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I’m feeling self-conscious as I pull on my regulation hairnet, white overalls and plastic shoe coverings. But such is the price to pay for a behind-the-scenes visit to Bettys, the Yorkshire-based company celebrated for its classy tea rooms, classic cakes and exquisite chocolates. Public access is rare, though tours are possible a few times a year if booked ahead through Bettys Cookery School.
It’s here in the Craft Bakery in Harrogate that every single bread, bap, cake, pikelet, scone, muffin or iced fancy destined for the 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 bearing the Bettys name in curly script on the sides.
I watch as a white-coated employee, who looks more like a lab technician than a baker, bends low over a tray of supersized, raisin-speckled scones known (and trademarked) as Yorkshire Fat Rascals. With infinite care he places two glacé cherries and a couple of blanched almonds on top. At the other side of the bakery, a batch of freshly baked loaves emerges, crackling and chuntering, from a massive wood-fired oven.
“We make between 20 and 30 different kinds each day,” explains Claire Gallagher, Bettys’ creative director, whose task is to dream up a steady stream of innovative and delectable items for the tea rooms and the thriving mail-order business.
We move next door to the hushed cool of the Chocolate Room, where the team is busy ensuring that this year’s range of Easter goodies will be as memorable as every other year’s. A 1932 poster from the company’s archives solemnly reminds customers that “there is NO present quite as appropriate at Easter Time as a Bettys Easter Egg”. Easter has always loomed large in the Bettys calendar, rivalling Christmas as the busiest time of year. White-gloved hands apply dark chocolate squiggles to eggs the size of rugby balls, while others receive applications of tiny primroses and daffodils piped in royal icing. Yet another version is stippled with milk chocolate and decorated with a black-faced Swaledale sheep, its curly coat piped in white chocolate swirls.
Eggs aside, Bettys is famous for its chocolate novelties; there’s a new one born every year. The family of badgers, hares, Gloucester Old Spot pigs, hens, rabbits, and lambs has now been joined by a romp of milk chocolate otters.
To understand about Bettys, you need to go back to at least 1907, when an impecunious young baker named Fritz Bützer set off from his native Switzerland with his sights set on finding work in prosperous Edwardian England.
Arriving at the southern port of Dover exhausted, seasick and without a word of English, he discovered he had lost the precious piece of paper with the name of the town where a job was promised. Recalling that the name sounded something like Bratwurst, he tried this out forlornly on a few passers-by. An elderly gentleman came to the rescue, deduced that Bradford was his likely destination and put him on a train to Yorkshire in northern England. 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 quietly changed his name to the more French-sounding Frederick Belmont, styling himself a “chocolate specialist”, and opened the first Bettys Café in Harrogate.
My bakery visit complete, I shed my hairnet and overalls and adjourn to the café for lunch. Elegant and understated, warmly lit and buzzing with life, it’s the kind of place where you almost expect one of the Earl of Grantham’s daughters from Downton Abbey to sweep in with her shopping and settle down to smoked salmon sandwiches and pink champagne. Beaming waitresses in crisp white aprons recite today’s lunch specials, notebooks poised in mid-air.
I plump for a pair of resolutely local sausages from a butcher in the Vale of York, done to succulent perfection and served with rösti, followed by a decadent dark chocolate and raspberry torte filled with fresh raspberries and a silken chocolate buttercream. Yorkshire Bratwurst with Switzerland’s signature potato dish and a magnificent Swiss chocolate creation, Fritz (alias Frederick) would have been proud.
‘A Slice of Bettys’ tours of the Craft Bakery run several times a year, last four and a half hours and cost £100, including afternoon tea. A two-day Bettys Experience Weekend also includes a tour and costs £350. For details see bettys.co.uk and bettyscookeryschool.co.uk