Cream Tea: A Controversial Custom In South West England

cream tea

Cream Tea anyone?

By Janet Mowat

It’s difficult to imagine an occasion more civilized – and civil – than the classic English afternoon tea. It might come as a surprise, then, to learn how much debate surrounds this tradition. Should you pour the milk first, or the tea? Teabags or loose leaf? Is it rude to leave the table? Though these issues may seem trivial to an outsider, a perusal of any guide to teatime will show that opinions run strong. In this minefield of tradition and etiquette, the custom that draws the hottest dispute is the deceptively simple cream tea.

Cream tea is a variety of afternoon tea enjoyed in the South West of England, featuring warm scones spread with thick clotted cream and strawberry jam. Though the dish is little-known outside of Britain, debate and uncertainty abound within this tiny island regarding the origins, ingredients and proper presentation of cream tea.

Devon Or Cornwall?

The greatest controversy surrounds cream tea’s invention. Two neighboring counties, Devon and Cornwall, lay claim to its origin. Some trace the first cream tea back as far as the 11th century, in Devon’s Tavistock Abbey, though others place it hundreds of years later in Cornwall. The truth is lost in the mists of time, but that doesn’t stop people from debating it.

 

 

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This dispute centers upon the most important question surrounding cream tea: should you spread the cream on your scone first, or the jam? The Devonshire method is to begin with cream and top it with jam, while the Cornish method is the reverse, placing a dollop of cream on top of the jam.

How do you take your #clottedcream? In South West #England you have two options! #hightea Click To Tweet

Don’t get too nervous when you face your first cream tea though – while the methods are supposedly divided along geographical lines, everyone has their personal preference.

Clotted Cream

Clotted cream is almost entirely unknown in North America. The thickness is somewhere between yogurt and soft butter; you could stir it with a spoon, but your spoon should stand straight up in the dish. Its rich flavor is like a combination of butter and whipped cream, with a hint of nuttiness. Some will tell you that whipped cream is a suitable (or even preferable) substitute, but there is nothing quite like clotted cream. You must taste it to believe it.

 

 

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Some people take their love of scones and clotted cream to another level (though this is a tasty, albeit non-traditional, recipe)

As with cream tea itself, no one is quite sure where clotted cream comes from. One common belief is that the Phoenicians brought it to Cornwall thousands of years ago – a compelling theory, since products similar to clotted cream exist in the Middle East to this day.

Scones

Though cream tea is sometimes eaten in Cornwall with a Cornish split – a small, sweet bun that looks like a dinner roll – the standard vehicle for your jam and cream is a scone.

And here we find more disagreement!

First of all, does the word rhyme with “bone” or “gone”? The answer depends on factors such as class and geography, and your best bet is to go with what feels right. Next, should you cut open your scone, or tear it with your hands? Be prepared for crumbs either way. Finally, should you eat your scone open-faced, or should you sandwich your cream and jam between both ends? Again, whatever you choose, be prepared for crumbs – and if you go for the sandwich, be prepared to drop jam in your lap.

cream tea

Yummy scones

The Cream Tea Experience

Though its home is in Devon and Cornwall, cream tea is ubiquitous throughout England’s South West. Visit any village in Dorset, for example, and you will likely find several establishments offering it.
Once your cream tea is in front of you, your worries about following a “proper” method will melt away. One order usually provides enough for two people, with a pot of tea, two scones and a little ramekin each of cream and jam (and sometimes butter, too, which can seem excessive).

Who knew #hightea in South West #England could be so controversial? #culture Click To Tweet

By its very nature, then, this dish is warm and convivial, best enjoyed with a good friend and a lovely chat. The location can vary from pub to tearoom to trendy coffee shop, but the atmosphere will always be comfortable and inviting when there is a cream tea on the table.

Cream tea is a custom that unites and divides the people who love it most. Regardless of the particulars, however, it’s a treasured custom in the South West corner of England, perfectly encapsulating the quaint rural coziness of these counties. If there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s that a good cream tea tastes like heaven. In that case, the best way to enjoy your cream tea is in whichever manner brings you closest to paradise.

Do you love cream tea? What’s your favorite way to serve it?

About The Author

Janet Mowat is a blogger and freelance writer based in Calgary, Canada. You can read about her travels at janetmowat.wordpress.com.

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Janet Mowat

Janet Mowat is a Canadian writer and recovering academic, on a mission to reinvent herself after seven years in grad school. Her greatest joy lies in opening her heart to new experiences and new friends. She loves the outdoors, and her favorite travel experiences were her solo hikes around various European countries. You can read about her adventures at home and abroad on her blog.

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