Afternoon tea is one of the few British traditions I can fully get on board with. You may not find me lusting after a Sunday roast, particularly as nut roasts have so far failed to impress me as none meat eater, or see me craving a Cadbury's chocolate bar- let's all take a second here and appreciate how much better German and Swiss chocolate is, and don't even get me started on the idea of a pie or pasty, but I will never turn down a scone with clotted cream and jam and some fine finger sandwiches which is why I was more than a little bit excited to sample one of the most renowned afternoon teas out there - the one served at Betty's beautiful tea room in York's historic centre.
Yes, I may still not get the whole drinking tea thing, on this occasion switching to champagne after a couple of sips of a, don't get me wrong, lovely rose tea, but it is the whole fanfare, tradition and etiquette that surrounds this most English of tradition that, alongside the delicious finger food served as part of it, makes it so appealing to me.
I've had a few afternoon teas in my time already. These have however so far all been in London and with a decisively modern twist in their execution ( from a high fashion themed one at the Berkeley to a French leaning one at Sketch) which is why my lovely friend Maddie, who I stayed with during this weekend getaway to Yorkshire, warned me that Betty's would be serving a little bit more of a traditional and quintessentially English afternoon tea compared to my previous experiences.
For avid readers of the blog this of course is not the first time I have written about Betty's, I in fact already becoming enchanted with the old school interior, excellent service and delicious macaroons of their Harrogate tea room on my last visit up north. That experience in fact made me desperate to return, a place that after all has been serving the public with its afternoon tea since 1919 definitely one to add to the culinary bucket list which is why, dressed up to the nines, Maddie, her mum and I made our way to their York cafe for Ladie's afternoon tea on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Not that we made it particularly easy for them to impress us. Maddie being lactose intolerant and me not eating meat would have seen a lot of other places respond rather rudely to our dietary requirements, let alone creatively work around them to still present us with a fantastic afternoon tea experience, but Betty's rather impressively managed just that.
In fact once we were seated in the slightly 70s leaning but all the better for it upstairs tea room (think printed carpets and cushioned wooden chairs), a pianist playing soothing harmonies for the duration of our stay, we were treates like kings by a brigade of absolutely wonderful waitresses in their meticulous uniforms, almost it seemed capable of reading any wish from our lips before we even got the chance to voice it.
After carefully choosing our tea, being talked through everything on the menu, the food began arriving, each of us presented with an individual stand of savoury and sweet goodies perfectly tailored to our needs, an attention to detail and wish to satisfy their diners that was like nothing I had ever experienced before. For Maddie that meant a selection of goats cheese sandwiches, a miniature pork and apple pie and dairy free prawn salad, followed by a dairy free scone that almost brought her to tears, so happy in such an esteemed place to be served what they are so famous for and she thought she wasn't going to be able to enjoy. Her patisserie pieces were replaced by a lovely bowl of summer fruit in a berry sauce with floating meringue pieces and a rather large dairy free chocolate coin. Managing to make a meal, if we can call it that rather than an afternoon indulgence, that is nearly completely made out of some kind of of dairy enjoyable for Maddie showed true commitment to excellence and though it may have been around for nearly a hundred years highlights how Betty's has managed to move with the times in order to successfully offer an afternoon tea that caters for all, allergy issues or not.
My stand was equally fantastic, the smoked salmon, cream cheese and dill roulade, served on a wholemeal croute gone in seconds and the goats cheese and caramelised onion sandwich so good that we all ordered seconds for the table. The scones were out of this world, no doubt the best I have ever had and of a crumbly almost shortbread like consistency without being too heavy. Where some afternoon tea's may think a big scone will impress with its opulence, the two types served here, sultana and Yorkshire lavender to be precise, alongside heavenly jam and clotted cream were perfectly sized bites of heaven that won't send you into a dough coma.
The highlight for me however was the patisserie layer of my little Betty's tower, a beautiful medley of a cream filled berry meringue with a white chocolate lattice, a cinnamon and apple macaroon that tasted like the essence of autumn with just the right amount of chew and a delectable coffee Religieuse. Though only bite sized, this is what I imagine Mary Berry would call patisserie perfection, not only beautiful to look at but a pleasure to eat.
Water and tea were constantly topped up and replenishments offered, always discreetly, extremely friendly and with a composure that I don't think you are going to find in a lot of places in this day and age. Heck even a stray pigeon that somehow managed to find her way into the upstairs tea room and decided to interrupt service for a few minutes couldn't stop this exceptional level of customer service - in fact our hostess for the afternoon rather bravely eventually catching it before coming over to us to apologise once more whilst we wanted to only applaud her for her bravery!
If you ever get the chance to visit one of Betty's tea rooms please go! This kind of place is a living piece of culinary and social history that is worth celebrating, an old school way of customer service that we rarely experience in our fast paced, getting everything as cheap as possible dining out environment, which nonetheless manages to serve fantastic and clever food that is far from outdated. This type of place is at the essence of what has made Britain so passionate about baking and afternoon tea and goes some way in explaining our obsession with shows like the Great British Bake Off. For me Betty's can truly be seen as a national treasure that everyone should have the pleasure of eating and drinking tea at at least once in their lives. I may never be fully British but oh boy for Betty's afternoon tea I will sure as hell give it my best shot!