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Which Comes First? The Jam or the Cream?

It’s a variation on the age old question: which came first, the chicken or the egg? But of course, since it concerns scones and clotted cream and jam, it is a way more important question than that concerning poultry.

When topping a scone, do you layer cream and then jam, or jam and then cream? Does it truly matter? Which way is the traditional or correct way to top a scone?

Well, there is actual an old rivalry that is still raging today over the proper way to top a scone with clotted cream and jam (though everyone does agree that the jam should be a homemade strawberry for the most authentic delight). And the two epicenters are the same places that battle over their superiority in clotted cream.

The Cornish Way. Photo credit www.hungryhinny.wordpress.com

The Cornish Way.
Photo credit www.hungryhinny.wordpress.com

In Cornwall, they believe that the scone should be topped with the jam first followed by the clotted cream. Some cheeky reasons from the Cornish? “Because we are proud of it, Devonians are slightly ashamed of theirs so they cover it up with jam” says one grandfather. Whether or not that’s true, the Cornish all agree that the jam goes on first and is then topped with a dollop of Rodda’s Cornish cream. If it isn’t Rodda’s, it’s not Cornish.

The Devonshire Way Photo credit www.newcastleeats.co.uk

The Devonshire Way
Photo credit www.newcastleeats.co.uk

Devon, on the other hand, tells the Cornish to stick with their pasties because the jam definitely goes on top of the cream. Otherwise, they insist, clotted cream will end up on your nose and they also compare it to bread. In their logic no one puts jam on top of bread and then butter on top of the jam, so why would one do that with cream and scones? Both sides make a fair point, but neither side is going to budge their position any time soon.

I personally follow the Devonshire way of cream and then jam, but I don’t pretend that this is some statement on authenticity or tradition. It’s more of habit and I think it looks prettier than anything else. What about you? Are you a Devonian or a Cornish person?

Origin of the Word “Scones”

I love scones. Read almost every blog on this site, can you not tell? They are my favorite part about afternoon tea, and also the part I’m harshest on. But when I think about the power of an amazing scone to make you feel comforted and content with life, I accept my scone obsession and invite everyone to join me.

But how did the name come around? Scone sounds like kind of a funny word, and like many funny words there are debates on its origin and even on how to pronounce it. Does it rhyme with gone as in “skahn” or like own as in “scoan”? Will we ever agree on the pronunciation? Probably not, but it’s interesting to learn that the word for this common British delight may not even be British in origin!

Here are the leading theories on the base of the word scone:

1. The Scottish claim that scones were named after a stone that Scottish kings sat upon once they were crowned. This stone is called the Stone of Destiny, but apparently the word stone was once scone and the Scots confused a rock with a pastry. Maybe back then they overbaked their scones. This is why I say 8 minutes my dear Scots!

Stone of Destiny

Stone of Destiny

2. A derivation of the Gaelic word “sgonn”, which would make the pronunciation of scone rhyme with gone. Sgonn means a shapeless mass or large mouthful. Obviously the Gaelic didn’t have 5 cm scone cutters.

A cut in half shapeless mass or mouthful

A cut in half shapeless mass or mouthful

3. One of the two claims that the Oxford English Dictionary supports is that of the Dutch “schoonbrut”, meaning fine white bread. The first scones were made mostly of oat though, so I wonder why the OED thinks this claim is so likely.

I would call this a fine, white bread

I would call this a fine, white bread

4. The second OED supported theory is that the origin is the German word “sconbrut”, in English meaning a fine, beautiful bread. At least the OED acknowledges that the German sconbrut is so obviously related to the Dutch schoonbrut as to make them nearly identical that supporting these two theories is more like supporting only one.

A fine, beautiful bread with chocolate, almonds, and dried cherries?

A fine, beautiful bread with chocolate, almonds, and dried cherries?

So which answer is the truth? Which root word gave rise to our favorite risen pastry for afternoon tea? We may never really know…and yes insert ominous tone of voice right there for some fun.

True Clotted Cream

I rant quite a lot on this site about tearooms labeling stiffened whipped cream as clotted cream. So I figured I’d better explain what I am looking for when I review something named clotted cream.

th-3Clotted cream is associated primarily with the south-west regions of England; these counties are the origin of the names Cornish Clotted Cream and Devonshire cream (after County Cornwall and County Devon). Though a lot of people use the names interchangeably, they are not technically the same because one has to be produced in Cornwall using Jersey cows and the other has to be produced in Devon using…Devonshire cows? Both are the thick, creamy, almost butterlike spread that wonderfully top a scone. Typically it has 55% milk fat, hence your ability to stick a knife in it and the knife to stand straight up. This stuff is thick!

