Why Cream Tea Is The Taste Of Southern England

“Cream tea? Is that, uh…tea made with cream?”

On behalf of Britain, my apologies, if you’re ever in this situation. It’s an understandable question to ask. The best item on any good British cafe’s menu is a bit confusingly named, and that’s unforgivable, considering how comprehensively delicious it is when it arrives. Just appalling. (How many people didn’t try it for this reason? The horror.)

But at least the name’s half-right. A good cream tea is indeed about tea, good-quality freshly-brewed tea, served in a pot and made from loose tea-leaves. If it’s being served with the correct amount of ceremony, you’ll be served sugar-lumps instead of the plain old granulated kind, and the milk (hopefully served in a tiny pot with flowers on the side) will either be creamy or actual cream. That’s when you know it’s the real deal.

The British tea culture is well-known
The British tea culture is well-known

But it’s not a cream tea without the accompaniments: the still-warm scone, the pot of fresh jam – strawberry ideal, raspberry acceptable – and a generous lashing of clotted cream, which sounds alarming until you learn the “clotted” bit isn’t about the cream going off, but separating into a rich, fluffy surface layer that can be scooped up in thick whorls like ice cream, and slides onto your tongue like a cross between butter and whipped cream.

Oh, and – if you’re spending any time in the UK, and you want to keep on the right side of every British person you meet, you’re going to have to learn how to pronounce “scone”.

If you don’t know what a British scone is, allow me to light up your world forever: it’s an utterly delicious baked lump of wheat or oatmeal mixed with butter and sugar and baking powder, which rises when it’s cooked in the oven, but not too much, so it’s still somewhat dense and hefty – you know, I can easily imagine a thrown stale scone knocking someone off a bike. 

You should therefore order a scone at the earliest opportunity – therefore, you need to know how to say the word. The bad news is that you can’t. Whatever pronunciation you decide to employ, you’ll meet someone who disagrees with you. That’s Britain in a nutshell. But this is actually good news, because if, as a visitor to the Isles, you resign yourself to the fact that someone you meet will pronounce it a totally different way, and you refuse to get flustered about that, you’ll have a stress-free time and an entirely lovely trip.

The "Cream Tea" in the UK
The “Cream Tea” in the UK

(That said, you’re really going to confuse people if you call scones “biscuits,” even though they’re technically the same thing?)

Between Brits, though, you may see a certain amount of lively contention.There are very few things that will genuinely rile us up, outside of the usual topics (politics and so on). Even the question of whether the milk or the hot water go into a cup of tea first will usually generate little more than good-natured bickering – but for some reason, we’re all willing to argue until we’re blue in the face over exactly how you pronounce the word derived from the letters s, c, o, n and e, when employed verbally in that exact order.

If you think I’m kidding, check out The Great Scone Map Of The UK and Ireland.

If you’re interested in the geographical breakdown, perhaps because you’re British and you want to know where your sworn enemies are, a YouGov poll a decade ago showed a UK-wide 51% bias towards scone (rhyming with “gone”), 42% preferring scone (like “sewn”), and presumably the other 7% screaming oh for pity’s sake just stop this madness all of you, with their veins on their foreheads bulging. But generally speaking, the further north you go, the more scone is “gone,” and the further south, it’s like “cone”, more drawn-out through your nose.

But everyone more or less agrees that the south of England is where the cream tea (scone and all) has been promoted from delicious treat to culinary masterpiece. Two counties in particular lay claim to being the spiritual home of the English cream tea: Cornwall (as I mentioned here) and Devon – and in April of next year, Wheel & Anchor will be touring from one to the other, exploring their legendarily beautiful coastlines, picture-perfect villages and baked-goods-stuffed tearooms. 

Many stunning places in the UK are worth visiting
Many stunning places in the UK are worth visiting

If you’re speaking to a supporter of the Devonian claim, they’ll mention something about 11th-Century monks in Tavistock, where the labourers were fed bread, jam and cream as daily staples (hey, that doesn’t sound so bad). In Cornwall, you may hear origins of the “Cornish split”, a sweet white bread roll halved and plastered with cream and then jam. It’s quite possible both are wrong: a similar dish is known about in ancient Lebanon, and it’s possible that Phoenician traders brought it to Cornwall while trading for tin around the 5th Century BCE. But there’s no certainty about any of these stories – so you should be skeptical of anyone who claims they know the real truth of the matter.

As for which is best, you’ll be able to decide for yourself which you prefer – but keep an eye on how how emphatically regional they are: not just “clotted cream” but Cornish clotted cream, made from Cornish cows and containing the requisite 55% buttermilk. There’s a lot of pride and love that goes into cream teas – occasionally a little too much, considering how similar they are and how vague the meal’s historical origins are. (And yes, it really is a meal: these things are enormously filling and will keep you going all day.)

But there is a big difference between the two, and it’s easy to spot. 

If you’re in Devon, you halve your scone with a knife and put the cream on first, jam second. In Cornwall, it’s the jam first. 

So if you want to blend in and look like you know your cream teas, follow this rule in the appropriate places, avoid saying “scone” unless you really have to – and nod politely when someone tells you for a fact, for a fact, that the cream tea was invented in the castle just up the road by Crusaders, or by rich medieval aristocrats in the manor just yonder, or in the post-war years by a friend of a friend’s brother’s father. Just nod, sip your tea, and fill your face. Nobody should argue over a cream tea. 

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