Monday, February 20, 2006

Bettys Cookery School in Harrogate, UK

Further to the previous article about Bettys in Harrogate, readers might be interested to learn about what a day at the Bettys Cookery School is like and, in so doing, be part of Eating History in the making!

The Cookery School is located to the south of Harrogate itself on a rather bland industrial estate. However, as you drive in through the gates of the Bettys site you enter a land of Swiss quality, chalet-style buildings and, most importantly, edible fancies. The School itself is next door to the craft bakery set amid a car park featuring rather quaint sculptures of tea pots.

The low-rise building housing the School is clean, bright and functional containing a large training area equipped with granite work benches and high-tech demonstration wizardry along with all the essentials a budding chefette needs. In addition, there is also a relaxation area, cook’s library and small shop selling a modest selection of utensils and other tools of the trade.

My day learning to cook Swiss specialities started at 8.45am with coffee and shortbread followed by an introduction to the staff and housekeeping rules. By 9.15am all 15 trainees were observing Richard, the senior trainer, demonstrating how to make our apple cakes light and moist. By 10.30am, we had all replicated Richard’s efforts and had managed, without disaster, to get our rather large buns in the oven, so to speak. It must be said, that our creations might not have been so speedily assembled or, perhaps, successful, had the ingredients not been so carefully measured out and pre-bagged by the professionals in advance.

By this time, it was starting to feel rather warm and the coffee and croissant which accompanied our mid-morning break were very welcome. This breather also allowed time to chat with some of the other participants, mainly female, and learn that, for most, this was not their first visit. Indeed, it was their third or fourth time at the School and I was given some friendly warnings that my first foray into this foodie’s paradise was unlikely to be my last.

After the break, we made a pearl barley soup and seemed to chop ‘til we nearly dropped! Francisco, the second trainer, was, however, on hand with encouraging words that the effort would be worth it in the end. My soup certainly looked and smelt good by the end of it all. This is more than can be said for my efforts at rolling out pastry into a neat circle, which was our next task. And I used to be so good with play dough!

The pastry, once I eventually managed to get it looking mildly curvaceous, was put in the chiller and, in the afternoon, more chopping ensued to fill the pie base with onions and create a divine-looking Swiss Onion Tart. But, before this, we all set to on making lunch – a creamy alpine macaroni dish with bacon lardons, potatoes and raclette cheese. This was served with a lambs lettuce salad and Bettys’ bread, all washed down with a scrumptious glass of Swiss wine. Desert was ‘Engadine’, from the craft bakery – a tasty merengue and nut creation. Rather replete and slightly inebriated, I was very glad my fingers remained in tact as I attacked my onions post-lunch.

Our fifth dish of the day was a mushroom and onion sauce to take home and serve on warm toast. In fact, I went home with enough food to feed a small army…well, my family at least. Departure was delayed though by yet another round of coffee and cake. As four o’clock rapidly approached it had become very obvious we were not going to be allowed home without a full tummy and full carrier bag of goodies. I, however, managed to go home with two carrier bags full of goodies as I also succumbed to the temptations of the kitchen shop by purchasing my own tools to recreate my Swiss specialities at home.

The proof of the pudding comes in the tasting and, all I can say is that the silence which descended over the dinner table later in the evening as my family tucked into the Swiss Onion Tart said it all! Compliments to the chef!

For more details of Bettys Cookery School visit:

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Spiedies of Binghamton in New York, USA

Legend has it that while at Balliol College, Oxford, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey were so dazzled by the French Revolution they planned to create a utopian community to implement its ideals. They chose a site in the "New World" by scrutinizing a map of New York state and liking the name of the Susquehanna River. However, the next year Coleridge married and the plans for this "pantisocracy" were abandoned.

In the New World, however, a not so ideal manufacturing community developed at the junction of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers. Instead of lyric poets, immigrants from Italy and Poland settled in the Triple Cities of Binghamton, Endicott, and Johnson City to work in the factories making shoes, airplanes, cameras and business machines.

If you find yourself in upstate New York, drive south from the charming towns and wineries of the Finger Lakes District and see where Utopia might have been. In keeping with our mandate of eating history, take a bite of Binghamton's immigrant history. Eat the mysterious spiedie!

