The History of The Cornish Cream Tea

Jam or cream first? One of life's big debates!

So many people love holidays to Cornwall for its beaches, coastline, special light and sub-tropical climate but food and drink in Cornwall is also a big favourite whether it’s fine dining at one of UK’s well-known Chef restaurants such as Rick Stein, Paul Ainsworth, Nathan Outlaw, Tom Brown or Michael Wignall or picking up street food in Falmouth, eating delicious freshly caught seafood at Newlyn or grabbing a pizza, a St Ives Brewery beer and watching a sunset on Porthmeor beach in St Ives. One of the firmest favourites to eat in Cornwall is the Cornish cream tea. Why Cornish, specifically? Read on to find out why…

Cornish cream tea

The Cornish Cream Tea (pictured here at Artist's Light) is a tradition that has flourished since it was first introduced and made popular during the tourist boom which began in the 1850’s due to the opening of the railway. Since then, visitors have come to South West England to relax and indulge in the local tearooms and cafes and enjoy this delicious afternoon treat.

A cream tea consists of homemade baked scones, local clotted cream, strawberry jam and a pot of freshly brewed tea. It’s traditionally a speciality of Devon and Cornwall. The word scone originated in Scotland; ‘Skone’ comes from the Dutch word ‘schoonbrot’ which means beautiful bread.

It is said to have originated in Tavistock Abbey in Devon in the 11th Century where the monks used to make clotted cream and feed the labourers with bread, jam and cream. The clotted cream is an essential part of a cream tea, made by heating unpasteurised cow’s milk and leaving in a shallow pan for many hours which causes the cream to come to the surface and ‘clot’. This forms a silky, yellow cream with a crust on the surface. It would be sacrilege to put any other kind of cream on it!

In Cornwall, it was traditionally served with a ‘Cornish Split’, a sweet white bread roll instead of a scone. This would be spread with jam then a dollop of Cornish clotted cream on top. Splits are also the base of ‘Thunder and Lightning’, another Cornish treat where the jam is replaced with golden syrup.

The Cornish believe in using the correct etiquette when visiting a local tearoom and enjoying a Cornish cream tea. Traditionally, you should brew your tea in an ornate silver teapot and the person nearest the pot should pour for everyone, using your finest china teacups, pouring the tea first and milk and sugar after. Split the scone in half and apply the jam and cream.

The cream tea has been a long-debated topic and divided the two counties; Devon and Cornwall for generations. The difference between a Cornish and Devon cream tea is the order the toppings are assembled. To answer the age-old question, what is the right way to eat a cream tea? Should the clotted cream or jam be spread first? Is there any British culinary conundrum more controversial than the cream tea?

The Cornish believe that the jam should be applied to the warm scone first and then a dollop of clotted cream on top. However, Devonians think the cream should be spread first and then the strawberry jam on top. Either way, the Cornish cream teas are delicious, but this doesn’t stop the great scone debate from going on, tearing the West Country apart!

The people of Devon believe their method makes the most sense as cream is like butter and you wouldn’t put butter on jam, plus you can get more cream on the scone if you put it on first. It’s also believed that it originated from when jam was expensive, so you’d only put a little on top.

The Cornish believe that with the jam being applied first, it’s easier to spread and one can taste the cream better on top. You wouldn’t put cream on the bottom of a fruit salad. ‘Don’t treat your clotted cream like butter and your scone will taste all the better!’

The Queen is said to prefer the Cornish method of the cream tea! It’s always jam first at Buckingham Palace garden parties, using homemade Balmoral jam followed by clotted cream and a perfectly brewed pot of tea.

Don’t get us started on the pronunciation of the word scone! Does it rhyme with ‘gone’ or ‘bone’, is it ‘skon’ or ‘skoan’?

Scones are the most controversial baked goods of our time! However, both counties agree that the scones should be warm and the cream has got to be clotted. We suggest local Rodda’s clotted cream, fresh strawberry jam and homemade scones. After all, you want to enjoy your traditional cream tea, all 670 calories of it! We understand that your trip to Cornwall will be jam packed (excuse the pun!) with things to do but experiencing a traditional Cornish cream tea must be top of the to do list!

Most tearooms serve your cream tea so that you can compile it yourself, whichever way you choose! The focus shouldn’t be on the Devon vs Cornwall debate but whether delicious, fresh local ingredients are used and certainly no whipped cream!

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