Celebrating 100 years of Bettys Tea Rooms
PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 January 2020
Olivia Brabbs Photography
A new book takes a look at the people, the places – and memorable menus of this tasty institution.
Writer Annie Gray has fulfilled an ambition many of us can only dream of. A day spent eating her way through the menu in each of the Bettys tea rooms in Yorkshire.
Where to start? For Annie, it's a cup of Blue Mountain coffee and cinnamon toast at the iconic Bettys in St Helen's Square, York.
Annie has written From The Alps To The Dales: 100 Years Of Bettys which is essentially a social history telling the story of this tea-cakes-and-gentility business as it celebrates 100 years in Yorkshire.
Annie's 'rascal run' or 'Bettys crawl', call it what you will, reveals the essence of these magical tea rooms.
Just as Alan Bennett is so good at the wry observation of Yorkshire folk at play, food historian Annie gets the measure of the appeal of Bettys as she travels from York to Northallerton, Ilkley to Harlow Carr and to Harrogate, taking the temperature not only of tasty rarebit but of the ingredients that meld this unique business.
Annie is a no stranger to a fat rascal. A research associate at the University of York, she found much student sustenance behind the steamed up windows at Bettys. Now she is a resident food historian on Radio 4's Kitchen Cabinet with Jay Rayner and author of a number of books, the Official Downton Abbey Cookbook among them.
So although her rascal run features in the book (stop two is the Stonegate café in York for 'a crisp apple juice'), it tells the story of the tea rooms through the life of founder, Swiss baker Fritz Butzer (to become Fredrick Belmont) who arrived in search of a new life in Yorkshire in 1907.
The first Bettys opened in 1919 on Cambridge Crescent in Harrogate and was an immediate success: 'It fitted perfectly into the Harrogate scene,' says Annie in the book.
By 1922 a bakery had opened supplying cafes in Bradford, Leeds and York. The 1920s menus featured the likes of Madeira cake and five types of scone and by the time rationing ended, the abundance of sugar meant Frederick could let his chocolate skills run wild.
As Annie writes, 'Right from the start, adverts in local papers used the tag 'the exclusive café', but this was a very inclusive form of exclusivity: all were welcome, with the aim that in entering, they'd feel just that little bit more special than usual.'
In the 1930s the glamour of the US had found its way to Bettys menus as had brands such as Heinz and Horlicks - you could even warm up with 'Bovril and a biscuit'.
Frederick's love of the exotic saw pineapple and cheese salad find their way to the menu as well as tinned exotic fruits and cream.
Meanwhile, on her rascal run, a famished Annie has reached Northallerton to dive into chicken schnitzel with pommes allumettes, a side of sugar snap peas and a pot of tearoom blend.
'It's quite a different set of people from those I shared my breakfast and elevenses with, fewer tourists, more low-key and local', she concludes.
When Frederick Belmont died in 1952 the business was taken over by his nephew Victor Wild. His son, Jonathan and wife Lesley joined the business and Lesley is chair of the Bettys and Taylors businesses today.
The company was almost destroyed by death duties but revived by buying Taylors in 1962.
Menus from the 1960s are very much of their time in terms of design and dishes. You could 'feast' on spaghetti on toast or even a 'weight-watchers' special cottage pie in the 1970s! All of which served a customer demand of the time.
By the time Lesley Wild was taking charge in the 80s, the 'Swissness' of the company's heritage was being reintroduced to menus with the now much-loved staples of rosti and Swiss alpine macaroni. What remains timeless is excellence in patisserie.
Annie's arrival at the Ilkley branch of Bettys on her rascal run taps into the sweet stuff. 'I'm in need of a pick-me-up so I opt for a hot chocolate and Engadine torte, a real hit of warmth and spice without being heavy.'
Then after a rush hour traffic battle, Annie finds herself at RHS Harlow Carr branch, where a herbal tea and 'my favourite Bettys item, hot buttered pikelets' hit the spot.
Then, 'I come to Harrogate. I opt for a Yorkshire rarebit accompanied by a glass of Swiss wine.'
As her joyful food journey draws to a close, Annie concludes: 'Bettys is very much rooted in the now. It has always been a modern business, albeit one very proud of its heritage.'