The Campaign for Real Cream Teas

Cream tea at Selworthy in Devon
Photo by Heather via Flickr Creative Commons.

That’s right — this post isn’t about beer, it’s about lovely, lovely tea, as served with scones, clotted cream and jam. While a cool pint of beer is our favourite way to finish a tiring walk on a summer’s day, a cream tea is almost as good, and we’ve given a lot of thought over the last few years as to what makes for a good one.

1. Scones

Scones don’t keep well. After a few hours, they become dry, brittle and mealy. To get the best scones, look for a busy cafe with a kitchen. Smaller places are probably making them off-site or — worse — ‘refreshing’ them in a microwave, which stops them being dry by making them soggy. Worst of all? Scones in plastic wrappers. If you see these, run a mile.

Scones baked too high or for too long can quickly develop the consistency of granite: look for a light colour and a bit of a spring. In our experience, they tend to be better if shaped with a serrated cutter.

Some people will tell you that fruit scones (with raisins or sultanas) are an abomination and have no part in a proper cream tea, and they are certainly a novelty in Cornwall.

2. Jam

We will respect the traditions of Cornwall and talk about jam before cream. (More on that later.) Its role is to cut through the richness of the cream with some acidity and sweetness. Good sign: pots of homemade jam with spoons sticking out of them, ready for dolloping into serving dishes. Bad sign: individual plastic catering portions of no-brand jam-style fruit-flavoured gelatine spread. Dollops, not servings is a good rule of thumb.

Though some mavericks do offer blackcurrant, apricot or other flavours of jam, you really want red flavoured. Raspberry is fine, but strawberry — with pieces of fruit in evidence — is best.

We once had a really classy cream tea that came with several very ripe, fresh strawberries instead of jam. This was an acceptable substitution.

3. Cream

The cream tea is, really, an excuse to eat clotted cream, because it would be wrong to scarf it on its own with a spoon. (But try telling Boak’s Dad that…)

Clotted cream without an off-white, cracked crust is a waste of time. That means that, perhaps counter-intuitively, industrially produced single servings are the way to go. Rodda’s of Cornwall has a virtual monopoly on the global market, and for good reason: they have perfected the art of producing tubs of every size with a consistent, satisfying crust.

Whipped cream, especially squirted from a can, is never an acceptable substitute. (We’re looking at you, that terrible cafe in York!)

4. Tea

A delicately flavoured, subtle infusion is no match for a gobful of fat, butter and sugar. You need char: dark, bitter tea with a bit of welly. What a lot of people don’t realise about British tea is that it’s not a genteel affectation: it’s a powerful stimulant.

A good cream tea comes with a pot of tea, and a second pot of hot water for topping up. Loose leaf tea is a touch of class, but we don’t mind teabags. Delicate china cups filled with tea so strong you could use it to stain wood is an amusing juxtaposition, but a mug is just as good.

Posh tea with a ‘contemporary’ brand — the type that gets advertised with a sign outside the cafe — is rarely much cop, at least not in this context, but there’s plenty of Fair Trade tea with poke about these days.

5. Volume and value for money

Many cream teas come with two scones which we find a bit much. One scone, however, is usually not enough. The best places let you pick and choose, so that one and a half scones becomes an option. Perfect!

There is not, as far as we have noticed, a correlation between price and quality: we’ve paid £7 for rubbish, and £2.50 for homemade perfection.

Rules and regulations

The order in which jam and cream are applied to the scone is a matter of lighthearted banter between Devonians and the Cornish. (Wait, what do you mean it’s not lighthearted?) In Cornwall, jam goes first, with cream dolloped on top, which is how Boak prefers it — with cream as the main event. Bailey, having grown up partly in Devon, finds this perverse: the cream ought to be spread like butter, so that there’s some in every mouthful.

If you do it ‘wrong’ in either county, you won’t get told off, but you might get gently ribbed.

