When he was eight years old, Lord Gerald Fitzalan-Howard, brother of the Duke of Norfolk and custodian of Carlton Towers, between Selby and Goole, would lunch there with his grandparents, “It was usually mince,” he remembers, “and always cold because of the distance between the kitchen and the dining room.”
If he risked asking the butler for the salt, it would take another half hour for it to arrive. Such were once the problems of life in a stately home. Now, the butler is gone, so are the housekeeper, the cook and the servants. Lord and Lady Gerald and their three children have retreated to the west wing and the rest of the Gothic pile is given over to weddings and corporate events.
The kitchen, the dairy, the scullery, the butler’s pantry and a vast corridor of basement rooms that once serviced the house had slipped into disrepair, ending up as lumber rooms.
But now, after 12 months of clearing, cleaning, polishing and thoughtful restoration, the kitchens are back in action, filled once more with the smells of melted chocolate, raspberry jam and freshly baked scones.
In the years since he ate cold mince with granny and grandpa, Lord Gerald has evolved into a bit of a foodie; he forages for mushrooms on his 2,000 acres, cooks the family Sunday roast and has realised his ambition of opening a School of Food in the bowels of Carlton Towers.
In contrast to the Pugin façade, gargoyles, turrets and ornate ecclesiastical interior, the basement that houses the school is refreshingly simple and unadorned. The wide flagged corridor has countless rooms off that have been tastefully upgraded to make a shop, a cool dairy for pastry making and a working kitchen.
The “housekeeper’s sitting room” is done out in English country house style, with chairs and plumped up sofas for the cookery students to relax in. There’s even a drinks cupboard: “Help yourself to a snifter any time.” It all feels more “upstairs” than anything Downton’s Elsie Hughes might recognise.
The chatelaine of Carlton Towers, Emma Fitzalan-Howard, or Lady Gerald as she is known, has been responsible for much of the design and has cleverly retained the best of the old – encaustic tiles, brass lamps, two huge Sheffield-made cast-iron ranges, copper pans, jelly moulds, crested china – and brought in the new with induction hobs, sous vide cookers, fan ovens and a battery of state-of-the-art culinary equipment.
A mixed programme of courses has been designed by development director Elaine Lemm and course tutor Richard Walton-Allen who for 12 years was the executive chef at Leeds’ Harvey Nichols. Courses range from a half-day (£70) Back to Basics, cooking Wolds pork fillet and vanilla custard tart, to a full day of Better Baking with guest tutor and Great British Bake Off finalist Brendan Lynch (£170).
Other courses involve chocolate- making with Fiona Sciolti, barbecuing with Yorkshire barbecue king Andy Annat and an evening of campfire cooking in Carlton’s shooting lodge with Josh Sutton, Yorkshire’s self-styled Guyrope Gourmet.
Everything Stops for Tea was the course I attended, a full day of demonstration and hands-on cooking with guest chef Adam Smith from the swish Burlington restaurant at the Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey. He was appointed head chef last year direct from the Ritz, where he remembers preparing 400 afternoon teas a day. “We were turning out so many teas that it became a bit impersonal.” Now he’s in charge at the Burlington, he can make the afternoon tea there his own.
So around the huge central workstation in the Carlton Towers kitchen, we make the kind of treats you get when you go for tea at the Devonshire Arms: coronation chicken open sandwiches with shards of crisped and curried chicken skin. We put together shot glasses of strawberry and yoghurt trifle and make the ultimate light and feathery apple and sultana scones and our own raspberry jam with the clever addition of ginger and star anise.
Trickiest of all are the raspberry and white chocolate macaroons. We whip, mix and pipe meringue for the macaroons so that they look approximately like Adam’s. We take caramel to just the right colour, add raspberries to it for our jam and in the old dairy we roll out scones on the marble worktops.
Later, seated at the mahogany table in the Duchesses Dining Room, set with china and white linen napkins, we sample rare teas from a company called Tea Experience and then tuck into the afternoon tea we have just prepared: the coronation chicken sandwiches, the scones with clotted cream and jam, the macaroons and the trifles. We sip Earl Grey Blue Lady from vintage tea cups and Nyetimber English sparkling wine from antique champagne glasses.
Lord Gerald’s family motto “Meulx Serra” roughly translates as “Things will get better”. On this showing, they already have.
• Cooks, Carlton School of Food, Carlton Towers, Carlton, DN14 9lZ. 01405 861661, www.cooksatcarlton.co.uk
Prices: Half and full-day courses range from £65-£170. Accommodation in 16 bedrooms ranges from £95-£125.