Everything you ever need to know about Clotted Cream

There is a reason that a cream tea is so called and it has nothing to do with putting cream in one’s tea before you drink it. Actually, we hope you won’t do that. The star of the show is the clotted cream, the thick rich buttery concoction slathered on a freshly made scone either before or after the jam.

There is no substitute for clotted cream, although many have tried dishing up heavy cream or even icing to pass off as a real cream tea. That simply will not do. What makes clotted cream so special? Where does that unique taste come from?

Clotted (also clouted or scalded) cream bearing some similarities to the near eastern kaymak or kajmak,  is thought to have been introduced to Cornwall by Phoenician traders seeking tin some two thousand years ago. The special method of making the cream was discovered to extend its shelf life, as it were, and to yield more cream. With few means of refrigeration in days of yore, milk products would sour quickly. The settlers from the Mediterranean and Near East as we now call Phoenicia, showed their new hosts a method of removing liquid from milk leaving a residue of butterfat that did not spoil as quickly. We now attribute this longer shelf life to the higher butterfat content of clotted cream which is 64% on average compared with 48% for heavy or double cream.

To make clotted cream, milk or cream is heated at a low temperature until a buttery crust forms. The latter is scraped off and cooled until the milk separates and clots of cream are left on top.  While refrigeration is no longer an issue, we continue to enjoy clotted cream for the sheer joy of it.

Most production of clotted cream centers in Southwest England, particularly the counties of Devon and Cornwall, but also Dorset, Somerset, and the Isle of Wight. In 1998 Cornish clotted cream was awarded the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) to thwart imposters.  Cornish clotted cream must be made with milk from Cornwall and have a minimum 55% fat content. Cornish clotted cream is yellower in color than that of Devon owing to the higher carotene levels in the grass that Cornish dairy cattle consume.

In literature, clotted cream appears to be a popular food of Tolkein’s hobbits and is mentioned in Edmund Spenser’s first published work, The Shepherdes Calendar, in 1579.

For a more romantic version of the history of clotted cream, I shall defer to Devonshire folklore.  A beautiful princess and an elfin prince wanted to marry. However, a nasty old crone of a witch wanted the princess to marry her equally undesirable son so she set about ruining the young lovers’ plans. In those days brides were required to bathe in cream before their nuptials. So the witch cast a spell over every batch of fresh cream to sour it. Finally the prince procured a special bowl of clotted cream made with “fire and water” by pixies. No matter what spells the witch conjured up, she could not sour the cream.  The young couple was able to be married at last. The prince was so happy that he ordered the pixies to teach all young maidens to make clotted cream in order to pass down the secret from mother to daughter. That, dear tea enthusiast, is why we can enjoy the wonders of clotted cream today – it is a gift from the pixies.

The fire and water are references to the original method of making clotted cream in a type of bain marie or water bath, and heating it over a fire.

Jam or Cream first?

Most of the time the English are regarded as reserved and relatively calm. However, get us on the topic of whether to spread cream or jam on the scone first and we are at each other’s throats.  Traditionally the Cornish put jam then cream on their scone while in Devon the preference is for cream then jam.

Devonians might tell you that, since jam was the most expensive component of a cream tea, the cream would go on first, topped with a small portion of jam.  The Cornish may provoke their neighbors by saying their cream is the best thus it is displayed proudly on top of the jam.

Neither side will ever win this argument. I suggest you follow your preference and enjoy your cream tea accordingly.

To make your own clotted cream, here is a link to a recipe using the traditional method. A quick internet search should also yield slow cooker and instant pot recipes.

The History of Afternoon Tea

What is it about this quintessential British habit? I’ve lived in the USA for 28 years but I still find myself wandering absent mindedly into the kitchen between 3 and 4 PM each day thinking that now would be a really good time to have a cup of tea. Friends and colleagues snigger and tell me that it’s because I’m British. I’ve always eschewed the idea. For one, I haven’t drunk milk in years so I’m more likely to be looking for a cup of ginger tea rather than Assam. Secondly, I tend not to have cakes and cookies with it because nutrition school scared me out of that habit.

Could it be that the great British tea habit is so second nature to me that even though I consider myself to be a Floridian, my tea habit is as ingrained as the English accent that I haven’t managed to shake? Could I be so genetically programmed that I head for the tea kettle at the same hour every day like a Stepford Wife about to pop her pills?