We’ll be back to beer tomorrow…

24 thoughts on “The Campaign for Real Cream Teas”

  1. Having once suffered the horror of whipped cream served with a cream tea I agree that it’s totally unacceptable.

  2. “Scones don’t keep well. “????

    (i) They don’t last because no one in his right mind does not scoff the lot; and
    (ii) What the hell sort of biscuit are you referring to as a scone? They ought to be made with so much butter as to be multi-layered and even bendy, not brittle. Scots’ croissants.

    I was going to post about tea. Think this all has something to do with Martyn getting old.

    1. Oh, they have to be a *little* kruspy on the outside. (Kruspy: word we learned from the English version of a menu in a German beer garden, referring to pork crackling.)

  3. I’m worried I might be becoming a complete heathen. This is for three reasons:

    1) I’m not a big fan of cream at all. I prefer to double up on jam.
    2) Favourite jam is from a big jar of Tesco value mixed fruit.
    3) These days I prefer Lady Grey over proper English Breakfast tea.

    I do agree that loose leaf tea, in a tea pot is the only way serve it though. Also cream tea that’s not served on fine china really isn’t the done thing.

    1. Hitch’s errors:

      1. Do not warm the pot. Scald it. Only the most rip boiling water will do. Authority: my mother.
      2. Tea does not steep. It masks. Authority: see #1 and add Dad.
      3. Water is only to strike the tea at maximum boil for certain sorts of tea, black ones. Authority: green tea says so.
      4. The order of milk or tea depends on the nature of the cup. Pre-china pottery will shatter over time if you did not put the milk in first allowing for that brief temperature rise. Authority: some clever BBC show seen over here in Canada a few months ago.

  4. Excellent fact! Do you good folk “mask”? When feeling plummy, it was “infused” but always with a bit of a wink in the eye. The best point in Hitch’s bit was the need for low fat milk. Whole milk in one’s tea tastes like the next fellow’s sports socks.

    1. Oddly enough, given the usual subject of obsession, we ‘brew’, as in ‘get a brew on’ and ‘fancy a brew?’.

    2. That reminds me of my first night in Romania, My host family, clearly wanting to be friendly and welcoming asked if I would like milk in my tea before heading to bed, naturally I said ‘yes’. The mugful of tea placed in front of me was a lurid bright pinkish red, with lumps of cream floating in it. Turned out that the tea was rosehip and milk from sheep. Just as well that I like rosehip tea, though sheep’s milk in it not so much. I drank it all, as a good Brit does.

  5. Ever been to Ostfriesland, north-west Germany? They drink at least as much strong, black tea there as in Britain. Good quality tea in Germany will always come from there. But locally they prefer the “Ostfriesenmischung” with a little creamy milk and a little candy sugar.

  6. While I love a good cream tea, what I particularly enjoy is whole blackberries, clotted cream and scones: the slight tartness and general unctuousness of even the ripest blackberry, to me, goes really well with the sweetness of the cream. And yes, the tea needs to be strong and tannic, too, to cut through the fat.

    Where do you stand on Pollard’s ice-cream with a big dollop of clotted cream on top? (Answer, of course: you don’t stand, you fall over with a cardiac infarction while somebody rushes to get the defibrillation kit)

    1. For us, it’s all about a tub of Jelbert’s ‘with clotted’. You’d probably love the shop, which hasn’t been refitted for decades: Boak’s dad got all excited and said it was just like the places he used to go in Suffolk when he was a kid. They do one flavour of ice cream: cream.

  7. The Green Lantern Cafe at Great Torrington (DEVON!) does a superb cream tea. Cheap too. Almost as if they’ve forgotten to put their prices up since 1982. They’ve also forgotten to modernise in any way, too, which is always a bonus.

  8. I’m with Boak on this one – always jam first.
    Cream should always be a dollop and not spread.

  9. Cream first to get a nice thick layer and the jam on top, you see if you do it the other way around the cream will slip off the jam making getting a good layer impossible.

    Tea, strong and lots of. 🙂

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