Apparel of Laughs

cream tea devon and cornwall scones

The History of the Cream Tea

The classic cream tea is a staple in tea rooms all over the UK and throughout the world. It should normally consist of just a scone, clotted cream, and jam. Simple right? Not quite. The humble cream tea is a source of contention between neighbouring English counties, Devon and Cornwall. As a proud Devonian, I thought it might be fun to look back at the interesting history of the cream tea to find out how it came about, why we love them so much, and which way of doing them is correct.

Who Invented the Cream Tea?

Back in 2004, the Devon town of Tavistock found an amazing discovery. In the lead up to the town’s 900th anniversary, local historians took it upon themselves to research the history of their beloved town. They managed to piece together some old manuscripts relating to the abbey that was at the heart of the town. They learnt that the original abbey of Tavistock was plundered and badly damaged by vikings in 997AD. It was then up to the local nobles to pay for and repair the damage of their local landmark. It’s at this point that Ordulf, the Earl of Devon, took it upon himself to get the abbey back to working order. It was his own father who in fact built the original abbey. This is where we get to the cream tea.

Ordulf wanted to gee up his builders and obviously get good, quick work from them. The monks of the abbey gave the workers a meal of bread, clotted cream, and strawberry jam, and thus one of the first cream teas was born. These three items would have been relatively easy to get at this point of history in Devon. I wonder if the simple peasant locals realised what they had started. The snack proved so popular amongst the locals that the monks even gave them to passing travellers. To think that the earliest record of the cream tea can be found back in Devon around 1,000 years ago. It could be that the Earl already had come across the sweet treat before, and just passed it onto the locals, but we will never know for sure. So I’m going to take Tavistock in Devon as the birthplace of the cream tea.

tavistock street devon cream tea
A street of Tavistock where the Abbey potentially once stood.

As we have found out, the origins of the cream tea came from Devon. So how did the cream tea get to Cornwall? Well I have a simple explanation. The town of Tavistock is pretty much on the border of Cornwall so these passing travellers were most likely going to Cornwall and they took their new sweet treat with them. Judging by how popular the snack was in Tavistock, I suspect the Cornish also took the cream tea to heart and shared the recipe far and wide within the county.

The name for the combination of bread, cream, and jam wasn’t first called a “cream tea” until around the 1930s. The phrase was first found in print by Foods of England in an old Cornish newspaper. It could well be a much older term, but when found in print before it was normally referring to a cup of tea with cream in it.

Why do Devon and Cornwall prepare their scones differently?

This is a question that I have long pondered. If you didn’t know. Cornwall and Devon prepare their scones differently. The Cornish like to put the jam on first followed by a generous helping of cream, while Devonians go for the opposite with the cream first and then the jam. I’m sure you probably have a reason why you do it the way that you do. I personally go for the Devon option purely because in my eyes the cream is like the butter and you wouldn’t put the butter of a sandwich on top of the filling would you? My mother who was born and bred in Devon does it the Cornish way, so there really is no rhyme or reason its just personal choice.

jam and cream first scone
A scone done in the Devon way with cream on first.

I have a reason in my mind why each county does it their own way. Many have speculated that the Devon scone skimps out on the jam because historically it has been more expensive than clotted cream. I think this is probably why. If we believe that the cream tea originated in Devon amongst low paid peasants we can only assume that jam was used sparingly because of it price. If the Cornish discovered the cream tea at a later date it could have been when jam was a bit cheaper so they used it more generously.

Another theory is purely on taste. Advocates for the Cornish method will say that using the cream as a butter takes away its taste. They also argue that having the cream on top gives you a better flavour as it’s the first thing you will taste. I suppose it’s really up to you at the end of the day.

jam first cornish scone
A scone prepared in the Cornish fashion with the jam on first.

How do famous people prepare their scones?

To wrap up the history of the cream tea, why not take a look at some famous people and the way they do their scones.

Mary Berry, the original judge on the Great British Bake-Off, opts to go for both methods of cream tea construction. It is reported that she will do one half of the scone with cream first and the other half with jam first just to avoid upsetting anyone.

Phillip Schofield caused a small scandal when he was pictured with a cream tea using the Devon method of cream first. It became a news story as Phil had grown up in Cornwall as a boy, so people thought he ought to know better.

Paul Hollywood, the current judge on Bake-Off, recently posted a video on Youtube showing his viewers how to make scones. At the end of the video he spread the jam on first followed by a large amount of cream. Paul was really making the most of the Cornish method.

Famous TV chef, Nigella Lawson shocked fans at a talk in Sydney telling them she was part of the cream first Devon brigade. Her approach didn’t go down well with Cornish comedian, Dawn French, who told Nigella that it’s “jam first with no exceptions”

Devon born comedian Josh Widdecombe railed against tradition and his own county by preparing a scone on Countryfile the Cornish way. I mean what do we expect for someone who supports Plymouth Argyle?

So if we can’t get a consensus from food and tv royalty, what about actual royalty? Queen Elizabeth II has said that she always has her scones the Cornish way. But yet it was reported that the Queen’s chef will prepare the cream teas in the Devon way. So who knows. I’m going to need a first hand account of her tea guests to know for sure.

In summary, I think we have realised that either way of preparing your cream tea is acceptable. It all depends whether you prefer the taste or if you want to heed to county tradition. It really is up to you.

But whichever way you prepare you scone we have a t-shirt for you. You can wear these out and about to show your alliance. Just don’t expect everyone to agree.

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