True clotted cream at a tearoom!

True clotted cream at a tearoom!

Clotted cream is made by indirectly heating full fat cow’s milk (the Cornish say that the Jersey cows produce the creamiest milk and that is what sets Cornish Clotted Cream apart from the rest) using a water bath or steam. Then the heated cream is left in shallow pans to cool slowly; as it cools the cream clots at the top. This literally clotted cream is finally skimmed off the top of the pan and onto the top of scones everywhere.

Photo credit www.thecupcakeproject.com

Photo credit www.thecupcakeproject.com

This ambrosial substance is difficult to find in the US for affordable prices. I always have a jar at my parents’ house for scone taste testing, but it is definitely an indulgence. Most tea houses in the US don’t consider it cost-effective to serve real clotted cream–neither the stuff from Cornwall nor Devon–so they serve mock-clotted cream which is usually just a stiffened and sweetened whipped cream blend and call it Devonshire cream. To be fair to these tearooms and hotels serving scones and afternoon tea, most Americans have never experienced the glories of true clotted cream and so they won’t notice a difference. But once they have, get ready for an onslaught of clotted-cream-addict emails and complaints because there really is no comparison.

Clotted cream imported from England is sold in jars at some specialty grocers or British stores. Seek it out, I promise it is worth the investment.

Tea Fannings

Speaking of tea bags, did you know that tea bags don’t actually contain tea leaves? They are filled with fannings.

Doesn’t sound too appetizing or tea-like does it?

Fannings is the technical term for the leftover powders and dust from tea processing. They are essentially small broken pieces of tea leaves and tea dust.  When combined they have the consistency of a rough powder.

Green Tea Fannings. Photo credit www.tootoo.com

Green Tea Fannings. Photo credit www.tootoo.com

This is the “tea” in most tea bags! The fannings are considered by tea enthusiasts to yield an inferior tasting tea and drinking experience, partially because the fannings are exposed to more air during processing and packaging. Air exposure causes the tea to go stale faster and lose some of the flavorful oils.

But the news is not all bad, I promise! Some of the higher end tea sellers who use bags do package whole tea leaves in larger bags (always unbleached and large enough to allow the tea to expand when wet), and have moved away from bagging fannings. A good rule of thumb: the cheaper the tea, the more fannings there be!

Origins of the Tea Bag

Now, as it is probably well known but certainly well documented on this blog, I am a whole-hearted advocate of brewing only loose-leaf teas. I find this method gives better flavor, is better for the environment, and is more traditional. But tea bags are an unfortunate reality of many tea services, which then begs the question: how did they get here?

Funny story.

Old fashioned tea scales. Photo credit tisane.com

Old fashioned tea scales. Photo credit tisano.com

Like sticky-notes, slinkies, chewing gum, and paper clips, tea bags were an accidental invention. Thomas Sullivan was a tea importer in 1908. He packaged up the loose leaf tea he was selling in silk bags simply because it was convenient, and then his customers steeped the whole thing including the bag because they didn’t know any better. After a while, some customers started complaining that their tea was NOT in the silk bags (we loose leaf fans can blame them) and Sullivan began to ship all of his tea in bags from then on.

Silk is expensive, so Sullivan switched to gauze sacks instead of silk. And now we have tea bags instead of only loose leaf teas.

Okay, so maybe the story wasn’t that funny, but it was informative!

abaut_tea_Tea_bagsAn important thing to look for when you are buying tea bags (traitors) is for unbleached bags. Any tea bag that is white has been processed with bleach, and when you brew that bag some of the bleach will end up in your tea. That is no good. Stick with unbleached tea bags IF you are going with that method. It’s healthier for your body and you’ll have a more pure flavor of the tea.

Happy brewing this weekend!

The Levels of Tea Service

Afternoon tea has become the catch-all term for any type of tea service. Linguists will say that technically afternoon tea is just any cup of tea you drink after 12:00 pm, but where’s the fun in that stuffy answer?

When you visit a tearoom, there are usually three “levels” of tea service available. The tea drink itself is always a feature; the levels refer to the nibbles served alongside your hot beverage. You can order a cream tea, an afternoon tea, or a high tea. Each one has a different amount and style of sweets or savories, and for authenticity, make sure you know what to expect when you order which one of the three.

Cream Tea

This is considered the lowest tier (no pun intended) of tea service, consisting only of scones, cream, and jam or other spreads…hence the name “cream tea”.  It’s the perfect little repast from the hustle and bustle of the work day. A cream tea is substantial enough to curb your midday hunger, but not so filling that you’ll spoil your dinner.