Italian immigrants created a recipe for marinated lamb cooked on a skewer and served with a chunk of warm crusty bread. The spiedie is found only in the Binghamton area and the exact ingredients of the marindade are a closely guarded secret. The spiedie itself is tender, juicy, spicy, and unforgettable. The marinade hints of vinegar, garlic, oregano, and "many more spices". Once you've eaten a spiedie, you will want to return to the rather seedy urban wasteland of Binghamton for another and another. Most of the factories are gone but not the spiedie.

Each Binghamton resident has a favorite spiedie recipe and restaurant. Many feel the best place for spiedies is Sharkey’s. Located in a working class area of small houses and shops, the restaurant is a wonderful example of Binghamton history. Sharkey’s has been run by the same family for more than 50 years. Over the wooden bar are the iconic Shultz and Dooley talking Utica Club Beer mugs now silently looking at the dance floor and ancient bowling game that have done service for decades. The “dining room” has utilitarian wooden tables and booths. The walls are green, the napkins and plates are paper, but the no nonsense ambience is rather charming. You can order clams, pizza, cabbage rolls, pierogis, and even salads……..but you want the spiedies and a pitcher of beer!

The spiedies are brought to you on a skewer with a piece of Italian bread soaking up the juice. You have a choice of pork or chicken. The pork is tastier and is closer to the lamb of the original recipe. You can order one or more skewer (the more the better).

After you have devoured the spiedies, sit back, swill your beer and think of the generations of workers, students, and families who have come to eat the mysterious spiedie. Enjoy the “charm” of this upstate New York classic and ponder whether Southey and Coleridge would also have found their way to Clinton Street to discuss the ideal society with students from Binghamton University.

Sharkey’s Restaurant
56 Glenwood Ave. (at Clinton St.)
Binghamton, New York
the weblink was not functioning at the time of this posting
the marinade can be ordered from

Kensington Market in Toronto, Canada

Toronto is proud of its cultural diversity and its restaurants. To best experience Toronto's multicultural history and its distinctive ethnic food, eat your way through Kensington Market.

Toronto's Kensington Market is located 2 blocks south of College St., 2 blocks west of Spadina, and 2 blocks north of Dundas. Its narrow streets and alleys were home to 80% of Toronto's Jewish population at the beginning of the 20th century. As these first immigrants prospered and moved north, they were replaced by Chinese emigres. As the Chinese prospered and moved even further north, they were replaced by Portugese, Jamaicans, Viet Namese, Chileans, and always those looking for good food and good bargains. Now the Market area reflects each of these cultures and their foods.

Begin your eating tour with dim sum at the Bright Pearl Restaurant on St. Andrew near Spadina. Dim Sum is served all day from traditional carts pushed by friendly women happy to show you their offerings. Across the street is the old Minsk Synagogue, one of the last remnants of the Jewish past. Continue along St. Andrew and look at poultry, African crafts, Chinese herbs, fruit and vegetables. Turn left on Kensington and explore the vintage clothing stores, the best in Toronto.

If you need to restore your energy, buy an apple at any of the fruit markets, or sample cheese at Global Cheese further north on Kensington. If you need caffeine, have the best cappuchino in Toronto at the Moonbean Cafe on St. Andrew.

Proceed north on Kensington to Baldwin St. which is filled with cafes, bakeries, headshops, craft stores, discount designer clothes, butchers, and shops displaying an array of dried nuts and fruits in open air bins much to the delight of snacking birds.

Continue west on Baldwin to Augusta. This street which runs from Dundas to College now offers everything from discount shoes to jumbo empanadas, handknitted sweaters to massages. At night the street is alive with music and Toronto's new "hot" restaurants.

The best empanadas are at Jumbo Empanada but on the weekends the Latin American shops all offer empanadas and papusas. In summer, the outdoor patio of the Bellevue Cafe on Bellevue west of Augusta is a great place to have lunch or dinner. Or, follow your nose and have a burrito or a carne asada tortilla in any of the streetside cafes. The Free Times Cafe on College at Major St. serves nourishing Jewish food and on Sunday Bella's All You Can Eat breakfast buffet.

For dinner return to Augusta to have unique tapas at Torito or pad thai at Supermarket or an excellent prix fix French meal at La Palette. Vegetarians delight in the varieties of rice and toppings at the Rice Bar.

You can spend all or part of a day eating, shopping, people watching and experiencing history in this exciting Toronto neighbourhood.

