Tea is a very important part of the day, especially afternoon tea which is typically between 3 and 5pm. It’s thought that the custom of drinking tea started in England when Catherine of Braganza married Charles II in 1661 and brought the practice with her from Portugal. Sadly, social customs change, and the occurrence of a formal afternoon tea is a rare one and usually taken as a treat.
The origin of the name “cream tea” is mostly unknown however some historians in Tavistock have been studying ancient manuscripts and have found that bread with clotted cream and jam was fed to the workers who were rebuilding the Abbey after it had been plundered by Vikings. It was so popular that the monks continued to serve it to passing travellers and it continued from there.
There are regional variations across England as to how a cream tea is eaten, however it can be considered the regional speciality of Devon as much as the Cornish Pasty and the Lancashire hot pot. One thing I can tell you is it is definitely not (and what I have found to be the common consensus of what a cream tea is over here) is tea with cream in it.
There are four distinct elements to a proper cream tea. Tea (of course), a scone (preferably fresh out the oven), clotted cream and jam.
The tea should be of good quality, and preferably made in a tea pot (yes, it changes the flavour… yes, I may be crazy). Relatively strong and unsweetened it should balance and complement the sweetness of the rest of the dish. I’m told Assam works well, though I’m a fan of the English Breakfast Tea.
The jam is traditionally strawberry, though you may on occasion see raspberry.
A cream tea cannot be considered as such unless there is clotted cream. Originally, clotted cream was only produced in the Westcountry (Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Dorset) – this is where the rich soil, mild climate and the right breed of cattle came together to create milk with a high enough cream content to produce clotted cream. Even today when clotted cream is in greater demand it will almost always be made in that region.
Before the days of pasteurisation, the milk from the cows was left to stand for several hours so that the cream would rise to the top. Then this cream was skimmed and put into big pans. The pans were then floated in trays of constantly boiling water in a process known as scalding. The cream would then become much thicker and develop a golden crust which is similar to butter. It’ tastes a thousand times better than it sounds, I promise you!
Today most places will pasteurise the milk. It loses some of the richness and depth of flavour, but it stops people worrying over un-pasteurised milk. Sadly, the pasteurised version is all I can find here.. it suffices, but it’s not the same!
Clotted cream has a consistency similar to soft butter and can be used as a replacement for butter in such things as toffees. It’s great on freshly baked bread with honey (or honeycomb) or jam, syrup. It is not clear whether clotted cream originated in Devon or Cornwall, strong claims have been made for both, but both lack any evidence. Most importantly it is perfect for putting on a scone.
Finally – the scone, pronounced either rhyming with bone or gone (it depends who you talk to). It is not (and I cannot stress this enough) nothing like the triangular, sweet travesties (!) that places like Starbucks, or well, everyone over here sells.
However since what a scone is varies across England, or so I’m told, we can’t blame the Americans for getting confused now can we! A scone is much closer to what the southern states here call a biscuit. It should be denser than a cake, but still light and fluffy, there are a few variations (cheese, or fruit – containing raisins and currants) but it is the plain scone that we served usually with a cream tea.
It should be made of few ingredients and preferably served warm.
Since I can’t find self-raising flour here in Texas I use a mix of AP flour and baking powder (which is all self-raising flour is anyway). You rub in the butter. And then I use a mix of eggs and milk to form the dough. You want to be really careful not to overwork the dough, it’ll become too tough.
I don’t even roll my dough out, I press it down to an even thickness on a floured surface and cut out my rounds. Make sure you’re cutter is nice and sharp and not dragging through the dough, it will stop it rising as well.
Spread out on a lined baking sheet I brush my scones with milk as a glaze and sprinkle a touch of sugar – not too much! We want a hint of flavour, not a crust of sugar.
They really don’t take long to bake, they’ll be turning a wonderful golden colour on top. Pull them out, let them cool slightly, then brew your tea and enjoy.