I decided to trace the history of the afternoon tea , or cream tea as it is commonly known. Research indicates that the cream tea originated in Tavistock, Devon, about 1,000 years ago when Benedictine Abbey monks fed workers with bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserves. The trend grew as passing travelers stayed at the abbey and partook of the tasty repast.

House made clotted cream is served at Sealantro’s Afternoon Teas.

According to the Cream Tea Society (yes, there really is one), in 1662 King Charles II married the Portuguese Catherine de Braganza who imported her court’s custom of drinking tea. The first tearoom was opened in London in 1706 by Thomas Twining. It wasn’t long before a slew of tearooms spread across the city and proved to be popular with ladies (apparently coffee houses were more male-oriented).

The timing of the afternoon tea is attributed to the seventh Duchess of Bedford who felt that the wait between lunch and dinner was too long. She started a habit of having tea and treats delivered to her quarters when she felt peckish. Apparently she felt lonely too because before long, she would invite friends to join her for tea at her country house and this social affair evolved into an everyday occurrence replete with sandwiches, cakes, scones, cream and jam.  The jam was invariably strawberry. And the cream was always clotted.

The habit of cream rather than butter on the scone spread (pardon the pun) following the tourism boom in England’s “Westcountry” (the counties of Devon and Cornwall) in the 1850’s that was propelled by the opening of the railway.

Is it High Tea or Afternoon Tea?

Although the two are often confused, there is a distinction between Afternoon Tea and High Tea. The former is typically a dainty 3-course affair with sandwiches and savories; scones, preserves and clotted cream; and pastries and cake. High Tea originated as a more substantial meal partaken by the lower classes in the 19th century after a hard day’s work. The meal would be served at a “high” table around 6 PM with a pot of strong tea. Afternoon tea was always a more delicate affair that would not satisfy a manual worker, and could be taken at a “low” or coffee table.

Does Scone Rhyme with Gone or Bone?

I’m from the north of England so we typically pronounce scone to rhyme with gone. Actually, we assume that the pronunciation that rhymes with bone is for posh folk, namely from the South.  Uttering “scown” instead of “scon” would merit a beating in the school  yard when I was a kid.

I was delighted to learn therefore that the northern pronunciation is more correct as the word “scone” is believed to be Scottish in origin. Lexicologists believe that the word may come from the Scots Gaelic “sgonn” (“shapeless mass” or “large mouthful”), while others think it may relate to the ancient capital of Scotland, Scone. (History buffs will appreciate that Scottish monarchs were crowned at Scone even after the capital moved to Edinburgh.  Monarchs of the United Kingdom are still crowned on Scone Stone which is enough to make you want to pronounce it “scown” simply for the purpose of alliteration).

The Great British Dilemma: Cream or Jam First?

For a nation of people who are renowned for being polite to each other even when they want to kill you, things can get really heated when it comes to the great debate of whether one should apply cream or jam to the scone first.

The matter is quite simply geographic. Devon does it one way; Cornwall another.  Both split the scone horizontally (always by hand; never with a knife). The traditional Devonshire way of doing things is to apply cream first then jam. Cornwall does the opposite, spreading jam first and topping the scone with cream.  According to the Cream Tea Society, etiquette expert Debrett’s states jam before cream.  Quite honestly, you should do whatever is your preference.

Afternoon Tea at Sealantro

We serve authentic (of course!) afternoon tea at Sealantro Cafe and Wine Bar in Vero Beach, including finger sandwiches, freshly made scones, preserves and house made clotted cream. Once a month or so, we dress up and do the full tea, adding mini desserts and petits fours to the scones and sandwiches.

Jayne Withers is the author of “Mile High and Healthy: The Frequent Traveler’s Roadmap to Eating, Energy, Exercise and a Balanced Life.”  She has been featured as a travel wellness expert in forbes.com, the New York Post and Entrepreneur magazine, and regularly appears on regional affiliates of ABC, Fox News, and CBS. Nationally, she has appeared as a guest on Fox News Channel’s “A Healthy You and Carol Alt.”

Jayne is a graduate of Cambridge University and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She is currently a Functional Diagnostic Practitioner in training. Jayne is Sealantro LLC’s CEO and nutritional consultant. Additionally, she has a private practice as an integrative nutrition health coach serving the Treasure Coast and travelers on four continents.