‘Good afternoon Ms Volley, your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to drive to a secret location in the lush Derbyshire countryside and liaise with an operative bearing an orange teapot. Should you injure yourself in a rush to get up the garden path to eat buttered scones; the organisation cannot be held responsible. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds…’
Permission to eat baked goods in a mysterious location?
Now that’s what I call Mission Possible.
If there’s one thing I love more than tea and cakes; it’s a good mystery and putting them both together really tickles my fancy. Which is why I don’t want Rachael Hands – owner of Rachael’s secret tearoom – to tell me where she is located.
“Can we meet in a car-park and you can blindfold me before you take me to your tea-room?” I ask when Rachael sensibly offers to send the address over on email.
She has the patience to humour me; “Er, blindfold you? People may give us funny looks,” she says hesitantly before characteristically looking on the bright side.
“But it’d be a good marketing ploy; why not?”
The simple fact is there are hundreds of quaint, country tea-rooms in Derbyshire but what gets my juices really flowing is the ‘secret’ part. The exact place where Racheal’s guests will end up slurping their Lapsang Souchong is revealed only on booking.
“I take a stall every year at The Roundhouse Christmas Market in Derby and people are always fascinated by the idea of a ‘secret’ tearoom,” she smiles.
“But their next question is invariably – where is it?”
Not that Rachael is falling for that one; ‘I do get people trying to get me to reveal my secret. The only thing I’ll say is it’s in Belper,” she explains.
“I have to say this because guests sometimes imagine they might have to journey into the wilds of Scotland and they don’t want to drive too far. But most people love the idea of keeping the secret and – even if they’ve been – they won’t divulge it, even to their closest friends.”
True to form, I will not reveal any clues about the location. The most I will tell you is that the quaint, vintage-inspired tea-room is situated in the home Rachael shares with husband Matt and that this cosy venue adds to the charm.
“Like a lot of people, I’d always wanted to open a tea shop,” Rachael (45), explains when I ask her how the idea came about.
“It may always have remained a pipe-dream but for an article in a woman’s magazine back in February 2012. I’d gone to have my hair done and I read this article about a lady called Lynn Hill who, at the time, was doing a secret tea room from her home in Leeds. I thought ‘I can do that’ and went straight home and emailed her.”
Rachael was amazed to get a reply almost straight-away; “If I recall, she just told me to ‘go for it’,’ she laughs.
“On a more practical level, she told me to start with family and friends just to see if it was something I really wanted to do and refine my ideas and recipes.”
By September 2012, Rachael was ready to host her own event. “I do remember Matt asking if I’d be okay with strangers coming into the house. It wasn’t a worry as I love meeting people. I was more anxious about getting everything right,” she recalls.
“That’s why the idea of the ‘secret’ tea room appealed. It’s not that I am a fan of mysteries – I just thought it would lower the risk. If I set up a tea room on a high street and it didn’t work, it would be devastating. As it’s a ‘secret’ tea room I could try it for six months without anyone knowing.”
Rachael had no reason to be so worried.
She started off with a full-time job in local government with the idea of hosting her secret shin-digs once a month. The events were so popular, Rachael cut down to part-time work so she could do them twice a week. In May 2014, she was finally able to leave her job and concentrate on the tea-room full-time.
“I think when people first come they are intrigued by the secret location and not getting the address until the last-minute adds to the excitement,” Rachael says when asked about this success.
“When they arrive at my door, I can see them almost thinking ‘I didn’t think I’d be coming here’ as it’s our home. But they love it for being so comfortable and cosy. I get a lot of repeat business. One mum and daughter have been around ten times. They’re always being asked about where the tea room is but they never tell as it would ruin the surprise. In fact, in six years – no one has ever revealed the location. They all buy into the fun of it.”
The praise for her food is quite incredible for someone who admits that, while she was a keen cook, she hardly did any baking before launching her business.
“It might be in the DNA. My parents used to own a bakery in Cromford until they sold it in 2006,” Rachael smiles.
“I did help in the bakery and went on some of the delivery rounds and working in the shop but – other than having a few 5am starts – I had nothing to do with the bakery side.”
Rachael turned to her favourite bakers, chefs and amateur bloggers to collate recipes and started experimenting to see which ones would work. She still devotes a lot of time to testing and tweaking recipes to delight her guests – making bubble gum flavoured macarons for instance – and adapting according to the seasons.
“I love Autumn as it’s a time for using fruits like plums and berries in my recipes and I also make a very popular Dorset Apple cake but as soon as December arrives I stick up the tree, get the real fire going and bring out the cranberries,” she enthuses.
“People do expect the tea party staples like scones, short-breads and macarons but I like experimenting with my desserts. I’m always thinking how to do things a little differently. The nice thing about the tea room is that I can personalise the menu around people and what they love and their dietary requirements. If people ring up and ask me for a menu for a coeliac or to do an all vegan spread – I can do it.”
In addition to being a magpie for cake recipes, Rachael has also become a not-so-secret collector of vintage pottery.
“Everyone knows I love old pottery and I even get gifted items by my guests,” she smiles.
“I scour the vintage shops in places like Matlock and I look on the internet sites. I do have a lot of vintage china but my favourite is still my nan’s orange tea pot. If someone has a special occasion, they always get nan’s special tea pot.”
Over the years, Rachael has perfected the secret of making people feel at home.
“When they arrive, I sit them down with a drink, like some homemade cordial, and make some introductions then I go and busy myself in the kitchen,” she says.
“I’ve not had any deathly silences that have made me want to run out and get the conversation started – if it does go quiet it tends to be because they’re eating. More often than not, people arrive as strangers and go home having made lots of new friends. The appearance of a plate of triple chocolate flavoured macarons acts as a great ice-breaker.”
Inevitably, as word about Rachael’s tea party prowess has spread – often down to personal recommendation and social media – people have asked her to cater outside her ‘secret’ HQ.
“The outside events can be big – catering for a large event in Belper – or small like taking heart-shaped scones to a holiday lodge with a hot tub,” she recalls.
“As much as I love doing outside catering events, I have no desire to move the secret tearoom. I just enjoy the freedom of working from home. I can have mad weeks – I have done two hen parties in one day – but I’ll have a more relaxing week to make up for it. Making 100 personalised short-breads is nothing like the stress of working full-time. I love my job.”
Rachael smiles. “It might be a comfort zone thing but I’m very happy where I am – just don’t ask me for the address.”
Contact 07931 611485
For available dates, visit Rachael’s website