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Every Question You Have About Afternoon Tea, Answered

Which goes first: cream or jam?

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1. Bettys Café Tea Rooms is a Yorkshire institution.

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It provides "Swiss-Yorkshire fare", and is loved for for its delicious buns and pastries. But above all else, Bettys is known for afternoon tea.

Alas, Bettys is not coming south any time soon. "We’d never have a Bettys outside of Yorkshire," Ruth from head office says. "All the branches are facilitated by the Harrogate bakery. And we’re very much a Yorkshire brand."

So we had to go to them. We came to Harrogate to ask Bettys all the afternoon tea questions nobody else could answer. Real hard-hitting stuff. Like, which goes first: cream or jam?

2. When we visit, on a rainy Wednesday morning, there's already a queue snaking around the shop.

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We sneak a peak at the piles of cakes and buns in the café, eyeballing a particularly enticing raisin scone. The queue never lets up – even at 9pm.

"People will come in to buy products to eat in front of [The Great British] Bake Off," Ruth from head office says. "I was working in the shop one evening, and the shop closes at 9pm. People rushed in and bought medicis after seeing them on Bake Off.”

3. But before we get into the nitty-gritty of scones, it's time to talk tea. This is Tony Barkataki.

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Barkataki is a tea buyer with Bettys and its sister company Taylors of Harrogate. He grew up on a tea estate in Assam, and worked as a tea planter before moving into buying. So it's safe to say that he knows his stuff.

“I was born on a tea estate in India," he says. "The name of the tea estate was Green Wood. My father was a tea planter and my grandfather before him was a tea planter as well. I worked on the tea plantations for two years. It gave me a good insight into how tea’s grown, how tea’s manufactured, running a huge workforce, and understanding what goes behind just a cup of tea."

Barkataki was always keen to work with Bettys and Taylors. “Taylor’s have an exceedingly good reputation, any origin you go. Even as a tea planter many years ago I knew about Taylors. They work with growers, they have a commitment to quality. And just the approach of the company – they treat you fairly."

4. Right. Before we go any further, here's a handy breakdown of the kinds of tea you might encounter:

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Brewing times and manufacturing methods can impact the taste of the tea too, Barkataki says. "Many people have a perceived notion that green tea is bitter, but the taste is to do with the method of how its made and how it's brewed, and how the tea has been manufactured.

"With lapsang souchong, you'll either love it or hate it. Some people really do like it. Though you can adjust the quantity you brew and make it lighter but you wouldn't be able to get rid of the smokiness."

5. You should drink different teas throughout the day.

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“Ideally in the morning, you should have something strong to wake you up," Barkataki says, "something that gives you a good dose of caffeine, similar to coffee for some people – like an Assam CTC tea. This is what you get predominantly with most teabags.

"Mid-afternoon, around 11am, it depends on your personal choice, you can continue with a strong tea and then move on to a light tea after lunch. In the afternoon, go for a Darjeeling or Ceylon, something very light – you can drink Ceylon black or with milk.”

6. And afternoon tea is the perfect chance to try teas you wouldn't normally try.

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The best way to taste tea is to slurp, loudly, FYI. You can do this at afternoon tea if you'd like, but you should definitely take the time to try some new blends with your meal.

If you're trying several teas then you should have the strongest one (such as an Assam) first, ending with the lightest. "Ideally start with the strongest then move to the lighter teas," Barkataki says. "Because of the taste that remains in your mouth. And with flavoured teas, like a rose tea, I’d say to try that last of all."

7. Don't forget to add new leaves to the pot each time.

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"Ideally you’d start fresh each time; however, for green tea you could keep topping it up," Barkataki says. "That’s how they drink it in China. Green tea is meant to be drunk delicately anyway, and it still retains some flavour.

"But for other teas which have been fermented, hence the darker colour, you tend to get most of the flavour in the first brew. After that it tastes a little stewed."

8. On to the main event! Time to meet the experts: Jess and Kat.

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Jess Warden (right) is the Imperial Room manager at Bettys Harrogate, and Kat Burn (left) is the Belmont Room manager at Bettys York. Between them they have 10 years of afternoon tea experience.

They're committed to their jobs. "When I go somewhere new now I seek out afternoon tea!" Burn says. "I think I should be allowed to bill it, as it’s research, isn’t it? I love the Faversham Arms in Helmsley."

Warden says: "I always used to come to Bettys as a treat with one of my friends to mark a special occasion like a birthday. I like to go to really varied places – I recently went to one in Harrogate that had an Alice in Wonderland theme!"

