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.