Visitors always want to have afternoon tea when they come to the U.K., and not just tea rooms but restaurants and hotels all over the country offer it. But do the basics differ much? Not really. As the price goes up, the quality of the tea might improve and the accompaniments become more lavish, but the main difference is usually the character of the location — and usually the older the establishment, the more opulent the surroundings.
Bettys Café Tea Rooms in Harrogate, almost a century old, is one of the most iconic and historic teahouses in the U.K., and certainly the most famous one in the Yorkshire region, in the north of England.
According to Ruth Burke-Kennedy, PR manager for Bettys, "This most delightful of British traditions was started in the 1840s by Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford, when she started taking tea and sandwiches between lunch and dinner. By Edwardian times, 'afternoon tea', served on the finest china … had become a byword for elegant socializing. Afternoon tea at Bettys creates a real sense of occasion, cakes are served on gleaming silver cake stands and tea poured from silver teapots into the finest china made especially for Bettys."
Bettys was founded by Frederick Belmont. Born in Switzerland and trained in baking and confectionery, Belmont opened the original Bettys in Harrogate in 1919. He eventually passed the business along to his nephew Victor, who expanded the business and in 1962 bought a rival firm, Taylors, to form what is now called Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate. Today, there are half a dozen Bettys around Yorkshire.
Who was Betty? Nobody really knows for sure. "There are many theories," says Burke-Kennedy. It may have been Betty Lupton, who dispensed Harrogate’s famous spa waters in Victorian times, or the daughter of the previous owner of the first Bettys premises — or it may have been inspired by a popular Edwardian stage musical called Betty. "Ultimately, the mystery remains with our founder," adds Burke-Kennedy.
Everything served at all Bettys locations is baked fresh in Harrogate. The bakery opens at midnight and operates until about 4 p.m., seven days a week. There are 140 people involved, included a team of nine in their food and drink innovation department.
Their most popular tea confections are fondant fancies (individual sponge cakes with fondant icing), Yorkshire curd tarts (a rosewater-scented pastry that dates to the eighteenth century), an assortment of macarons, and "Fat Rascals." These are Bettys' signature, which Burke-Kennedy describes as "cheeky-faced, plump, and truly delicious fruit-filled scones made with the finest quality ingredients including butter, free-range eggs, citrus peel, and currants, and hand-decorated with glacé cherries and split almonds to create a face with a ‘gnarl.’" They were introduced by Bettys in 1983, and are said to have been based on another local specialty, the turf cake. The bakery makes over 6,500 of these a week, approximately 320,000 each year. They're delicious served warm with butter and a cup of Bettys' popular Tea Room Blend tea (or their Special Breakfast, Earl Grey, China Rose, or Blue Sapphire varieties).
Bettys also runs a cooking school, established in 2001 by Lesley Wild, a member of the founding family and chairperson of the company board. The school covers a wide range of subjects, from knife skills to bread-making to traditional Bettys recipes, as well as courses for young would-be cooks ages 11 and up. "The school is unique in being able to draw on a rich resource of talent and expertise from the team of specialist craftspeople at the bakery," says Burke-Kennedy. "Our philosophy of food is firmly rooted in our Swiss-Yorkshire heritage: We believe in simple, honest cooking using the best quality ingredients."
Not planning on a trip to Yorkshire to visit Bettys? Here are 12 other famous pastry shops around the world.