For exact locations and hours check

Friday, February 10, 2006

El 4 Gats in Barcelona, Spain

For a restaurant with such a feline name, one might be forgiven for expecting to see all things cat-like, bad-taste or beautiful, decorating ‘El 4 Gats’. The name of this restaurant and café bar, located in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, a stone’s throw from La Rambla, is in fact a cunning play on words and the only thing obviously feline is the wrought iron sign, decorated with the obligatory four black cats, and the odd, rather than overwhelming, cat painting or fairly tasteful piece of cat-inspired memorabilia. ‘El 4 Gats’ is actually Catalan slang meaning ‘a few people’ and the restaurant has a long history of gathering ‘a few people’ together within its adorned, tiled and panelled walls. A few of ‘the few’ can actually be seen on these same walls and, if not, their works of art might be.

‘El 4 Gats’ provided a home to the Modernist art movement in Barcelona. Pere Romeu who performed at ‘Le Chat Noir’, a successful cabaret joint in late 19th century Paris, decided that he wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the Parisian restaurant in Barcelona. ‘El 4 Gats’ was born and opened on 12th June 1897 in the current building, designed by the architects Puig and Cadafalch. Pere Romeu was determined that the restaurant would become a meeting point for the avant-garde - bohemian conversationalists and artisans. His desire came to fruition and over the years a variety of poets, musicians, architects, painters and designers have passed through the door. Indeed, in 1899, a young Picasso began to frequent ‘El 4 Gats’ and later held his first exhibition in the restaurant. Despite differing widely in terms of their artistic preferences, Picasso shared his love of the restaurant with another notable Barcelona resident, Gaudi.

The restaurant staff may appear rather brusque and unwelcoming as they sort the wheat from the chaff on arrival by grilling guests on precisely what their victual intentions are before sitting them down. It’s a bit like meeting the prospective in-laws for the first time. Those of serious intent, in other words those who have come for ‘cena’ rather than a mere snackette, are ushered through the café bar/ cerveseria into the rear dining room, which is galleried, in more ways than one. The head waiter must be stickler for organisation as you are seated at rotationally-ordered tables around the dining room. You can almost countdown, using the emptying tables as your clock, to the next staff changeover.

The restaurant menu covers a range of traditional Catalan fare accompanied by a good selection of wines which emerge from the wine racks holding up the diners on the mezzanine floor above. The service is reasonable but do check your bill as three tables were overcharged at the time of my last visit. No doubt genuine mistakes, but rather a lot of mix ups for one sitting.

At the front of house, the café bar bustles with locals and tourists alike dipping their churros into hot chocolate or sampling one of the beers available on the extensive drink’s list. It’s fun to nose around the whole place and see if you can spot a masterpiece, although most are now reproductions…better still you could sketch your own and see if the barman will accept it in lieu of a few Euros.


Carrer de Montsiò 3 bis
08002 Barcelona
Telephone: 933 024 140
Opening times: 1pm-1am everyday
Nearest Metro: Catalunya
Three course meal (incl. wine) for two people: €90
Tips: Live music a regular feature

Bettys Café Tea Rooms in Harrogate, UK

The North of England. A barren wasteland of industrial carnage, cloth caps and whippet breeders? Not so. Such long-held stereotypes of the northern parts are as untrue today as they always have been. One only has to look towards the spa town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire as proof that the North can ooze class, style and sophistication.

Set amid a circle of lush greenery, known as the Stray, this historic spa town is now a busy conference centre and weekend resort, as it always has been. Designer boutiques, a plethora of hostelries, delightful gardens, opulent Victorian Turkish Baths and grand hotels make it the ideal destination for those seeking a bit of R&R. Perhaps that’s the reason why the Americans have a base close by? Certainly, there is no shortage of foreign accents as you wander the hilly streets. Atop one of these, Montpellier Hill, stands the famous Bettys Café Tea Rooms.

Bettys is a Northern institution. Nay! A British institution. Having said that, it is a British institution that arrived in Britain by way of Switzerland. Indeed, perhaps it’s an example of a true European union?

