I feel quite at home at Bettys, the legendary café-tea room and chocolate emporium in the north of England, which celebrates 100 years of existence this year. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, it’s rooted in Yorkshire (me too). Secondly, a part of its history is Swiss (mine too).
Back in 1907, a penniless young baker named Fritz Bützer set off from his native Switzerland to find work in prosperous Edwardian England. Arriving at Dover exhausted, seasick and with a sketchy command of English, he discovered he had lost the precious piece of paper with the name of the town where a job was promised.
All he could remember was that the name sounded something like ‘Bratwurst’, so he tried this out forlornly on a few passers-by. One of them came to the rescue, deduced that Bradford in the north of England was his likely destination and put him on a train up to Yorkshire. Here the young Bützer found work in a chocolate shop owned by a fellow Swiss.
In due course the ambitious baker, by now also an accomplished chocolatier, realised that the genteel spa town of Harrogate was more likely to deliver his dream than bustling, industrial Bradford. In 1919, as the country emerged from the First World War, he opened Bettys Café in Harrogate. Sensing that a German-sounding name was likely to be a handicap, he changed his name to Frederick Belmont. And how come Bettys, anyway? The origin of the name is shrouded in mystery, and even the owners, who are direct descendants of Fritz/Frederick, can shed no light on the matter.
Today Bettys is a household name and Harrogate remains the centre of operations. At the Craft Bakery, every single bread, bap, cake, pikelet, scone, muffin or iced fancy destined for the café-tea rooms is freshly made and baked each day. These are then despatched to the various Bettys branches in Harrogate, York, Ilkley and Northallerton by a fleet of cream-coloured vans, each one proudly bearing the Bettys name inscribed in old-fashioned cursive script on the sides.
White-coated employees, who looked more like lab technicians than bakers, bend low over trays of supersize, raisin-speckled scones known (and trademarked) as Yorkshire Fat Rascals. With infinite care they place two glacé cherries and a couple of blanched almonds on top.
At the other side of the bakery, a batch of freshly baked loaves emerge, crackling and chuntering, from a massive wood-fired oven. “We make between 20 and 30 different kinds each day,” explained Claire Gallagher, Bettys’ creative director whose task is to dream up a steady stream of innovative and delectable items for the café-tea rooms and thriving mail-order business.
Next door in the hushed cool of the Chocolate Room, and depending on the season, pralines, Easter eggs and chocolates of every shape and size are fashioned. All the couverture used at Bettys comes from the world-renowned chocolate specialist Felchlin in canton Schwyz on Lake Lucerne; the handiwork is done by practiced white-gloved hands in the Harrogate pastry and chocolate kitchen. Easter is huge at Bettys, rivalling even Christmas, when blossoms, buds, bluebells, daisies, forget-me-nots and narcissi are piped onto Easter eggs in royal icing, with a few hand-crafted butterflies, bees or woolly lambs applied in a final flourish.
Less ambitious and no less delicious are the chocolate farmyard animals, ranging from saddleback pigs, laying hens, spotty rabbits, mini-piglets and – my favourite – the milk chocolate badger with his white and dark chocolate flashes.
Adjoining the shop is the café, elegant and understated, warmly lit and buzzing with life. It’s the kind of place where at any moment you expect Lady Mary from Downton Abbey to sweep in with her shopping and settle down to smoked salmon sandwiches and pink Champagne.
I love the beaming waitresses who make you feel right at home (though I fear that they may no longer be allowed to call you ‘love’ or ‘pet’ as in the old days). Clad in crisp white aprons over broderie anglaise blouses and a cameo brooch at the throat, they recite the day’s specials, notebooks poised in mid-air, and return later with plates of cucumber sandwiches or cake stands piled high with dainties and fancies.
They do lunch at Bettys too – my favourite feast is a pair of local sausages from a butcher in the Vale of York served with Rösti, followed by a properly decadent dark chocolate and raspberry torte filled with fresh raspberries and a silken chocolate buttercream, and a small carafe of Fendant/Chasselas, faithfully supplied over many decades by Bonvin in Sion/Valais: Yorkshire meets Switzerland. One hundred years on, I’m sure Frederick would feel quite at home here. He’s not the only one.
Versions of this article appeared first in Zester Daily and in How To Spend It online edition