Bettys Tea & Cake Shop is devoted to doing things beautifully, whether it is their homemade cakes and chocolates, speciality teas and coffees or the way they treat their customers.
I remember eating my first Bettys Fat Rascal. My mother was dragging me, my two sisters and a few foreign exchange students around York during the summer holidays, and she wanted to give the guests a quintessentially English experience - something they wouldn’t forget in a hurry when they went back to wherever they were from.
She spied Bettys Tea Rooms in St Helen’s Square, a grand and expansive café affair, all wood panels and art deco bevelled mirrors. It was commissioned in the 1930’s to replicate the sophistication of Cunard’s flagship Queen Mary liner, the height of luxe in the days of ocean cruising.
There was a queue reaching round the corner, and no wonder: the window was packed with more cake than our greedy young selves could hope to scoff in a year. There were plates of scones and fruit-filled cream puffs, elegant patisserie and trays of exquisite chocolates. It was the mid-80’s, the era of Greggs and Dairy Milk. By comparison, this was another dimension.
There wasn’t time to queue for a posh tea, but we did make it into the shop, and left with a bag of warm Fat Rascals, one of Bettys signature treats – a sort of over-sized scone (though the consistency is more like a coarse cake) made with citrus peel and fruit, studded with cherries and almonds. Great eaten on their own, better smeared with butter. They are easily big enough to share, really, but who would want to?
The fashion in Harrogate
Years later I went for tea to the original Bettys in Harrogate which opened in 1919. The window of the bakery was just as enticing and the queue, if anything, looked even longer.
Obviously I was at a different branch of Bettys, but little seemed different from my memories of the York outpost, and in a good way – the décor is not fashionable, but nor is it faded, and the upstairs café overlooks Harrogate’s neat Montpellier gardens.
The staff members are polite and efficient, a miracle given the crowds jostling for a seat. We had Afternoon Tea that, priced from £16.50, is about half the price that many hotels charge. Southerners probably think everyone heads to London for a smart high tea; not so if Bettys is nearby.
A highlight was the lemon macaroons. Perhaps they didn’t serve the little pastel-coloured French macaroons that are so fashionable now back in the 80’s, but the brand somehow moves slickly with the times under a pretence of being stuck in the heyday of the early 20th century.
Tea and cake
Those of you who begin every morning by popping a bag of Yorkshire Tea in the pot might not know that behind your humble daily brew (crucial though it is) lies this high end chain of tea rooms.
Taking tea might be a very English tradition, but the Bettys founder Frederick Belmont was Swiss and had trained in pastry and chocolate making across Europe. This meant that from the beginning he mixed British tradition with the fancy ways of French patisserie and confiserie. Luckily we still love cake as much as we did back then - the shop serves around 300 types of bread, cakes and pastries and 50 different teas and coffees.
In the 1960’s, Bettys bought the tea company Taylors of Harrogate, who brew Yorkshire Tea as well as a raft of fine teas.
Today the company has six tearooms across Yorkshire, a bakery, chocolate makers , cookery school and comprehensive online shop selling everything from Valentine’s Day goodies and a selection of the season’s best teas to classic fruit cakes and chewy Florentines .
Unusually for such a large operation, the company remains family-run. Perhaps this is why the same level of care and attention to detail seems to run through its premises and product line.
It also has Fairtrade and environmental policies in place to prove its credentials as a sustainable business.
Crucially for any businesses following Willy Wonka’s lead – making children and adults alike happy with cakes, sweets and chocolates – Bettys has an eye for novelty and a keen sense of playfulness. Last Easter it sold giant chocolate badgers instead of the traditional bunnies, which soon sold out despite the £16.95 price tag. Hope there’s something equally unexpected in store for us this year.
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