Thick, rich and golden, clotted cream is probably the best-known delicacy of Devon and Cornwall in the English West Country and it is, of course, the vital ingredient of the famous cream tea. To the true native of the south-west, the presence clotted cream is very much a default setting – when a Devonian asks for 'crame' on his apple pie he definitely does not expect the whipped or double varieties and he probably won't thank you if the pie is too hot and melts the cream. In fact any host should remember that the carefully prepared dessert is really just the accompaniment to a large dollop of cream.
The colour of the cream can vary from a pale off-white to a surprisingly deep yellow, with a silky texture similar to a very soft cream cheese and a thick golden crust. It somehow tastes creamier than ordinary cream, with a distinctive but delicate flavour caused by caramelisation of some of the sugars in the milk and perhaps a slight butteriness. Devonians and Cornishmen will argue endlessly and fruitlessly about whose cream is better1, although they would probably agree that any made upcountry in Somerset is beyond the pale. In fact, it is probable that no two producers' creams are the same, as a great number of factors can determine the characteristics of the product including the breed of cow, the feed and pasture, the weather and the precise method of manufacture.
Clotted cream should never ever be confused with 'extra thick double cream', which is merely double cream treated to give it a spoonable consistency. Clotted cream is made by scalding, and thereby effectively concentrating, the cream from the region's high butterfat content milk which gives it a distinctive taste. The butterfat content is at least 55%, and often as much as 63%2, so it is unlikely to be recommended as part of your calorie-controlled diet. Since the 1900s it has been common to separate the cream from the milk before scalding it, which many people feel results in an inferior product, but this is the technique used by the major manufacturers today. Some dairies also use special ovens to 'cook' the milk rather than the traditional bath of hot water.
There are a small number of volume producers whose products may be found for sale far beyond the region, but there are also many farm-gate or cottage producers to be found. Supermarket own-brand cream bought outside the West Country should be treated with caution as it is sometimes a product that would never pass muster in the region; branches in Devon and Cornwall often sell a local brand rather than risking a riot by stocking their own. Exporting clotted cream is nothing new; Mrs Beeton was able to buy it in jars at Smithfield and today it is possible to buy it packed in polystyrene by mail order. It can even be bought frozen, although you can't freeze it at home unless your kitchen boasts some very specialised equipment.
How to make Clotted Cream
Put a quantity – it's up to you but it needs to be at least a pint – of fresh whole milk into a metal or heatproof glass bowl and leave it to stand in a cool, but not cold, place overnight. Unfortunately since the 1990s most milk is sold homogenised, so if you don't have your own herd of South Devon cattle use the untreated Channel Island milk available in most supermarkets or cheat by adding one part double cream to two parts ordinary milk.
By morning your cream should have 'risen' or separated and the whole should be suspended over a pan of water and heated to just below boiling point3. In days gone by it was often heated over a peat or wood fire, which gave the cream a slightly smoky flavour. Do not let the milk boil or you will get a skin rather than cream on the surface. After about 1½-2 hours it should have a thick uneven crust and you may see a ring roughly the size of the bottom of the pan. This crust is believed to be the origin of the name, originally 'clouted cream', clout being an old word for a patch of cloth. Remove the dish from the heat and leave it to stand in a cool place. The cream can then be skimmed off the next morning, and you can drink the remaining skimmed milk.
Origins – Myth and Mystery
It is no surprise in Devon and Cornwall to find there are a couple of picturesque and wildly improbable myths regarding the origin of the recipe.
One tells of a beautiful princess who lived in the branches of a Dartmoor oak, dreaming of the pisky4 prince she loved, and trapped by a crone who dwelt at the foot of the tree waiting to marry her to her uncouth tin miner son. The pisky nuptials involved bathing the bride in cream, so the witch cast a spell that soured their milk and made any wedding impossible. Eventually the prince made a special cream treated with fire and water that thwarted the hag's spell, allowing the girl to descend at last and marry him. To mark the occasion and ensure that everyone lived happily ever after the piskies passed on their secret to the maids of the moor from whom the recipe has been passed down.
Another tells how a giant called Moran5 who lived on Dinger Tor on Dartmoor decided to exile his favourite wife Jenny to a cave on the Cornish coast because his other wives were jealous of her status despite her inability to cook. There she spotted a Phoenician ship being lured onto the rocks below by wreckers and was able to make a signal to warn the sailors of their imminent danger6. The grateful captain taught Jenny the art of making clotted cream, which so delighted the giant that he brought her back home to Dartmoor.
Strangely the latter tale with its Middle Eastern connection may contain a kernel of truth. To this day a form of clotted cream called qishta or qashtah is made in Syria, Lebanon and parts of Turkey, which may in turn be related to Indian malí. Whether it is possible that the recipe dates back to early medieval times when trade between the eastern Mediterranean and the people of Devon and Cornwall was not uncommon or whether perhaps the technique arrived in western seaports during the Crusades is impossible to say, but it is certain that the monks of Tavistock were using clotted cream by the early 14th Century. 150 years later the status of 'clowted crayem' as a luxury food was well known when a writer noted that it was eaten more for 'a sensual appetite than for any good nourishment'.
Apart from the ubiquitous cream tea, clotted cream can be used as an accompaniment to almost any pudding or dessert or as a filling in cakes, and once you've tried it with your Christmas Pudding you may be tempted to consign brandy butter or rum sauce to the past. A well-known treat, known as Thunder and Lightning, is to eat bread and cream with treacle or golden syrup drizzled over it; honey is equally delightful and your mouth will love you forever. h2g2 Researchers determined to test their arteries to destruction also recommend it on shortbread or on hot mince pies (while you don't want your cream runny, eating it at the point that it begins to melt is a sensual pleasure in itself). Some people will even admit to eating cream with a bowl of breakfast cereal – decadent but delicious. It can also be used to make fudge, ice cream (which may be served with a further portion of clotted cream on top!) or biscuits. It is possible to make excellent butter from clotted cream, too, although it's very hard work.
Traditionally it was quite common to serve cream with certain savoury dishes too, often accompanying pork and cider pies or casseroles. Try mashing it with swede or turnip or using it as a filling on a baked potato. In the Dart valley 'cockles and cream' was once a popular delicacy for which people would travel from miles around.
Finally, it is not unknown for Cornishmen and Devonians to sneakily eat clotted cream on its own from the tub with a spoon. Whilst this might be quite enjoyable, on health grounds it cannot be recommended as anything but the rarest of treats!