WHEN we placed the order for Afternoon Tea for Two from Auckland Castle’s kitchens at the start of last week, the sun was beating down, the temperature was soaring, people were frolicking in rivers beneath a blistering blue sky, and I imagined eating it al fresco beneath a parasol in the garden.

When we collected it on Saturday morning, the temperature was struggling into double figures, and the wind was firing spiteful drops of rain over the river and the Kynren site at the lofty North Bondgate car park in Bishop Auckland. In a cold corner, staff, wrapped in anoraks, dispensed the food from a flapping marquee.

As they opened the car boot to deposit the box of food, a chill gust ripped at the parcel shelf.

It was a very Covid-secure pick-up – no virus could possibly survive the wild weather of Weardale.

Last weekend was the first that the Auckland Project has been offering its food box service. Only Afternoon Tea was available, but the menu is growing weekend by weekend – this weekend comes a Premium Pie Meal for Four, followed by picnics from June 20 and then a three course dinner.

The Afternoon Tea was £30 for two. It was immaculately boxed in cardboard, with the goodies inside packed in compostable, starch-based containers.

The Northern Echo:

We were not brave enough to eat it outside in the rain, and so cleared the dining table of its accumulation of weeks of lockdown clutter, and laid out the contents onto our finest cakestand. Our only cakestand.

The food looked fantastic, a colourful collection of comestibles.

The Northern Echo:

We started with the six crustless sandwiches, where the green of a sprig of watercress and the bruised purple of a smear of beetroot chutney really stood out. They were all pleasant: the ham sandwich had a creamy, mayonnaise taste to it; the watercress enlivened the egg mayonnaise, and the name of the cheese – “Parlourmade Mordon ‘Old Mouse’ Cheddar” – was larger than the amount in the little sandwich.

We had two slices of a classic sausage roll each, accompanied by spoonfuls of Auckland Castle’s own Summer Vegetable Chutney and Piccalilli. The piccalilli was exceptionally good: rather than an indistinguishable mush out of a jar, there were little pieces of cauliflower, beans, cucumber and onion, each sharp and crunchy.

Next we each had two nice little scones, one fruit, one plain, with oodles of clotted cream topped with homemade strawberry jam.

But the cakes stole the show. The rose and raspberry tart was remarkable to behold: it was topped with balls of Italian meringue which somehow held their shape until I cut into them when they went runny.

The strawberry, white chocolate and pistachio éclair had a lovely smooth ooze of strawberry cream in the middle but then there was a surprise crunch from the outer coating of hard white chocolate.

And the chocolate layer cake had six layers of different chocolatey effects, from a biscuit base on the bottom which gave it stability to the sticky, shiny dark icing on top. Altogether, they produced a great hit of chocolate, without being too sweet.

We had added a box of petit fours (£2.50) to our delivery, and we each got a macaron, with a berry filling, and two salted caramel truffles, which were gorgeous dollops of carameliness but again not too sweet.

The Northern Echo:

Our box came with two Taylors teabags, but I’d also ordered 250ml bottles of Auckland cordial (£2.50 each). Others might have been tempted for a Prosecco accompaniment (£5), and Petra, my wife, thought the Walled Garden Cucumber and Mint Cordial would taste good with some gin. I, though, had it with good old Northumbrian Water out of the tap and thought it a superb, fragrant balance. The Deer Park Elderflower and Lemon Cordial was equally good, with the lemon cutting through the cloyingness of the elderflower, although young Theo took an absolute shine to it and finished when I wasn’t looking.

Not all of the many tastes in the Afternoon Tea came sailing through, but it all looked beautiful and classy. In lockdown, anniversaries and birthdays are slipping by almost unmarked, but an Auckland box is a lovely way to mark an occasion with a special treat.

And, I think I’m allowed to drop a hint here, with Fathers’ Day looming on the horizon, the Premium Pie meal (£30 to feed four) has me facing a nigh impossible choice: would I go for the honey and wholegrain mustard glazed ham or the ale braised beef?

Auckland Castle Food Box

Available for collection from the North Bondate car park, Bishop Auckland, DL14 7PG, on Saturdays between 9am and 11am throughout June, July and August. Order at least 48 hours in advance

Menu and ordering: aucklandproject.org

Phone: 01388-600522

Food quality: 8

Social Distancing: 10

Logistics: 10

Value for money: 8