The traditional Cornish cream tea is a warm scone covered with a layer of strawberry jam and topped with a generous helping of clotted cream. It’s optional whether it is served with butter and depends on personal taste, as some café owners believe the cream replaces the butter, while others serve it with both.
The cream tea is such a popular luxury item that food producers in Cornwall have successfully applied to the EU to have "protected" status for Cornish clotted cream! The move is designed to stop café owners from serving scones with jam and canned whipped cream, instead of traditional clotted cream, while claiming it is a Cornish cream tea.
Cornwall v Devon
The debate over what constitutes a cream tea has rumbled on for many years in Cornwall and Devon. Each county has its own version of the cream tea, and although there are similarities, connoisseurs say there are important differences too.
In the past, the Cornish cream tea was made with a "Cornish split", instead of a scone. The Cornish split is a type of sweet white bread roll, served warm - the strawberry jam would be applied before the Cornish clotted cream.
The splits are baked for a short time and as soon as they are removed from the oven, they are placed in a tea towel, spread with butter and then covered by another tea towel to prevent a crust from forming. The first reference to the recipe for a Cornish split appears in the 1932 cookery book, Good Things in England, by Florence White.
History of cream teas
According to historians, the practice of eating bread with jam and cream dates back to the 11th century, and this is where the friendly rivalry between Devon and Cornwall comes in.
The great debate hinges on whether the jam or the cream should be added first. The Devon cream tea is made by splitting a scone in two, covering each half with clotted cream and finally adding the strawberry jam on top.
Although it might seem a subtle difference, it has led to plenty of rivalry between the two counties on which version is a "real" cream tea - and which is the best!
Historians say there is evidence that warm bread was served with cream and jam at Tavistock Abbey, in Devon, as long ago as the 11th century. A similar bun to the Cornish split is also served with cream and jam in Devon. It is known as the Devon Chudleigh and is made in the same way as the Cornish split, but it’s a little smaller.
Devon foodies say the "Devon split" is made from a lighter and more luxurious white bun than the Cornish version's heavier scone-like bread.
Did monks invent the cream tea?
Evidence of early cream teas was revealed after ancient manuscripts were studied as part of the 900th anniversary celebrations of Tavistock's Royal Charter, which was granted in 1105 by King Henry I.
The painstaking process of piecing together hundreds of fragments of historic manuscripts revealed the monks living at Tavistock's Benedictine Abbey were apparently the first people to create an early version of the cream tea.
The 10th-century abbey was severely damaged by marauding Vikings in 997AD and its restoration took much hard work. Ordulf, Earl of Devon, took on the massive task of restoring the abbey. His father, Ordgar, had established the abbey in the 10th century and Ordulf was eager to see it restored to its former glory.
Local workers who helped with its restoration were rewarded by the monks, who gave them special meals of bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserves. The snack proved so popular that after the abbey was rebuilt, the monks continued to serve cream teas to travellers who were passing through.
The validity of the cream tea shouldn't be based on whether the Cornwall or Devon version is best, or even which of them came first. The focus should be more on the fresh ingredients, such as strawberry preserve made with fresh locally-grown strawberries - and definitely no tins of whipped cream!
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