Get your scones, jam and cream just right – with the help of mathematics

Scones with jam and cream are a British institution and people from Cornwall and Devon each claim the cream tea its own. But the Cornish believe they have the might of mathematical reasoning behind them.

It’s definite: we are having a ­summer. The sun is here to stay, so get out the strawberry jam, scones, slatherings of cream and pots of tea and let cream tea season commence.

But don’t be fooled into thinking you can take your cream tea any which way you choose. No! Visit North Devon estimates that cream teas contribute around £85m a year to the Devon economy. Add to that Cornwall’s cream tea shops and other cream tea wannabes from around the UK and the ritual of summer scones and jam takes on a whole new level of economic ­significance. As a well-loved and valuable British tradition, it ought to be done properly. But what is “proper”?

People from Cornwall and Devon have debated this at length, each claiming the cream tea its own. Both counties have vague historical precedent. The Cornish assert that the recipe for clotted cream was passed to them by Phoenician traders around 500BC. In 2010, Devonians made an unsuccessful attempt to gain protected designation of origin status from the EU for their version.

They claim the cream tea originated in Tavistock, though even Roderick Martin of Tavistock Museum is uncertain about this: “The idea that the traditional cream tea was invented here surfaced a decade ago when town business groups were trying to kick-start a local food industry – what better than a story about the monks in the Medieval Abbey making their bread more interesting with jam and locally-made cream?”

The two counties continue to tussle over whether you spread on cream or jam first. According to Belinda Shipp from Rodda’s clotted cream: “The Cornish cream tea is served with the cream on top because it’s the crowning glory of the dish.”

But Gill Mann, whose family have been making and serving clotted cream teas in Bovey Tracey near Dartmoor since 1837, disagrees: “As you bite into the scone your teeth have to glide through the sweetness of the strawberry jam first, then a nanosecond later, the clotted cream, and then the scone. It has to be cream first, then jam. You wouldn’t put jam on a scone, then butter – would you?”

Well, no. However, the Cornish have the might of mathematical reasoning behind them. In May, Dr Eugenia Cheng from the University of Sheffield’s School of Mathematics and Statistics conducted research into the optimum cream tea. She concluded that the jam should go on first to give ­something for the cream to grip onto.

“To be fair,” says Deborah Trott, co-director of Delimann near Dartmoor, “a lot of Northerners don’t mind how they take theirs. I’ve witnessed lots of unsuspecting tourists enjoying a cream tea being tackled by fellow ­diners for ‘not doing it right’.”

Whichever side of county lines you fall, it seems that the two cream teas aren’t really the same thing at all.

In Devon you take a scone, put a layer of clotted cream on, then strawberry jam. In Cornwall, you take a Cornish split – which is a more like a small sweet bread bun than a scone – butter it, then put on the jam and top it with clotted cream.

So what about the scones? How do you even say the word for a start? Do you make it rhyme with John or with Joan? Named after a Scottish town where the word is pronounced to rhyme with June, it’s no wonder some students of English struggle to grasp our idiosyncratic language. In the late 1990s John Wells of University College London found that most of us make “scone” rhyme with “John”. But fans of Rodda’s Facebook page seem to ­prefer to rhyme it with “Joan”.

If you’d rather just get on with shovelling them into your mouth, Dr Cheng has also helpfully calculated the optimum scone size for doing just this. “Building a good scone is like building a good sandcastle,” she says. “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 a scone should equal πr³t and the mass of half a scone should be equal to πr³td… In other words, it needs to be big enough to hold lots and lots and lots of jam and cream, without making it too big to fit into your mouth in one go.

So should the scone be plain, or is a fruit scone acceptable? Annette Witheridge, owner of the Salty Monk in Sidmouth, is very insistent on this point: “The scones should be light and petite, not heavy and solid, nor should they contain fruit. For a cream tea, the jam provides the fruit.”

Which leaves the issue of the jam – does it have to be strawberry? On this the counties unite and say you can use whatever jam you like. “You have to use a jam with lots of fruit in,” says Witheridge. “Any variety is good but it can only be made with the best fresh fruit. Cheap impostor jams with no fruit can ruin a cream tea.”

Good grief. After all that debate you definitely need tea – but should it be English Breakfast, Darjeeling, Earl Grey… No one was able to give a definitive answer. Any tea is fine. Just don’t sully the whole carefully constructed cream tea by drinking it with coffee. That really would be blasphemy.


Salty Monk, Sidmouth, Devon

Winner of the Best Coastal Cream Tea in this year’s Heart of Devon awards, and if you overdose on the scones, they have guest accommodation in their 16th-century buildings where you can sleep it off.

Bettys, Harrogate, North Yorkshire

Serving tea properly since 1909, Bettys is a Yorkshire institution and does proper cream tea without any of the fuss of the Devon-Cornwall­ rivalry.

New Yard, Helston, Cornwall

Walk down to the Helford River through the 1,000-acre Trelowarren estate to justify the calories in the Cornish-style cream tea served at double AA rosette-holding New Yard Restaurant.

Delimann, Bovey Tracey, Devon

Serving cream teas to visitors­ to Dartmoor has been in the family since 1837, and Delimann can now send you a cream tea in a box for a taste of Devon in the comfort of your own home.

Covean Cottage, St Agnes, Isles of Scilly

It might be a bit of a mission to get there, but Covean Cottage­ café serves an exceptional­ cream tea, complete­ with locally sourced St Agnes Troytown Farm clotted cream and an Atlantic view.

Read the piece as it appeared in the Independent here

This entry was published on July 19, 2013 at 11:37 am. It’s filed under Food and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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