9. So how do you define afternoon tea?

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“It’s something you could have instead of lunch," Warden says. "For example, with the Lady Betty Afternoon Tea it’s a five-course afternoon tea. That’s a lot of food! Mind you, I have known people come in having eaten lunch, eat the Lady Betty, and then have dinner. It’s very flexible."

Burn adds, emphatically: "But a scone does not constitute afternoon tea. That’s a snack.”

10. What should every afternoon tea include?

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Long answer: sandwiches, scones, pastries. Short answer: variety.

"A more fine sandwich, something nicer than you’d make at home," Warden says. "I wouldn’t be unimpressed, but my preference would be for something different. Scones! You can be flexible with these, and mix it up. We do a sultana and lavender one, and they change, we try different flavours."

Burn says: "I’m quite a purist when it comes to sandwiches. When it comes to scones, I think it’s a nice balance between traditional and a bit out there. You could have a brown scone if you’d like – it’s lovely, but it’s a bit healthy!"

11. What should I wear?

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You can wear whatever you like, really.

"You need to be comfortable as you’re preparing for the amount of food you’re going to have!" Warden says. "Leave eating space! We’d advise smart-casual but also think about your plans for the day. Especially coming around the Yorkshire area, people will have been walking and that kind of thing. "

12. Can I ask for booze?

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Of course! “It’s a nice extra!" Warden says. "It doesn’t take any element of the afternoon tea away. Especially a glass of champagne goes beautifully with anything, really."

And if you're a beer drinker, feel free to ask for that too. "If you want a pint of cider, we can arrange it – men come in here asking for ale!" Burn says. "We don't serve it in teacups – we do little bottles of beer.”

13. Will I get unlimited sandwiches?

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It depends where you go. But if unlimited sandwiches are offered, it's not uncouth to dig in. And don't fret about hopping between layers.

"We encourage you to go for it!" Burn says. "It’s up to the person which layer you choose. I have had people start from the top and work their way down, or have a sandwich and then have a bit of scone. Whatever works. We’re Swiss-Yorkshire, and Yorkshire people love their food. Enjoy it! And if someone eats the cake you want, just ask us for more. It’s not supposed to be dainty."

14. Cream first, or jam first?

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"The age-old question," Burn says. "I think we’ve got this the right way round. Cornish people are jam then cream, Devonshire are the opposite. Yorkshire people are just pro-scones. I tend to go cream then jam, as it feels like butter then jam."

(As you can see, she neatly dodged the question, but I'm going to add my thoughts: jam, then cream – so your cream stays pristine and white!)

15. What if I can't eat what's on offer? And do I have to have tea?

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"It’s helpful to give your dietary requirements in advance so we can make sure we’ve got what you need," Warden says. "For example, for vegans we offer a tomato bread and avocado or red pepper and beetroot sandwich. We do take all dietary requirements extremely seriously, and the kitchens are good at finding something for everyone’s dietary needs."

And Burn says: "You can have coffee with your afternoon tea if you’d rather. You can have hot chocolate if you want. It’s whatever you want. It’s your treat!"

16. What are some common etiquette mistakes?

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Don't worry, says Warden: "My biggest thing that I would stress is that it’s something to be enjoyed and relaxed over. An hour and half provides you with adequate time to take time over it."

Burn says: "We do get customers who haven’t done afternoon tea before, and Bettys is perceived as being this posh place to go. And sometimes people are nervous, but don’t overthink it. You’re here to relax. There’s no right or wrong way to do things."

Having said that, “someone once put the clotted cream in their tea when they ordered a cream tea", Burn says. But, Warden concludes: “We would never correct anyone on the way they choose to have their afternoon tea."

17. Is it lame to come for afternoon tea solo?

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Not at all, says Warden.

“There’s no perfect number of people – most commonly, we see groups of women, but we’ve seen groups of men too. Partners enjoy to come in together. But if you are on your own and have some time to kill, then do come and have afternoon tea."

18. How do I re-create afternoon tea at home?

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If you're not bothered about baking, Bettys delivers by post. But if you want to show off your fairy cakes, then Barkataki's got some tea tips.

Make sure to use loose-leaf tea if you can. It's an occasion. “At Bettys we serve loose-leaf tea for afternoon tea. I would stick to that. They’re special. It’s an occasion! And they’re on the menu because they’re special – the teas have been bought with care and attention."

And wipe out your cup after each pour too. “I would remove the sediment! It will make your cup taste stronger. Wipe out your cup each time to remove sediment. Whatever works.”

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