Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Tea – A British Tradition

Even if you do not like to drink tea, I would bet that many of you enjoy sitting down to a beautiful and tasty Afternoon Tea or even just a simple Cream Tea. Just what these events are and some of the arguments around them is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Image by Ji-yeon Yun from Pixabay

The first piece of disagreement about Afternoon Tea is the name. Here in the US, most people use the term High Tea rather than Afternoon Tea but this is a misnomer. The concept of Afternoon Tea started in England in the 1840s when The Duchess of Bedford wanted a small bite between lunch and dinner. It started out as just tea and a small snack, but the popularity grew once she started inviting her friends over and it became a social gathering for the wealthy social class. It developed into a light meal composed of three courses – tea sandwiches and savories, scones with clotted cream and jam, and sweet pastries. Everything was bite-sized and eaten with fingers. Afternoon tea time was around 4:00 pm. It was not meant to replace dinner but instead to tide someone over until dinner, which was usually served at 8:00 pm for the upper class. Afternoon tea is also called Low Tea since it was enjoyed on low tables with comfortable chairs and sofas in the drawing room.

High Tea, on the other hand, was a working class family evening meal or supper. High Tea time was between 5:00 pm & 7:00 pm after the working class came home from work. The menu consisted of much heartier dishes meant to nourish after a long day at work. High Tea was served at a high dining table where supper was eaten and thus, the name.

Cream Tea is a simple delight consisting only of scones (with clotted cream and jam) and tea.

Another interesting argument has to do with the scone course and it is one that continues to divide people in Britain. The debate is about how you put the jam and clotted cream onto the scones. Do you put the jam on first or do you put the clotted cream on first? The two counties from which clotted cream originated are Devon and Cornwall and they vehemently disagree on this topic. In Devon, the cream is spread on the scone first followed by the jam. In Cornwall, they say the jam must go on first. Here is a summary of their respective arguments.

Cornwall – jam first

  • It is easier to spread the jam on first and then add cream.
  • The jam does not slide off the cream.
  • You can taste the cream better.
  • You usually put cream on the top of other desserts, e.g., pie, fruit, cake.

Devon – cream first

  • The cream is like butter for the scone.
  • The jam will lie flatter on the cream, making it a bit easier to eat.
  • You are at less of a risk of getting cream on your face.
  • It originates from when jam was expensive so you would just put a small amount on top.

A final topic is just what clotted cream is. Authentic clotted cream is made in either Devon or Cornwall, England. It is made by heating unpasteurized cow’s milk for many hours, which causes the cream to rise to the surface and “clot.” The historians say that clotted cream was originally made by farmers to reduce spoilage. As they did not have refrigeration, heating the milk was a way of separating the cream from the watery whey, which is where the bacteria were found. This also produced a thick and rich cream that became very popular.

Just as champagne cannot be called that unless it is from the Champagne region of France, products can only be labeled as “Cornish clotted cream” if they are made with milk from Cornwall cows and are a minimum of 55% butterfat. The farmers tell us that it is the grass eaten by Cornish cows that gives the clotted cream its yellow color.

Clotted cream should be distinguished from other dairy products. If the cream is allowed to separate naturally – without the application of heat – you get different products. If you allow the milk to separate just once, it produces “single cream”. If there is a second separation, it produces “double cream.” These products contain less fat and, therefore, are thinner and have a lighter taste.

You may wonder how these dairy items compare to American products. In the US, our heavy cream is 36-40% fat, whipping cream is 30-36%, and light (table) cream is 18-30%. Half-and-half is a mixture of cream and whole milk. It contains 10-12% fat. The British double cream is 48% fat, whipping cream is 35% fat, and single cream is 18%. As we noted above, clotted cream is at least 55% fat but some is up to 65%.

What is your preference? Do you prefer a traditional Afternoon Tea or a simple Cream Tea. I know when my husband and I lived in England and were visiting different villages, we loved to find a tea house and sit down for a relaxing Cream Tea. It was a wonderful delight!