A cream tea is usually eaten as a mid-afternoon snack or when on holiday, as a stop-gap during that long break between the midday and evening meals. The essential ingredients of a cream tea are:
A scone - (pronounced either to rhyme with 'bone' or 'gone') a small cake made from flour, fat and milk, baked quickly in an oven. A less common alternative to a scone is a 'split' made from a rich sweet yeast dough
Jam - a conserve of fruit and sugar, boiled to a thick consistency
Cream - the fatty content of milk that gathers at the top
The jam and cream are piled atop the scone, which is then eaten slowly (with the hands rather than a knife and fork). Occasional sips of tea or coffee are taken to refresh the mouth between bites.
What Makes a Good Cream Tea?
Each of the four ingredients contributes to the experience of eating a cream tea and can therefore reduce the pleasure if not prepared adequately.
For best results the scones should be freshly baked, to the point of them still being warm to the touch. Artificially maintaining the warmth (eg, by keeping them under lights or by reheating them) is unacceptable. The scones should be approximately 2.5" in diameter and should be almost as tall as they are round. Do not worry if the scones look 'untidy' (ie, have begun to split or are lopsided). This is often an indication that the scones are home-made, or at least have been made by someone who regularly makes them at home.
There are, of course, many varieties of flour from which scones can be made although, generally speaking, the scones in a cream tea should be made from ordinary, white, self-raising flour. A good cream tea will include two healthy-sized scones, which should be split horizontally before applying the jam and cream.
The world of jams, conserves and preserves is indeed a complex one, and thus the scope of jams available for a cream tea can be enormous. For a good cream tea one should choose a jam that is fairly sweet, has a smooth texture and, ideally, is red (strawberry or raspberry are perfectly acceptable). Preserves tend to be too sweet, whereas jams such as gooseberry detract from the overall aesthetics of a cream tea due, in part, to being the wrong colour. The jam should be well-laden with fruit but should be cooked to the point where the fruit is soft and has begun to break down into smaller chunks, thus making it easier to spoon, spread and bite.
A good cream tea vendor will provide you with a generous dish of jam, preferably home-made. Do not accept poor substitutes, such as those nasty little plastic cuboids full of sticky stuff that are sold on trains and in poor-quality cafés in the name of jam. The jam should be applied to the scone in 'dollops' (ie, large spoonfuls). The size of the scone and jam may make it tricky to eat, but one should persist and pile on as much as is physically possible.
It is essential that the cream in a cream tea is clotted cream. Not 'double' cream or 'spooning' cream (whatever that is) but ultra-thick clotted cream, the sort that has to be forcibly removed from its container and will not drop off an upturned knife or spoon in a thousand years. When placed on the scone it will need to be squashed flat rather than spread, and should be generously applied, hence the unsuitability of other types of cream. As with the jam, cream should be piled high on the scone, bearing in mind only that which can comfortably fit into one's mouth.
Clotted cream is made by gently scalding milk over boiling water and allowing to cool overnight. This produces a thin, yellow-coloured crust on the top, pieces of which should still be visible even if it has been decanted from the original container into a smaller dish or pot. Once peculiar to the south-west counties of England, clotted cream is now available all over the world. The Cornish company Rhodda's, for example, provide an excellent service in this respect, while the Devonian company Torridge Vale take orders online for the full range of their products, including clotted cream.
Tea or Coffee
To fully experience the pleasure of a cream tea it is important that the eater has black tea or coffee as a supplement. Why black? Adding milk to either of the two beverages tends to thicken their texture and can dull the palate, thus seriously reducing the pleasure of eating a cream tea.
The coffee should be freshly made, preferably from beans or ground-coffee rather than the freeze-dried granules. If tea is your choice then something light such as Earl Grey should suffice, although uninitiated black tea drinkers may wish to add a slice of lemon to their cup before consumption.
Expect to pay no more than £2.50 (at time of writing) for a cream tea that includes two scones, two 3" diameter dishes filled with cream and jam, and a pot of tea or coffee (enough for two cups per person).
Where Can You Find the Best Cream Teas?
Contrary to popular belief, cream teas do not form a principal part of the staple diet in Devon and Cornwall (the two most south-westerly counties in England). It is here, however, that cream teas originated (although scones are originally of Scots origin) and are widely sold - in fact, as part of the tourism industry, they play a major role in keeping the economies of Devon and Cornwall afloat.
The best cream teas can be bought from small shops, cafés, or private front rooms or gardens, where they are likely to be freshly made on the premises. Cafés, restaurants or coffee bars on premises run by larger organisations (such as The National Trust) are unlikely to equal the cream teas available in small, family-run businesses - they are likely to be considerably more expensive and less generous in the quantities of jam and cream supplied - though there are naturally exceptions to this rule.
These are some of the places where the cream teas served are of the highest quality:
Pendennis Castle, Cornwall, UK
Porth Chapel, Cornwall, UK - drive through Porth Curno, past the Minack Theatre until you start to go downhill. Park in the field car park next to the church then walk the path opposite the field entrance for around 100 metres. On your right as you cross a stream is a private house and garden that, during the summer, is home to the very finest in cream teas.
Primrose Cottage, Lustleigh, Devon, UK
Southern Cross, Newton Poppleford, Devon, UK
Are You Cornish or Devonian?
The question refers to the two generally acceptable methods of preparing a cream tea. The Devonian method requires the eater to place the cream onto the half-scone first, allowing it to begin soaking into the scone, almost as a replacement for butter or margarine. The Cornish method is the reverse, with the jam being positioned first and the cream applied as a second topping.
The Devonian method has the advantage of reducing the inherent dryness of the scone, whereas the Cornish method of preparation has the sweet jam lusciously sandwiched between the two savouries. The choice of which method one chooses eventually comes down to personal taste and neither method is better or more acceptable than the other.