History of the Cream Tea, and the birth of one of history's greatest arguments
Devon vs Cornwall: cream then jam, or jam then cream? Cream tea is a great British institution, but where does it come from?
The Cream Tea. If you ask a foreigner to think of some quintessentially British food alongside bangers and mash, a full English breakfast and Marmite, they usually mention the cream tea or afternoon tea. Before we start, let's get one thing clear, a cream tea is a scone with jam and cream plus a cup of tea (made properly). Afternoon tea is a multi-tiered event that encompasses finger sandwiches, candied fruits, pastries and cakes as well as several pots of tea. And to confuse things further, maybe scones...
Itty bitty scones, so you can eat more in a given time period. WINNING!
So a cream tea is literally a scone and some tea?
You got it. But the question still remains, where does this distinguished delicacy originate from? Well, unsurprisingly it originates from the south-west of England in either the counties of Cornwall or Devon. The earliest record of a cream tea, or at least a predecessor of it stems from Tavistock Abbey in Devon circa the 11th century where people had been eating bread laden with cream and jam, although this wasn't recorded as a cream tea. This odd snack arose from the reconstruction of the Abbey under the direction of the then Earl of Devon, a chap called Ordulf. His father, named Ordgar founded the Abbey, but it was plundered by Vikings in 997AD and suffered damage. So some reconstruction was in order and was undertaken by Ordulf, helped along by local workers. To reward them the monks of the Abbey fed them bread laden with clotted cream and strawberry preserve. And so the concept of the cream tea was born.
Stacks of scones. MMmmmmmm
Right, so it was a builder's snack then?
In a word, yes. But then as with much food forensics, the trail then goes a bit wobbly. How did the cream tea reach Cornwall? Why do they do it all wrong? And when did it become a modern thing on scones?
Well, these decadent builder's snacks proved so popular that the monks began serving them to travellers who were passing, some of which were likely heading on towards Kernow and would have subsequently brought tales of their tuck with them. And then it was have been recreated, but in the Chinese whispers like fashion this happened, its is likely someone got the order of jam and cream the wrong way around and the Cornish cream tea sprung up. We'll get to the difference shortly.
The first modern use of "Cream Tea" in reference to the scone and tea combination as opposed to some tea with cream in can be tracked to 1931, in a paper called The Cornishman (3rd of September if anyone wants to try and track the original piece, page 8). In an article entitled Alleged Profiteering in Cornwall, there is mention of a Cornish Cream Tea, consisting of "three slices of bread and butter, a splashing of cream and jam and two aneamic rolls" (one can only imagine the late A. A. Gill having written this). For the privilege of this, the writer paid the princely sum of 1 shilling and sixpence, which in today's money is £3.63.
For £3.63 that isn't too bad?
By 1943 you could get in trouble to the tune of £10 (£458.97 in today's bob) for serving a Cream Tea as one Miss Lilly Crocker found out when an inspector came to check on her farm and she offered him a cream tea. For 1s and 8d (£4.05) she served the gent "a pot of tea, milk, sugar, bread and butter, plain bread as well as jam, and a glass of cream about three or four ounces". This being war-time England and with strict rationing in place, cream was a dangerous trade to be in. Miss Crocker had been fined for "manufacturing cream for a purpose other than authorised by an Order". And that was that, wasteful cream profligacy, as it was put.
Tut tut tut Miss Crocker
The Oxford English Dictionary mentions in the cream tea in 1964 in reference to Phillip Maitland Hubbard's book Picture of Millie, wherein he writes, "We just bathe and moon about and eat cream teas."
OK, but what about scones? Where do they play into all of this?
Since you've asked; the first lexicographical note of scones comes from 1513 when they crop up in the OED for the first time. Thus sparking the argument over their pronunciation: scone or scone? The origin of the word is likely Dutch from Schoonbrood, meaning fine white bread, schoon being pure or clean and brood being bread. But then it could also derive from the Scots Gaelic term sgonn, meaning a shapeless mass or large mouthful. Both origins giving sense to each means of saying the word scone. There's also a further Scottish heritage to the word, and a German foot in the door too. All in, the way you say scone is still debated, as is their origin.
Is anyone hungry for a scone yet?
It is thought that scones were originally as wide as a small plate, and not dissimilar to what our neighbours to the north would call a bannock, in fact, the Scots reportedly used bannock and scone interchangably, although I have yet to meet a Scot who wouldn't be caught dead with a scone with cream and jam, so cannot confirm the veracity of this.
These wide-ass scones were typically cooked on a griddle and then cut into slices and served, although with the invention of baking powder their preparation moved to be a traditional baking method in an oven. A 2005 market report estimated the UK scone market to be worth £64m, showing a 9% increase over the previous five years.
But when did they become incorporated into the cream tea? I haven't a clue.
Hot and fresh and homemade. Bangin'
So basically the cream tea is just one big argument? Cornwall vs Devon
That is the only thing we do know about it. No one knows how to make one or what to call one of its key ingredients. The Cornish construction method is jam then cream and is frankly wrong. Then there's the Devonshire method which is cream and then jam. The arguments rage on. Raisins in your scone or does it then become a rock cake? What tea do you have with it? I could be typing away until next year trying to answer these age-old debates.
Some say it's pronounced like tone, and that it's cream then jam. All we do know is that this Friday, 26th June 2019 it is national cream tea day. So get baking and post your scone pictures here on FoodTribe. Happy munching.