I’VE NEVER met Deborah Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, yet she has long been a hero of mine. Debo, as she is known to her friends, now a feisty 90, was the youngest Mitford sister.
Her recent autobiography Wait For Me! immediately conjures up images of a determined little girl desperately trying to keep up with her five sisters.
I recently took a couple of days off to visit her family home, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Members of the Cavendish family have lived at Chatsworth since 1550. It’s a huge stately house in the midst of a 100-acre garden in the centre of the 1,000-acre Chatsworth Park, surrounded by the Peak District national park. It takes serious initiative, a ton of creativity and buckets of hard work to keep the roof on a stately home of this size.
Cavendish also loves chickens, as I do, and once complained that when John F Kennedy and his brothers came by helicopter to visit their sister-in-law Kathleen’s grave, her neighbour’s chickens were blown away by the force of the helicopter blades and were never seen again. Kathleen Kennedy died in a plane crash in 1948 and is now buried in the Cavendish family plot at St Peter’s Church near Chatsworth.
Chatsworth attracts in excess of 600,000 visitors from March to Christmas every year. People come from all over the world to see the house, extensive gardens, parkland, sculptures and a farmyard full of happy farm animals. Visitors can see the cows being milked; under-fives can have fun on the pedal tractors or learn how to sow seeds.
There’s several fantastic farm shops the most recent has just won the best farm shop in Britain award. It’s stuffed with local produce. Six butchers work full time in full view of the customers to prepare joints – much of which is reared by tenant farmers on the estate.
There are several restaurants, cottages to rent and a couple of pubs. I loved the yummy lamb and mint faggots in gravy in the Devonshire Arms.
If you are in the area, Hardwick House, originally owned by Bess of Hardwick, is a must see, not only for the beautiful collection of tapestries and handmade rush floor covering, but also for the original kitchens (now a restaurant) with dressers full of polished copper and kitchen utensils. Just down the road is Stainsby Mill, a stone mill which still grinds flour.
Derbyshire has several food specialities. I loved the oatcakes. It was quite difficult to get a recipe. Their slightly spongy texture resembled south Indian flatbreads. Nowadays most people buy them but I found this recipe at www.derbyshireuk.net/recipes.html. We tested the oatcakes and found them delicious but not quite as light as the ones I bought. There is the option of reducing the oatmeal by an ounce and replacing it with an equivalent amount of white flour. You may also need to add a little bit more water if the batter is standing for more than half an hour.
The Derbyshire fruit loaf is reminiscent of any Irish tea brack but I loved the addition of a few spoons of marmalade. Like a tea brack it keeps for ages and is delicious served buttered or unbuttered.
We stayed in Fischer’s Baslow Hall in Baslow, where Max Fischer and his chef Rupert Rowley get huge ratings in the Good Food Guide for their innovative food – lots of foams and little bits to nibble.
We had a delicious compote of plums with lemon verbena for breakfast and I couldn’t resist the home made passion fruit marshmallows, one of several tempting petit fours made by the young kitchen team. Max and Rupert also co-own Rowleys Restaurant and Bar in Baslow. We particularly remember a sweet potato soup with chilli oil.
On the right there’s a delicious recipe from Neven Maguire’s book, Neven’s Real Food for Real Families.
Chatsworth Estate, Bakewell, 0044-1246565300; Hardwick Hall, Chesterfield, 0044-1246850430; Stainsby Mill, Heath, 0044-1246850430; Fischer’s Baslow Hall, Baslow, 0044-1246583259, firstname.lastname@example.org
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