The West Country offers much for the holidaymaker, having been for generations a firm favourite with countless campers and caravanners. Today inventive, modern food, sweeping landscapes and dramatic coastlines are all a given, more or less whichever county you are in.
Dorset boasts Europe’s largest hill fort, fossils on the Jurassic Coast, geological marvels like Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove and even a huge naked chalk giant. For tourist boards in search of unique features, that’s a cracking start.
The scenery in Devon ranges from the gnarled scrub of wild Dartmoor to the delicate palms of Torbay’s English Riviera, while Cornwall prides itself on surf beaches, a dynamic art scene, the big skies of Bodmin Moor, evocative Tintagel and the visionary Eden Project.
Impressive stuff. But what is all this world-class wonder without a decent cream tea?
The traditional cream tea has developed almost mythical status, and is effectively a tourist attraction of its own, synonymous with an idyllic summer’s afternoon in the West Country. The reality is you’ll
come across the good, the bad and the frankly terrible, with numerous blackboards extolling the virtues of the local cream teas on offer. So it pays to have an idea of what you’re letting yourself in for.
What makes a cream tea?
Essentially four key components are required: scones, clotted cream, jam and good black tea. Not difficult, you’d think, but just tread carefully!
The ideal scone is made from just a few ingredients: eggs, milk, butter and self raising flour. These are provisions you’d expect to find on a farm - and that’s where scones with clotted cream and jam originated. The traditional time to indulge is four o’clock and, like many things, this is rooted in common sense: an energy boost before the end of the working day, and something that is quick to make (remembering that the farmer’s wife would be busy working on the farm and not have time to lavish on a major meal at this time of the day).
Clotted cream is unique and it’s key appeal is the unique slightly nutty taste and rich texture that works so well with the other flavours. Its manufacture involves heat or steam treatment, with the boiling water ‘scalding’ process creating a much thicker cream and giving a golden crust similar to butter. The ultimate sacrilege is to be presented with squirty aerosol cream.
Good quality preserve is a prerequisite – any red berry fruit is fine but strawberry is perhaps the most iconic. Preferably rich, local and packed with fruit.
A good full bodied tea like Assam acts as a foil to the sugary richness (unless you have a very sweet tooth, sugar should not be necessary). A proper teapot and china cups are surely essential though.
Thunder & Lightning
In Cornwall black treacle is sometimes a favoured topping – generously dribbled over the clotted cream, the combination is known as ‘Thunder and Lightning’.
How do you have your scone?
This is where the debate begins to rage. It is common consensus that scones are best served warm from the oven (not hot, or the cream slides off) and should be eaten on the day they’re made. And it is agreed that they should be split in two, horizontally. So far, so good. From this point, things start to become divisive. The Devonshire method is to then add half an inch of clotted cream (more would be too sickly), followed by a teaspoon of jam on the top. Whereas in Cornwall the scone is buttered, so the butter melts in, and then spread with a layer of jam. Only then is a dollop of Cornish clotted cream added to the top. When great matters like this are debated, things really can get heated.
Who invented clotted cream?
Credit for this is lost in the mists of time, but nonetheless is a source of debate and regional pride. The 11th century Benedictine monks of Tavistock apparently played a part, but even earlier, Phoenician traders in 500 BC traded their cream for Cornish tin. To this day, similar products are made in parts of the Middle East. Either way, the rich soil, mild climate and the local breeds of cattle proved an ideal combination for production of milk with a high cream content ideal for clotted cream.
So when visiting the West Country, take time to indulge in a proper cream tea. Be sure to ask about the freshness of the scones and the squirtiness (or otherwise, hopefully) of the cream. Then try the Devon and the Cornish approach and maybe, after some rigorous taste testing, you’ll feel able to enter the debate yourself. But tread carefully…
Did you know?
The largest producer of clotted cream is Rodda’s in Cornwall, which produces up to 25 tonnes each day.
In 1998 the term Cornish clotted cream became protected by EU directive, as long as the milk is produced in Cornwall and the minimum fat content is 55%.
The unique, slightly yellow colour of Cornish clotted cream is due to the high carotene levels in the grass.