The Cream Tea Controversy!

Scones, strawberry jam, and clotted cream… what’s so controversial about that?!  Even as an Englishman I’ve never really understood the fascination with how you construct a cream tea, or whether or not there’s butter involved, or if they’re from Devon, Cornwall or somewhere else, or what does it even matter?!!!  But there’s no denying that this highly traditional afternoon (or may be morning?) sweet snack is truly to die for… so here’s the idiots guide!

Firstly, let’s get one thing straight… some people say the cream tea was invented in Devon, while others say Cornwall.  Some even say that you can really only get a good cream tea in England’s south west, but I’ve had really great cream teas as far away from south west England, as Ireland and Scotland and I’m sure you’ll find them in some far flung corners of most former British colonies too.  I also remember having cream teas as a kid in Yorkshire and a recent visit I made to Betty’s Tea Room in York proves that they can still do it with all the dainty extras (doilies, waitresses in pinafores, dessert trolley and 1920s style interiors).

Secondly… just what is a cream tea exactly? What’s for sure is that everyone who talks about this very British institution seems to be at least consistent on some of the ingredients which are absolutely required to make a cream tea:

1)            Tea – I had a Rooibos tea when I had my cream tea today, but I’m just very ‘go ahead’ that way!… I’m sure someone out there will strike me down with a bolt of lightening for not having it with English breakfast tea, milk and whatever other religiously established routine individuals declare to be involved in tea drinking, but frankly Rooibos/Redbush is my tea of choice at the moment and it went really well with my cream tea!

2)            Scone – ok, so I know I’m on very thin ice here, but I normally like my scones with fruit of some description in them – normally sultanas.  But this is where the controversy starts… can they be plain scones?  What fruit exactly should a scone have in it when you have your cream tea?  Fruit or no fruit, scones are your base ingredient for a cream tea and without them the cream and the tea are pointless!  The best scones are home-baked but there are plenty of shops out there that do some really amazing scones so it’s a question of trying things out.

3)            Jam [1] – more controversy: I was offered apricot jam with my cream tea today!!!!… Shock, horror!!!  I’m afraid I’m a die-hard strawberry jam fan, and whether apricot (or any other flavour jam) is an acceptable alternative or not, for me it just doesn’t cut it for a cream tea.  It just has to be strawberry.  Still, as Gertrude Stein once said, “A jam, is a jam, is a jam” … or something along those lines!

4)            Cream – clotted cream is the thick cream that spreads really thickly and is very heavy with a buttery taste, and it often has a creamy crust to it, which I always think is the best bit!  Apparently, whipped cream is acceptable on a cream tea in some places, though I’m not sure how that would work and at the risk of being controversial myself I don’t think that whipped really does the job like clotted cream does.  If you’ve only got whipped… I’d say forget it!

So that’s the basics, but what about the controversy?… just a minute!… we’ll get to that.  Let’s consider some history and geography first…

Cream Tea invented in Tavistock?

Apparently there’s a story going around that cream teas were invented in Tavistock in the county of Devon in south-west England, back in the 10th century.  The monks of Tavistock Abbey were having some help in rebuilding their monastery and they rewarded the helpers with bread, jam and clotted cream.  The snack was so popular that the monks continued to serve them to passing travellers! [2] However, I’m not sure where the tea specifically fits into this story given that nobody in England had probably even heard of tea for at least another 600 years!  Nonetheless it’s debatably correct that the concept of cream tea began in Devon and that’s why there was recently a push to gain European protection for the name “Devon Cream Tea”. [3]

Cornwall (the most south-westerly county of England), on the other hand has other ideas, and herein potentially lies the answer to our controversy… which I know I still haven’t got to yet, but I’m nearly there!  There are some in Cornwall who apparently say that butter is a valuable component in a cream tea, the suggestion being that you should butter the scone first before applying any jam or cream, but the calorie count is just far too… hold on!… jam + cream + sconesand we’re getting concerned about calories???!!!… come on!!!

So finally… the controversy… to explain it, I need to describe the processes of creating a cream tea in Cornwall, and creating a cream tea in Devon:


1 – Slice the scone in half.

2 – Spread a generous helping of clotted cream on the inside of each half of the scone.

3 – Apply a generous helping of strawberry jam on top of the clotted cream.

4 – Consume, along with a hearty cup of tea.


1 – Slice the scone in half.

2 – Spread a generous helping of strawberry jam on the inside of each half of the scone.

3 – Apply a generous helping of clotted cream on top of the jam.

4 – Consume, along with a hearty cup of tea.

Spot the difference?  I KNOW!!!!… and you’re thinking “you wrote a whole blog entry about that???!!!

Cream Tea - Riverside Cafe, Bath

It may be yet another quirky British institution, but my favourite cream tea right now is the one you can get at the Riverside Café in Bath.  Not only an excellent cream tea, with plain scones warmed to perfection, and strawberry jam that has huge pieces of strawberry, but they’ve also got the clotted cream just right – not too thick, but not too runny.  Delicious with a nice pot of their Rooibos tea!… sorry to all the regular tea drinkers, but that’s just my taste!  Oh, and by the way… it’s jam first I’m afraid… and I won’t be told any other way is acceptable!

[1] English “Jam” = American English “Jelly”