Unlike much of North America, each morning I caffeinate with a cup of strong black tea instead of the typical coffee. So I was excited to visit the UK this past summer, home of the English Breakfast, the Earl Grey and the classic afternoon tea. Finger sandwiches and delicate petit fours are natural companions to fresh cups of leafy brew, but I’ve always found the highlight of this indulgent, vertically-tiered spread to be the dense, warm scones and their requisite accompaniments. Smothering a piece of crumbly scone with hedonistic dollops of clotted cream and healthy lashings of strawberry jam is the epitome of all my childhood tea parties, realized.
To my delight, upon arriving in Southwest England to visit a friend in Totnes, Devon, I discovered that there’s a regional, pared-down variant of the afternoon tea that showcases my favourite parts of the classic British ritual—the cream tea.
My admiration of cream teas stems from its less intimidating, more accessible, and certainly more affordable approach to afternoon tea. With just a scone and pot of tea per person, along with the obligatory heapings of jam and clotted cream, it’s a decent snack to carry you from lunch to dinner – a satiating treat that doesn’t turn into a fourth meal of the day. Apparently, the rest of Britain agrees with me as “scones with jam and clotted cream” ranked as the country’s third most popular comfort food, behind Sunday lunches and steak and chips. Yet, unlike the more extravagant afternoon tea, the popularity of cream teas largely remains within Old Blighty’s borders.
The origins of cream tea date back to 997 A.D., when villagers helped to restore a Benedictine Abbey in Tavistock, Devon after it was damaged by a Viking attack. To thank the villagers for their hard work, the monks served bread with clotted cream and strawberry preserves, a luxurious, expensive treat typically enjoyed by the wealthy. The tradition has since spread throughout Southwest England, with the neighbouring counties of Cornwall and Kent all boasting a long and proud tradition of cream teas.
Cornwall is home to the world’s largest manufacturer of clotted cream—Rodda’s—which has been churning dairy products in a charming farmhouse since 1890. Together with jam-makers Tiptree, the two companies jointly run the Cream Tea Society, which was formed “to encourage people to revel in the delights of this great British tradition,” writes Belinda Shipp, Marketing Manager of Rodda’s, by email.
Shipp offers a few suggestions on the proper etiquette of this afternoon treat. “You should always serve the elements of the cream tea separately so that people can assemble it themselves,” she explains. “This allows guests to choose the quantities of jam and clotted cream that they prefer.”
Substitutions and embellishments are frowned upon. Serve warm, freshly-baked scones void of any raisins, glazes or dustings of icing sugar, and put away the butter dish. “It disrupts the perfect balance of crumbly scone, sweet sticky jam, and cool, thick and silky cream,” Shipp says. Whatever you do, don’t mess with the cream tea’s crowning glory. “You should always serve clotted cream rather than whipped as this would only disappoint your guests,” implores Shipp. You daren’t pull out aerated cream from a can—what might be considered the British equivalent of putting a bowl of Cheese Whiz on a charcuterie board.
But the cream tea’s most controversial etiquette point lies in your application of the scone’s indulgent accompaniments. Jam first, or cream? “This is the subject of lots of debate,” Shipp admits. “In Cornwall, we prefer to crown the jam by putting the clotted cream on top. As our forefathers used to say, you should never hide the best bit!” This technique is also recommended by British etiquette authority Debrett’s as the most practical and proper way to serve a cream tea.
But just 50 miles east of Cornwall, in the “birthplace” of cream tea, Devonians will insist that the cream always goes on before the jam.
This regional disagreement is one of many spats bred from a long rivalry between the neighbouring districts of Devon and Cornwall, each staking claim to the teatime tradition and its integral elements. In 1998, Cornwall County earned EU Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, meaning that Cornish Clotted Cream can’t be labelled and marketed as such unless it’s manufactured in Cornwall using local Cornish milk. In retaliation, farmers in Devon have launched a campaign for their own PDO to recognize the Devon Cream Tea as a genuine Devonshire production, comprised of Devon-made scones, jam and cream, but the designation has yet to be granted.
Heads of state have also found themselves in hot water. On a trip to North Devon in 2015, The Telegraph reported that former British Prime Minister David Cameron “pronounced that the correct way to eat a scone is to put the jam on first, then the cream”, a rookie mistake, considering he was in cream-then-jam territory.
Truth be told, I side with the Devonians. My instinct has always been to spread a layer of cream on the scone before topping it with jam. But in the words of David Cameron, “it all tastes the same, doesn’t it?”