We tried café at the UK's top farm shop where there's always a queue

Venison kofta at the Harley Cafe
Venison kofta at the Harley Cafe -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

Is there ever a time when the Harley Cafe is not busy? If there is please let me know as every time I go there is always a queue. There's not many other Nottinghamshire cafes I can think of where people will stand in line and wait.

Perhaps it's the location, perhaps it's the food, or most likely a combination of both that makes it so popular. For those who have never been to the cafe before, it has an idyllic home on the Welbeck Estate, a sprawling 15,000-acre site with an abbey, the School of Artisan Food, a brewery, bakehouse and dairy.

The privately-owned estate belongs to William Parente, a grandson of the 7th Duke of Portland and former High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire. Most of the grounds are out of bounds but an art gallery, museum, farm shop and the cafe are open to the public.

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It takes just over an hour to leave the built-up metropolis of Nottingham to reach the green leafy countryside gem. Pulling up in the car park, it is completely free - now that's a novelty.

The main purpose of our visit is for an interview about the award-winning farm shop. After completing the job in hand, it gets round to lunchtime so it would be foolish to go anywhere else for lunch but the courtyard cafe opposite. The queue isn't as long as the last time I visited in August and it only took around ten or so minutes to get a table.

Before opening is the only time you'll find the Harley Cafe empty
Before opening is the only time you'll find the Harley Cafe empty -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

When the sun's out, the most popular place to sit is outside, but I like the coolness inside. We sit on the long high table - which you'll find yourself sharing with other diners - as all the standard tables are full.

Historically, the brick building was a former lime store, dating back to 1893, which gave it the original name of the Limehouse Cafe until 15 years ago when it was transformed and renamed the Harley Cafe after Edward Harley, who married Lady Henrietta, the great great granddaughter of Welbeck's first owner Sir Charles Cavendish, in 1713, and one of the wealthiest women of her day.

Chefs don't have far to go for their supplies - the meat, fruit, vegetables, bread, eggs and other ingredients come from the farm shop. "'Locally sourced ingredients" often appears on the menus of the best eateries but it doesn't get more local than this. A good proportion is sourced from the estate. Anything else is from the best suppliers possible.

Beetroot hummus at the Harley Cafe
Beetroot hummus at the Harley Cafe -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

Some things on the menu never change as they're so popular, such as the sautéed mushrooms on toast and Welbeck rarebit. Other dishes change regularly in keeping with what's fresh and seasonal - and these tend to be quite imaginative.

We start by sharing a selection of small plates. The beetroot hummus (£8) with Bakehouse ciabatta is deep pink in colour and deliciously earthy in flavour. Crispy pickled chickpeas and toasted hazelnuts add crunch to the creamy-textured dip.

My favourite is the dressed burrata (£9.50). It's so smooth, so rich, and so creamy. Toasted coriander seeds on the top add an ever so delicate nutty flavoury, and here's the plot-twist - instead of the usual tomato accompaniment there's rhubarb. It's not sugary sweet, nor does it have that kind of tartness that makes you grimace. It's a lovely match.

Burrata with rhubarb at the Harley Cafe
Burrata with rhubarb at the Harley Cafe -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

The third plate is off the specials board. Welbeck asparagus, grown in the estate's walled garden, is served with sauce gribiche and olive oil (£9). The classic French sauce is served cold, made from whisking hard-boiled eggs with red wine vinegar, mayonnaise, olive oil and tangy capers. It's a stunning companion to the grassy spears that have just the right level of bite.

It feels like we've already hit the jackpot but there's better to come. I've opted for venison kofta for my main (£14) from Welbeck's wild deer. It's seasoned with Chennai spice blend, which I expect to the hot and spicy, but it seems quite mild and certainly doesn't detract from the flavour of the venison. The kofta are cooked perfectly. The outside is beautifully caramelised, the inside juicy.

Welbeck asparagus - with zero food miles
Welbeck asparagus - with zero food miles -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

Chilli cherry tomato jam adds a touch of sweet heat, while the garlic raita balances it with a refreshing coolness. A bed of parsley bulgur and the lightest of flatbreads complete the dish.

My companion has gone for a sandwich of grilled aubergine, with home-made green chilli tomato jam, and Graceburn cheese between two chunky toasted slabs of Welbeck Bakehouse focaccia teamed with a bowl of potato wedges (£12).

The cheese comes from the farm shop's deli counter where it sits in a bowl swathed in rapeseed oil. Graceburn sounds like a stately home - and it very impressive. It's not dissimilar to feta except you more you chew, the creamier it gets.

"Phenomenal" is the word he uses to describe it. "It's one of the best cheeses I've ever had. The chilli jam adds a nice warmth. How can they make a sandwich so full of flavour using three ingredients? It tastes very indulgent."

Egg custard tart and ultimate chocolate brownie
Egg custard tart and ultimate chocolate brownie -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

Now you might think we'd be full after so much food but we don't get up this way very often, so there's so chance we're leaving without dessert. The selection of cakes, all homemade, make it a tough decision. In the end we share the ultimate chocolate brownie (£6) and Welbeck's egg custard tart, a Great Taste Award winner (£4.25).

We're advised to eat the deep-filled tart first, otherwise it will be overshadowed by the richness of the brownie. It's so creamy and luxurious that I never want it to end. Encased in light shortcrust pastry and topped with a generous smattering of nutmeg, it such a simple dessert done incredibly well.

Rich, dark and handsome, the brownie is made from Valrhona, one of the world's best chocolates, and teamed with clotted cream. No wonder the cafe was voted the best for 2023-24 by the Great Food Club, beating eateries across the East Midlands. It's no more than it deserves.