Thursday, 11 April 2013

Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms, Harrogate

“Whatever the situation, whatever the race or creed,

Tea knows no segregation, no class nor pedigree
It knows no motivations, no sect or organisation,
It knows no one religion,
Nor political belief.
‘Have A Cuppa Tea’ by The Kinks

With all the time and energy us Brits regularly expend discussing the weather or which class we belong to (sometimes both together) we could have easily conquered another Empire; far better to stop worrying about whether it's still raining outside - it probably is - or the difference between the established middle class and the emergent service sector, and have a sit down and a nice cup of tea. 

While even our national drink might not be considered truly classless - the whole idea of being 'rather-milk-in-first' can provoke much fierce debate - a  cup of tea's still something that can enjoyed by all, no matter who you are or where you come from.

Which brings us to our trip to Bettys Tea Rooms in Harrogate, the original outpost of the famed tea house which has now expanded to six branches around Yorkshire. It had been a good many years since my last visit - I remember buying my Dad a Fat Rascal to take home as a gift - but my interest in tea and cake hasn't waned in the interim. (For those who are interested, the weather on our visit was a gloriously sunny. And, in the Ewing's words, I'm still classless.) 

Another thing the British excel at is waiting in line, and the queues my Aunt had predicted were already stretching around the corner as we arrived. Crowds at Bettys are carefully managed in the civilised way you would expect. Front of house come out to take names, table numbers and offer a choice of two dining areas, and there are even a selection of menus to browse through as you wait. No danger of any unruly bun fights breaking out here. 

The queues were moving swiftly on our visit, but if you do find yourself getting bored then there's a always an edible window display, this time some seasonal Simnel cakes for Easter, to salivate over.

The first table to come up as we reached the front of the queue was in the Montpellier Cafe Bar, a bright and airy spot overlooking the Montpellier Gardens. The least formal of the rooms, based on the grand cafes of Switzerland and Northern Italy, it offers a simple menu of open sandwiches, soup, pastries and cakes to be ordered at the counter. 

The downstairs rooms offer full table service and a more comprehensive menu, consisting of everything from breakfast through to full afternoon champagne tea. While these subterranean rooms are rather glam, all leather banquettes and marquetry scenes of Yorkshire hanging on the walls, they also feel a little stuffy compared to the bright simplicity of upstairs.

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me. - C.S. Lewis. A nice cup of tea is truly the most glorious thing; there is nothing better than that first cuppa in the morning, or putting the kettle on after getting home from a trip away. For all the exotic allure of coffee, a cup of tea is a panacea to sooth all ills.

For such a simple drink, tea can so often be a disappointment when ordered out. Stewed, too weak, or in a tiny little cup that hardly seems worth the bother of drinking it. And that's before I've even started on the insipid Lipton's Yellow Label - made with tepid water and served with sweetened coffee creamer - that's so often proffered abroad. (Not to mention the limescale-topped, over-brewed lukewarm delight I create for you at home, darling - T.E.)

Thankfully the tea served at Bettys is about the finest brew you'll ever sample. Firstly, check out the sparkling clarity; when you grow up drinking the finest Thames tap, full of all the chalk in the Chiltern Hills, you become used to the murky film. While I find drinking soft water a bit 'toothless' for my tastes, it makes fantastically clear drinks (as well as the frothiest lather - just like being in your own shampoo commercial - when you wash your hair).

As well as the fantastic flavour of their house blend there is also the pomp and ceremony that comes with drinking it. With each cup ordered their is a pot of loose leaf tea, another of hot water, a silver strainer, and a jug of milk and bowl of sugar cubes to anoint your drink to taste. Quite the most civilised pastime.

The famed Fat Rascal - a crumbly, domed tea-cake with currants and candied peel, also known as a turf cake as they were originally cooked by farmers on a turf fire - have been popular in the North Yorkshire and Cleveland area since the 19th century. In 1983, Betty's introduced their own version, complete with its distinctive 'face', and ever since the Fat Rascal has become synonymous with the place. 

With its little glace cherry eyes and almond teeth my own Fat Rascal, looked almost too sad to eat, but luckily I'm not one to let emotion get in the way of lunch. Thirty years of perfecting these buns has clearly paid off, and it was soon reduced to just a few crumbs and stray currants.

The Ewing went for the Yorkshire influenced, and rather refined, rhubarb frangipane tart; a layer of almond sponge topped with a layer of local fruit and finished with a buttery shortbread crumble.

To drink she chose the Bettys Cafe Blend. In 1962 Bettys joined forces with another Yorkshire business, tea and coffee merchants, Taylors of Harrogate, and there is a large selection of different blends available, both to drink in or takeaway from the adjacent shop.

As well fed and watered as we were, it would be a shame to come all this way and not to pick up a few treats to take home. The old fashioned wooden dressers in the shop were groaning under the weight of chocolate truffles, cakes, biscuits and Easter eggs, while the glass fronted marble counter was crammed with a selection of dainty little cakes and pastries. You can buy their whole range of loose teas and coffee beans by weight, and there is even a range of Emma Bridgewater Fat Rascal crockery to accompany your comestibles.

As well as picking three different types of coffee beans and a Simnel loaf cake as gifts, I couldn't leave without buying one of their special Easter edition Fat Rascals, based on a Bury Simnel cake and crammed full of currants, spices and dried peel. We also chose a classic Yorkshire Curd Tart, which featured  a layer of tangy lemon curd under the fresh cheese and nutmeg topping, as well as some of the most gloriously buttery pastry I have eaten.

Yes, it might be a little touristy, and no, it's not cheap, with prices that even managed to make this Londoner gasp a little. But, of course there is a distinction between cost and value; and a civilised hour enjoying a pot of very fine tea and a giant bun have got to be worth seven quid of anyone's money.

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