Cream tea service at Blenheim Palace, Oxford, England

Cream tea service at Blenheim Palace, Oxford, England

One of my favorite things to do while I lived in England was to visit a tearoom in every city, town, or village I visited and partake in a cream tea.

Afternoon Tea

Ah, the umbrella term Americans use to describe all three levels of tea service. Afternoon tea–the true, traditional afternoon tea service–consists of finger sandwiches or light savories, scones and cream/jam/curd/etc, and small treats or cakes. This is the service that most American tearooms and hotels offer to guests. Because there is just a higher quantity of food and there is the finger sandwich course, afternoon tea can replace a full meal (I usually schedule mine as a late lunch) or tide you over until a really late dinner.

Afternoon tea at the Cavendish London Hotel

Afternoon tea at the Cavendish London Hotel

A typical variation of afternoon tea is the celebration or champagne tea. It’s exactly what it sounds like: afternoon tea served with a glass of champagne in addition to your tea beverage. A great excuse to drink before 5:00 pm!

High Tea

High tea is definitely a full meal. Traditionally served at the end of a working class day, high tea has more substantial food such as meat pies, vegetables, quiche, and heavy baked goods possible in addition to the scone and dessert courses. But nowadays high tea is more of a multi-course afternoon tea with the addition of heavier foods rather than the family meal it used to be. What used to be exclusive to the working class of Britain has been taken over and changed into a more elite social gathering. High tea was not meant to be a dainty, china plated affair; it was the meal served to replenish after a long hard day of manual labor.

High tea service

High tea service

So whatever your level of hunger, sophistication, or craving for sweets, there is a tea meal service for you. Just make sure you order the right service for your appetite’s size!

The Tea Dance: Much Better than Prom

What could possibly make the delicious tradition of afternoon tea even better? How about adding music and a dance floor as a side to your scones?

A tea dance is a late-afternoon or early-evening dance (around the same time as afternoon tea! What a coincidence!) that accompanied the afternoon tea meal. Tables would surround the dance floor and musicians and guests would be served the typical sandwiches, scones, desserts, and tea while having the option to waltz, tango, and foxtrot away the clotted cream they just consumed.

 

A tea dance revived in Hampshire, England

A tea dance revived in Hampshire, England

The first references were in Victorian era etiquette books, but tea dances were then limited to country suburbs, garrison towns, and getaways. Their intention was to offer a well-chaperoned event for eligible young bachelors to meet eligible young ladies. Starting in 1912, the upscale English hotels and restaurants started offering these tea dances and by the 1920s had spread to all the fashionable cities and their restaurants, hotels, and theaters. The Charleston also joined the waltz and tango.

ELT200711220643502953852Tea dances were mostly popular in France, French colonies like Morocco and Buenos Aires, London, and the British resort towns.

Hmmm, maybe this summer I’ll bring the tea dance back to popularity and host a tea dance of my own? Guess I better start teaching all my friends the Charleston!

What Exactly Is Tea?

We call all sorts of things tea that are not really tea (insert astonished gasps). True tea actually has a really narrow definition: it must contain the leaves of camellia sinensis. And yes I struggle to pronounce that plant name as well. So let’s–for ease’s sake–just call it the tea plant and the leaves of the tea plant. Much more manageable, no?

Camellia Sinensis leaves

Camellia Sinensis leaves

The tea plant is native to subtropical and tropical regions, so it’s really only found in the wild in Southeast Asia (most tea comes from China, India, and Japan). Nowadays tea is grown on plantations called tea estates. Unfortunately for all of us American tea drinkers, there are no tea estates in the US, though there are small tea gardens that are no where near able to supply enough tea for us to consume. Tea is one product we should be glad is made in China! Between the climate, soil, and available farmland, Asia is the perfect location to grow the massive amounts of tea that I…I mean we…consume daily.

Tea Estate in Sri Lanka

Tea Estate in Sri Lanka

So what “teas” are actually teas and not tisanes? (By the way, tisane is the technical word for any doesn’t-contain-tea-leaves beverage of water-steeped fruit, leaves, herbs, or spices.) If it says white, green, black, oolong, or pu-erh, it’s a legitimate tea. Otherwise it’s a tisane. Rooibos, dried fruit, herbs, flowers, and spices are all tisanes rather than teas. But most of us call many of the tisanes “herbal teas” just because it’s easier. Or we really didn’t know the difference between tea and tisane. Of course, now we all do so there are no more excuses on our parts 😉

Tisanes

Tisanes

Basically the fun facts/answer to the question boils (pun intended, ha that’s funny) down to a single factor…the presence of camellia sinensis. If it’s there: tea. If it’s not: tisane. Either way, they taste delicious with finger sandwiches and a scone.

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