You can’t come to Harrogate and not visit Betty’s Tea Rooms – especially as this year marks the 100th year since their legendary founder, Frederick Belmont, opened the town’s first Betty’s. He was fulfilling a long-held dream of a café “where the treats would always be dainty, the setting would always be beautiful and the welcome would always be warm”.
Some 50 years later, an eavesdropped conversation in Betty’s altered the course of Harrogate history. Betty’s manager, Miss May Carter, overheard a group of businessmen discussing the sale of C.E. Taylors & Co – a Yorkshire-based coffee chain and local tea & coffee merchant – and told Victor Wild, Frederick’s nephew. Victor immediately offered the asking price – and Betty’s became Betty & Taylor’s. With that purchase, Betty’s acquired the Café Imperial and its prized corner location on Parliament Street. It’s where I’m sat now, writing this post.
Coming at the end of a weekend of murder and mayhem, Betty’s has been a gently fragranced breath of fresh air. As soon as I entered its Imperial Tea Room, it was as though I’d stepped back in time, with a pianist tinkling the ivories in the corner and every table adorned with delicate porcelain cups and saucers.
Despite being full, Betty’s famous tea room makes for a tranquil setting and I received a friendly welcome; service has been warm and attentive for the duration of my stay, with my waitress checking in from time to time to see if any extra food or tea refills are required (if only; I’ve had a job making my way through the original servings – and you know how much I like my food).
Legend has it that it was the Duchess of Bedford, a companion of Queen Victoria, who came up with the concept of afternoon tea – so it is thanks to her that I’ve enjoyed such a delicious spread today. When I arrived, my waitress was already aware that I don’t eat meat (nice attention to detail) and explained that the Chicken Caesar sandwich would be replaced by an interesting-sounding avocado concoction. She then brought out two appetisers: a Prawn, Spring Onion and Cucumber Cocktail which was every bit as tangy and refreshing as I’d hoped, followed by a Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Tart, which was even tastier – its Gran Mantovano cheese contrasting nicely with the sundried tomatoes and sweet pickled red onions.
This, I should emphasise, was just the beginning. My sandwiches arrived next, the Avocado Ensemble accompanied by Smoked Salmon & Dill Crème Fraiche (served in a miniature croissant) and Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato Paté (served on tomato bread).
Having begun proceedings with a pot of Betty’s Centenary Afternoon Tea Blend – a blend of Assam and Darjeeling every bit as stately and glorious as you might expect – I’ve moved on to a white tea: Yu Luo, a Chinese tea made from delicate white buds grown at 4,500 feet, hand-picked and sun-dried. I adore white teas, a treat I tend to indulge in only when I eat out – and this is a master of the genre.
What’s your favourite element of afternoon tea? For me it is, unquestionably, the scones with clotted cream and jam, possibly because there’s Devonian blood in me. I am, however, something of a traditionalist when it comes to scones: they should be plain. End of story. That’s why they work so well with jam and clotted cream. I was a little unnerved, therefore, by the prospect of (i) Sultana, and (ii) Lemon scones. The sultana scone I dealt with ably enough by removing all the sultanas and beneficently passing them to the five-year-old child sitting at the table next to me. He was thrilled, and yes, I did ask his parents first and yes, I had already gathered that he liked sultanas.
The lemon scone posed more of a problem. Would it even need an accompaniment – and if so, would butter not be more appropriate? In the end, I compromised and added a dollop of cream, leaving the home-made strawberry jam to one side – and it was sumptuous. I am now a Lemon Scone Convert.
It may, or may not, come as a surprise to learn that I managed to try all of the cakes that formed the final course of Betty’s Afternoon Tea. In this, I was assisted by my new BFF and together we declared the Salted Caramel Pillow the victor from a taste perspective and the Passion Fruit & Lemon Macaroon the most pleasing to the eye (just look at those colours). He was more taken with the Apple & Vanilla Custard Tart than I, but that has more to do with the fact that I dislike custard than any reflection on Betty’s baking.
What a feast this has proved, and what a way to end my stay in Harrogate – and I haven’t even mentioned the cheeky Kir Royale with which I washed down those wonderful appetisers. Life is very hard, sometimes.
Everything about Betty’s oozes class – from its ethical tea policy, to its champagne sourced from family estates, to its shimmering silver teaware. It’s hard to imagine anything going wrong with the world, while Betty’s is serving tea and scones.
Farewell, Harrogate. It’s been brief, but it’s been memorable – and I shall definitely return.