Summer’s here, Wimbledon’s on the television, and here at Flavour our thoughts keep turning to strawberries, cream and scones. But as every Brit should know, there’s a right way and a wrong way when it comes to a proper cream tea…
There’s something very comforting about the ritual of a cream tea. On a glorious hot sunny day there’s nothing more pleasant than scoffing a scone or (oo go on then) two piled high with thick buttery coloured clotted cream and a dark red, sticky, strawberry jam with giant lumps of fruit. Even the wasps have a hard time ruining it – try as they might. Maybe you’ve been on a giant hike across Dartmoor and have earned it. Or maybe you’ve been driving in the rain and just need to cheer yourself up. Tea makes everything better. Cream tea makes everything even better still.
Like all much-loved British institutions, a good cream tea has to be done properly. Partly determined by regional rivalry and partly by personal preference, there’s a lot to discuss, and we hereby officially open the debate in the comments section below this article. But we can at least all agree on the component parts of a cream tea – scones, jam, cream and tea. Each, of course, has its own unique controversies, so here’s our guide to the options.
How do you say it?
Before we even get down to eating, let’s make sure we can pronounce what we’re talking about properly.
I asked the maid in dulcet tone
To order me a buttered scone
The silly girl has been and gone
And ordered me a buttered scone
Ought scone rhyme with John or Joan? According to research conducted by J C Wells of University College London in the late 90s, the majority of us make the word rhyme with John. In fact 99 per cent of Scots make scone rhyme with John, even though the proper name is pronounced to rhyme with June. If you make scone rhyme with Joan you might be in the minority, but as the dictionary lists both as correct, take comfort in the knowledge that you’re not technically wrong.
The perfect scone
Dr Eugenia Cheng from the University of Sheffield’s School of Mathematics and Statistics conducted research into the optimum scone size (it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it). She concluded: “Building a good scone is like building a good sandcastle – you need a wider base, and then it needs to get narrower as it goes up so that it doesn’t collapse or drip.” Her formula is that the volume of half scone = πr³tand the mass of half a scone = πr³td. Got it? In other words, it needs to be big enough to put a whole load of jam and cream on top, but not so big you can’t fit it into your mouth in one go.
More helpfully, perhaps, Claire Gallagher from Betty’s Craft Bakery in Harrogate states that it’s the balance of ingredients that make the perfect scone. “It helps to know the correct handling time on dough to achieve the perfect consistency before rolling out. A touch of buttermilk helps the rise. And for cream tea a freshly baked scone is a must!”
Which leaves one final scone-related question: should you use a fruit scone or plain? Emma Parkin, scone expert at Real Food in Exeter generously believes you’re free to make up your own mind. “Traditionally in a cream tea the scones are plain scones, but we make fruit scones, and we’ve won awards for our cream tea using a fruit scone. We served equal numbers of both plain and fruit scones at the Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink.”
Jam, cream; cream, jam
A traditional cream tea dictates you must never stray away from putting anything other than strawberry jam and clotted cream on your scone. Whipped cream is a definite faux pas. Squirty cream? Let’s not even sully our minds with that thought. “It’s sacrilege,” Parkin says, succinctly and to the point. No, it has to be a fruit packed scoop of jam and a solid, thick, crusted, slightly yellow-coloured dollop of clotted cream.
“It doesn’t have to be strawberry,” Parkin controversially suggests, “But it does have to be good jam, with whole fruit pieces. You can have whatever is seasonal on your scone: raspberry, loganberry, or even blackberry jam at a push.”
It wouldn’t be a British institution if there weren’t some regional variations on what makes a good cream tea. Claire Gallagher explains, “Taking tea in the afternoon has been enjoyed by the British since the early 19th century. The Duchess of Bedford is credited with inventing it to fill the long gap between luncheon and dinner. It seems to us to be a nationally popular pastime.” But Parkin claims the cream tea for her own neck of the woods: “A proper cream tea is eaten with clotted cream in the county were clotted cream comes from, and rumour has it that clotted cream was first made in Tavistock, Devon.”
So even though it was the Scots who probably invented the scone, and cream teas can be found in teahouses and hotels all over England, it’s an afternoon treat most commonly associated with the south west of England.
Then of course, there’s the debate about which goes on the scone first – the jam or the cream. If you’re in Cornwall, the jam goes on first and then the cream. If you’re in Devon, it’s the other way round. Jam first is less sticky. Cream first looks prettier, and you can pretend it’s a substitute for the butter, unless… you might of course want to have both. We’ll look away.
Last but not least, the most critical component of a cream tea is of course the tea. Every Brit has their own preference on how tea is made and when it is served with scones, cream and jam, this is no exception. You can’t take a cream tea with coffee afterall. You need a pot of good quality tea, and not just a cup. Betty’s in Harrogate serve African and Assam teas, Earl Grey or Pussimbing Estate Darjeeling, but others prefer a less strong tea. “I like to take my cream tea with a Ceylon tea,” says Parkin. “And I take it with milk, though some find that too much along with the cream. I prefer to avoid strongly flavoured teas like Earl Grey or Lapsang Souchong, as there’s so many flavours already competing for attention on your plate.”
FIVE CREAM TEAS TO TRY:
- The Real Food Store – Named the best Heart of Devon Cream Tea in 2013, this is Exeter’s first community owned business, and uses freshly baked scones from Emma’s Bread and jam from Shute Fruit.
- The Salty Monk – Take a cream tea in what was once the Salt House used by 16th century Benedictine Monks. If you eat too many scones to move, they have boutique guest accommodation too.
- Delimann – Serving oversized scones, with clotted cream and strawberry jam from the farm, their Devonshire cream tea also comes with tea bread and chocolates. Better still, if the cravings for a genuine Devonshire cream tea are too great, but you can’t face the drive west, you can order one to be freshly baked for you and sent to your home by next day delivery.
- The Tea Bar, Tregothnan – A truly locally-sourced Cornish cream tea, served with home-grown tea from the only tea estate in England.
- Betty’s of Harrogate – The non-south west option is Betty’s, a Yorkshire institution which has been serving tea in traditional fashion at their Cafe Tea Room in Harrogate since 1919. They have branches across Yorkshire.
Read the piece as it appeared on flavourfirst.org here