Behind the scenes at Tatton Park's Gardener's Cottage restaurant
PUBLISHED: 09:54 28 July 2014 | UPDATED: 18:27 21 October 2015
As Tatton Park braces itself for the arrival of the RHS Flower Show, but we visit a quiet corner of the vast grounds which puts the produce of its soil and greenhouses to very good use
Improving on Tatton Park isn’t easy, given the gardens are among England’s finest and the two halls offer the visitor both Georgian elegance and Tudor simplicity. But with the new Gardener’s Cottage restaurant, however, they’ve managed the feat.
Behind the new venture is an old idea. Head Gardener Simon Tetlow tells me: ‘When the Egertons were in residence they could have eaten mainly, perhaps exclusively, things grown here. In the late 18th century the horticulture was largely productive. They pretty much had the choice of fruit and veg we have in our supermarkets now.’ What once fed the hall now supplies The Gardener’s Cottage.
Where his Victorian counterparts had 70 gardeners working for them, Simon is one of just 11 full-timers. Regular volunteers equivalent in number to the 19th century team help redress the balance: ‘We share out the tasks, even the skilled stuff like fan-training,’ says Simon: ‘The demands on the permanent staff are such that we have to train the volunteers to take up some of that workload. It works really well – we have skilled leaders in the volunteers and they pass those skills on to others.’
Diners in the new eaterie need not fear the focus on home-grown produce means narrow choices even in colder months: ‘We have two big polytunnels and lean-tos, so we produce 12 months of salads, plus carrots and chicory, and by the end of April we start producing early spuds - pot-grown varieties like Arran Pilot - early saladings out of the walled garden, peas, beans... all heritage varieties that tend to be pre-1910.
‘We have Morello cherries, plums, gages fan-trained on the walls, soft fruits, white and red gooseberries, about 80 varieties of apple, 40 of pear, many of them local – some of the Timperley market varieties for example.’
What gives a true taste of Tatton’s prime, and a glimpse of its gardeners’ skills then and now, is the more exotic fruit. With an expert touch the peach house produces fine specimens: ‘We work our way along with stepladders and a rabbit’s tail used to pollinate the flowers by hand, just as they did when the original peach house was here,’ says Simon. The finicky job is necessary as peaches flower in March when bees are in short supply, in spite of the hives in the orchard and in the kitchen garden’s walls.
Tatton is the sole National Trust country house where pineapples are still grown: ‘They were not imported back in the 18th and early 19th centuries,’ explains Simon: ‘Once picked they started to go off, so they had to be grown fresh here if you wanted to enjoy them.’
The pinery where they’re raised was rebuilt in 2007, using the original footings and information from Samuel Wyatt’s 1774 design. Year-round temperatures of about 80˚F plus high humidity are needed for these bromeliads to thrive. Rotting oak leaves still generate heat and moisture as they did 250 years ago, though hot-air pipes and hot-water ducts have replaced the old charcoal pans and coal fires.
The building where so much Tatton produce now ends up was until recently the head gardener’s home, converted to its new role last year: ‘We kept it simple, the prints all stuff from inside Tatton, and using Laura Ashley materials in the right style,’ says manager Duncan Stewart: ‘It’s a completely different experience to our self-service place, more relaxing. We’ve slowed it down, gone more upmarket, so it’s a totally different product – and one that’s needed here.’
Excellent teas and coffees feature prominently on the extensive menu. They may not come from Tatton, but it’s not just the fruit and vegetables that are home-grown: ‘The venison comes from the park, and we have our own rare-breed pork and lamb as well,’ says Carole Mullineux, Tatton’s Business Development Manager.
And it’s all in a good cause, namely the upkeep of the estate: ‘Tatton is owned by the National Trust, but run and funded by Cheshire East Council, so we have to pay our way,’ says Carole: ‘The Gardener’s Cottage exceeded our expectations in its first year. The weather helped us, it was incredible last summer, but we’re getting plenty of repeat business now, and bringing new people into the park too. We hope it’s becoming a destination in itself.’