Nowadays, it’s common knowledge that the UK’s European neighbours, in the main, knock the spots off the British when it comes to the mastery of foreign languages, however, this is not and has not always been the case. Indeed, if it wasn’t for linguistic incompetence, Bettys may never have opened in the North of England at all. Frederick Belmont, a confectioner by trade, decided, like many who have gone before and come since, that the grass was greener on the other side. In this case, the other side being the other side of the English Channel. Belmont felt that his dreams of opening a business were more likely to come to fruition in England than in Switzerland so off he set. All was well until he arrived in London and instead of boarding a train to the South Coast, as intended, his inability to communicate in the native tongue and the hurly-burly of a London train station, meant he boarded a train bound for the North.

Belmont eventually pitched up in Yorkshire and, also like many who have gone before and come since, decided that it wasn’t such a bad place after all. The green landscape perhaps reminded him of home? In 1919, Belmont opened his first tea rooms in Harrogate. The blend of Yorkshire hospitality with Swiss culinary precision was a hit and royal patronage soon followed. The tea rooms remain a hit today yet have retained the elegance and style of the past. You can still view the Art Nouveau marquetry designs of Yorkshire scenes on the walls in the basement, known as the Spindler Gallery. These were commissioned by Belmont in the 1930s from Charles Spindler’s studio in Alsace.

Bettys Café Tea Rooms in Harrogate is one of six Bettys cafes within the region. York, Northallerton, Ilkley and The Royal Horticultural Society’s Harlow Carr gardens also in Harrogate play host to the others. The larger of the York branches is also worth a visit. The interior design was apparently inspired by the Queen Mary cruise liner and still features a mirror on which Canadian and US ‘Bomber Boys’ scrawled their names as a lasting reminder of their time in residence at ‘Bettys' Bar’ in the basement.

As at many of the other locations, a testament to Bettys popularity in Harrogate is that on most days a queue extends at least to the doorway of the shop that precedes the café itself. On busy days this can even wind its way out of the door and down the hill past the Montpellier gardens. However, when you finally enter the shop it’s worth the wait as the sight of over 300 different edible fancies and the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee hit you. The coffee on sale is provided by another ‘northern institution’. Taylor’s, the Yorkshire tea and coffee merchants, who became Bettys' sister company in the 1960s, offer over 50 different varieties to tickle your taste-buds and complement the tasty morsels on offer.

Frederick Belmont believed that ‘if we want things just right then we have to do them ourselves’ and the company still adheres to this philosophy. All the culinary treats, such as Swiss Rősti and Yorkshire Curd Tart are made either in the kitchen or at the local Bettys Craft Bakery, next door to which is now located Bettys Cookery School, where the skills of baking and making chocolates are passed on to those of us less familiar with how to make things ‘fresh and dainty’ as Belmont prescribed – but not for free it must be said!

Whether you go for brunch, lunch, afternoon tea or dinner (or all of the above), once you are eventually seated you’ll find the service is a delicious blend of silver service mixed with motherly care and attention. The waiters are suited and the waitresses wear traditional black and white ‘waitress outfits’ so rarely seen these days. No-one fusses over you but neither are they surly. The staff are happy to offer menu advice and don’t rush you out of the door even though they can see the ever-increasing queue trailing past the window. You get the feeling they really do care. On my last visit, they even inspected the density of the coffee and insisted a new pot be brought as the coffee had not been brewed for long enough. It seems strange in the UK to come across waiters and waitresses who consider their job to be a profession rather than a stop-gap on the way to the next job. But then perhaps Betty’s has been placed in the top 50 UK employers by The Times (2005) newspaper for a reason? Could it be this trickle-down effect of the company ethos, combining hospitable service with the delicious delicacies served, is why when you mention the fact you’re going to Bettys in a room of Yorkshire folk you are guaranteed to hear a cry of ‘Oooooh, I love Bettys!’?.

So, who was Betty? Was she Belmont’s wife? Was she his sister? Well, mystery surrounds who this famous lady actually was. It could be Queen Elizabeth, the current queen’s late mother. It could be Betty Lupton, the ‘Queen of Harrogate Wells’, a former manageress of the Harrogate spa. It could even be a little girl who is thought to have inadvertently walked in on the Board’s first meeting in which the Tea Rooms were being discussed. Whoever she is, there can be no doubt, that these days there’s a jolly good cuppa and cake to be ‘ad round at our Bettys'!

1 Parliament Street
North Yorkshire
Telephone: +44 (01423) 877300

Opening times: 9am – 9pm everyday
Credit cards? Yes
Reservations possible? No
Tips: A pianist plays from 6pm every evening
Two course meal for with tea/coffee = £40
Children catered for