The Cream Tea

clotted cream on plate ready to serve with scone

A West Country Delicacy

The Cream Tea is a regional delicacy associated with the south west England (colloquially known as The West Country). Clotted Cream is the essential ingredient of a Cream Tea.

The components of a Cream Tea are very simple. Clotted Cream, a luxurious freshly-produced replacement to butter provides the unique quality of a Cream Tea. A freshly- baked bread provides a base for the clotted cream. The form of this bread might be a quickly-baked scone or the more traditional “Split” in Cornwall. Usually a home-made strawberry or raspberry jam will finish the combination, along with a pot of freshly brewed black tea. The key to the enjoyment of a Cream Tea is the word fresh, or freshly produced.

What is Clotted Cream?

The concept of clotting cream was not particular to the South West of England. Large country houses with their own cows and a dairy maid would be making a range of dairy products. These included butter, cheese, cream and cheeses, all with varying lengths of shelf life. Nothing was pasteurized. These foods were consumed by the house to which the dairy was attached or in the local area. Although its origin is uncertain, the cream’s production is associated with dairy farms in South West England (The West Country). This area, in particular the counties of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, produces the best quality because of the pasture. The unique, slightly yellow, Cornish clotted cream colour is due to the high carotene levels in the grass.

The cream is clotted by gently cooking the cream for an extended time. Clots or clouts form at the surface. This thicker, lightly cooked cream has a far higher fat content (65%) than thick or double (heavy) cream(48%). The process also extends the life of the cream by a few days.

Clotted cream tastes like a “nutty, cooked-milk”. The flavour is rich and sweet and it has no hint of cheesiness. The texture is grainy, sometimes with oily globules on the crusted surface. It is similar to kaymak (or kajmak), a speciality of Southeast Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Turkey.

A Local Delicacy

Until recently, (and certainly within my lifetime) very little clotted cream travelled out of the West Country. This maintained its position as a local delicacy. It could only be enjoyed within that local area as it was difficult to transport at a cool temperature. West Country Tea Rooms and farms could open in the summer months to provide this local speciality to visiting tourists. A Cream Tea is a highlight of any holiday down to South West England, a major tourist attraction.

Flash freezing and refrigerated transport of the past decades have completely changed the concept of a local regional delicacy. Today high tech low temperature containers transport it around the world to hotels and housewives in countries as far away as Japan and China. Sadly the context of the Cream Tea being a local delicacy is not really visible any more.

The Cream Tea has its values in the tea rooms and farmhouse kitchens of the south west of England. These are both extensions of the home in which familiar home-style food is accessible in a public space.

How to eat the Cream Tea

If you create your own Cream Tea, with its deliciously fresh components, I recommend always sitting at a dining table to eat it.. You will need a knife for spreading the cream and jam onto your scone or split. A large napkin is also necessary to mop up any crumbs and spills of the fresh cream and jam.

A Cream Tea is not really suitable for the finger-food style of eating of the grand afternoon tea-table as it is quite messy to eat if your scones are very fresh. It is a worthy reward for a long coastal cliff-top walk or mackerel fishing on a windswept sea.  

The Cream Tea has become the focal point of the 21st Century deluxe hotel-style Afternoon Tea table. I find this a mystery as this is more of a rustic delicacy. Somehow the qualities of a Cream Tea do not translate well to the performance of pastry chef skills of the deluxe hotel.

Cream or Jam on top – who cares as long as it is Fresh?

The argument of cream or jam on top is a regular PR-driven argument. It appears to raise a debate about whether it is correct to eat the scone with cream on top of jam or jam on top of cream. Does this really matter? It is a pertinent example of how easy it is to create a fictitious battle, this time between Cornwall and Devon. A rift that does not exist, probably to get social media coverage for one particular brand of jam, or scone or clotted cream.

A Cream Tea is so right to get right and so easy to get wrong. Ideally your scones will be no more than hour since coming out of the oven, The clotted cream should be be unctuously rich and creamy with no hint of turning sour. The jam wantes to taste of a fresh burst of fruit from which it has been made. It is an utterly sublime combination of three very simple and humble ingredients.

Options to create your own Cream Tea

If you want to learn how to make Scones, why not join my afternoon tea party baking class.

I recommend Rodda’s clotted cream as it has the best flavour. It is is available today in most large UK supermarkets. You can also buy it in its flash frozen form – either in one large 907g box or 96 x 40g individual pots.

In terms of commercial jams, you cannot beat Wilkin & Sons Tiptree Little Scarlet. I can no longer find it on the supermarket shelf and either buy direct from Tiptree or from Amazon. This jam is what jam should be! The tiny Little Scarlet Strawberries give a burst of fresh strawberry flavour when they hit your tastebuds.

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