complex as their own.
First you are asked to choose your champagne (if you’re having it) and then the tea. Don’t look for PG Tips or builders’ tea. And it’s loose. A teabag at the Flying Childers would be a scandal. There is Earl Grey but as my wife is already wearing Earl Grey and cucumber perfume she doesn’t want to be mistaken for a tea pot so opts for full-bodied Ceylon while I have fragrant Darjeeling. “My grandmother told me to always put the milk in first so it wouldn’t crack the china,” says my wife. I’m thinking of my mother who would always crook her little finger whenever she had a naice cup of tea in a naice place to match but this is 2017 so I don’t.
The Wedgwood Afternoon Tea is treated like a three course meal (cheaper versions are available). First comes some ‘gin and tonic’ cured salmon, cut thickly, with a citrusy crème fraiche, salted cucumber and rye croutons. It sparkles as much as our champagne.
This is followed by a plate of sandwiches and tartlets: Coronation Chicken, egg mayonnaise and cress and ham and chutney sandwiches in white and brown bread, and two beautifully done miniature pastries: a goat’s cheese, pine nut and red onion tart in a red (beetroot juice?) embossed pastry case which crumbles as you touch it and a more robust but still excellent pesto and vegetable quiche.
It’s the pastry work at Chatsworth which always has me purring in admiration. There is more in evidence in the third course, the scones, cakes and fancies. The scones, cherry and sultana, are tiny but light and moist. The fancies are terrific: A Black Forest ‘gateau’ is hardly that although it comes with a couple of drunken boozy cherries in a box of the crispest pastry. There’s also a zippy lime and rhubarb shortbread cheesecake, well-scented Earl Grey panna cotta and little kiwi fruit tarts.
The only thing we’re wary of is the macaroons because we fear a sugar rush but, at the risk of sounding like a Two Ronnies’ sketch, I’m glad to see Chatsworth insists on two Os in macaroon and not this new affectation for calling them macarons.
If all this seems like indulgence you’d be right. The menu wickedly urges you to ‘indulge yourself’ several times. But even gastronomic hedonism has to come to an end. After a relaxed hour there are just crumbs on our plates (but not many) and a lonely macaroon, while the glasses of Laurent-Perrier champagne have been drained. It is expensive but you are paying for first class service, elegant surroundings and some wonderful patisserie work.
Plus a memory or two. For us it’s already up there with afternoon tea at The Ritz, cucumber sandwiches, harpist and all.
# Wedgwood Afternoon Tea costs £35, with champagne it’s £45. You can book online at www.chatsworth.org or drop in. Teas are served between 2 and 4pm.