Is it jam or cream first? Clotted or whipped cream, strawberry or raspberry jam? Are fruit scones ever acceptable? And do we really need to eat it off vintage crockery?
Devon! Cornwall! Britain's baking partisans! The time has come to take up arms (teaspoon, butter knife), in order to defend one of these islands' most sacred rites, the cream tea. Yes, How to Eat – the Word of Mouth blog dictatorially defining the best way to eat the nation's favourite dishes – is, this month, considering clotted cream, the correct jam and the vapid nostalgia of vintage crockery. Given that we can't even agree on how to pronounce its main component (it is scone-rhymes-with-cone, of course), this one could go the distance. No sleep 'til Truro.
Historically, this Scottish interloper played no part in the cream tea. Devonians claim they were eating cream and jam with bread back in the 11th century, while the Cornish traditionally ate theirs on a "split". However, militantly harking back to either is as pointless as trying to un-invent electricity. The scone (or, if you want to get all Hyacinth Bucket about it, skon), is where we're at. Deal with it. Unless someone tries to serve you one full of currants, sultanas or even, God forbid, glace cherries. In which case, feel free to unleash the hounds of fury*. A cream tea scone should be plain – not even glazed, much less dusted with icing sugar.
* If you are British, unleashing the hounds of fury will involve a considerable amount of sighing, muttering and then, at the till, when asked how everything was, a cheery: "Oh, it was lovely, thank you." That is how we roll … awkwardly.
For reasons of structural integrity (see construction, below), you need a thick, heavy cream that can stand its ground. Pouring cream is out and, of course, anyone putting aerosol cream on a scone should be closed down by the council. Which leaves you two options: dense peaks of thick, whipped double cream, or clotted. And the winner, every time, is whipped.
You have to credit the south-west; it has done quite the PR job on clotted cream, asserting it (with its PDO status) as the natural choice in a cream tea, despite it having nothing to recommend it. From that gritty crust, with its almost metallic twang, to its curiously curdled, "off" aftertaste, from its unappetising density to its sickly, OTT butteryness, clotted cream is a challenge I see no reason to rise to. Not when whipped double cream is cleaner and earthier, yet still delivers that essential sensation of rich, creamy indulgence.
You might argue that strawberry jam – sweet, meek and boring beyond words – is the perfect conserve for a meal which, in many ways, defines a peculiarly English approach to pleasure: unadventurous, bland, modest. Like forcing a third glass of wine on a rural vicar, however, there are ways to liven up a cream tea. Most obviously by using a sharper, tarter jam – raspberry or blackcurrant – that will provide a counterpoint to all that cream. In fact, the cream tea is one of the few arenas in which rhubarb or gooseberry jam would be a welcome addition, rather than a punishment.
I am not convinced that the famous disagreement between Cornwall (jam first, then cream) and Devon (cream first, then jam) is really a "thing". It just helps keep the cream tea in the news. I know Devonians who take the Cornish approach, I have seen numerous Cornish venues serving scones Devon-style, and, if you are using a properly thick cream, which you should be – one that won't easily slip off a jammy surface – then there is a good argument that the sequence doesn't matter.
Yet I think it does, and for a reason that is rarely discussed: taste. Not only is jam-on-cream far more aesthetically appealing, but by plopping the jam on top you allow its flavour to shine through. Hide it under the cream, and whatever jam you use will only be discernible as a relatively faint flavour (I assume it is something to do with fat coating your mouth first, and inhibiting your tastebuds). The difference isn't earth-shattering, but it is enough – on points – to say that the order should be scone, cream and then, finally, jam.
I haven't mentioned butter? Well, no, because I assume the idea of buttering your scone first is an urban myth. A wind-up. No one would be that daft. Likewise I assume that, being right-thinking people, we all cut our scones through the middle, then dress and eat the top and bottom halves separately, rather than reassembling them to create a cream and jam-filled scone sandwich. That way, if not madness, then certainly an ungodly, unedifying mess lies. The aim is to ensure that cream and jam entirely cover the scone. Squeeze the two halves together and most of it will end up on your plate.
At home, you need a dinner plate large enough to accommodate two split scones, jam jar, a tub of cream, two teaspoons (one each for the jam and cream; you don't want dregs of one in the other) and a butter knife, which you will need to spread the cream.
In any cottagey, rural tearoom – which, for the record, I would advise you to avoid – the set-up should be similar save for the jam and cream, which will invariably be served in a couple of ramekins. An individual serving – with, again, everything on the one plate – is far preferable to having to share. Not only is sharing cream fraught with anxiety, but all that reaching across the table will inevitably lead to spillages and mess, which you will be far less concerned about if it is all happening on your plate.
Talking of which, there is nothing like a cream tea (well, apart from its erroneously glamorous cousin, afternoon tea) to bring out the twee in cafe proprietors. They feel compelled to treat it as a period piece. Suddenly, doilies make an appearance; you find yourself eating and drinking from chipped, mismatched vintage crockery; whether or not the plate is big enough (it isn't), that silver Victorian teaspoon keeps sliding into the jam, or that "cute" teapot keeps sploshing tea everywhere.
Why do we need any of this? Here is an idea, hospitality industry: stop trying to conjure specious "character" in your venue using flea market tat (most of which is no less mass-produced than the crockery in Ikea), and please concentrate instead on a) the quality of what is on the plate, and b) said plate being fit for purpose. You may coo over a cake stand; I just see an unnecessary affectation that adds a pound on to the price of often dry, substandard scones.
Eat it at 4pm, if you want. But if you eat two scones (the optimum number: one is never enough, more than two will leave you groaning in gastric agony), then you certainly won't need an evening meal. Call me a maverick, but a cream tea should be eaten in lieu of lunch, between midday and 2pm.
The clue's in the name: tea and plenty of it, in pint mugs or a teapot big enough to hide a rabbit in. Hold your yoga teas and organic berry bags as well; this is no time for such airy-fairy nonsense. You want tea the colour of a house brick. A proper northern brew so tannic it could strip three layers of varnish from a coffee table, never mind sluice all that cream from your gaping maw.
So, cream tea: how do you eat yours?
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