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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…