-The Cooking Colonel of Madras by David Smith

classic meals >

the cream tea

fruit scones and strawberry jam

fruit scones and strawberry jam

       Think of England on a hot summer's day and picture a small café serving cream teas, sandwiches and cakes. This "tea room" will often have a little garden outside with tables and chairs so you can eat your cream tea in the sunshine. But this isn't some nostalgic view of Olde England. Tea rooms are still highly popular especially is rural and coastal areas which attract plenty of visitors. In bustling modern England there may not normally be time to stop and enjoy a leisurely snack mid-afternoon but when the English are on holiday an old fashioned cream tea is still second nature.

A cream tea consists of scones, cream and jam together with a cup of tea. Simple, wouldn't you think? But the English cream tea is a minefield of confusing terms and customs.

Let's get the "tea" bit sorted out first. Although a cream tea will inevitably include the drink tea that is not why it is called a cream tea. Tea in England is a light meal eaten in the afternoon. To confuse matters further, tea may also be a main meal eaten early in the evening as opposed to dinner which is eaten later in the evening - same meal, just a different time.

A cream tea is traditionally eaten in the afternoon as a kind of snack although in practice it might be eaten at any time during the day (like an all-day breakfast in reverse) and is usually far more substantial than a snack.

The cream in the title is likely to be clotted cream if you're eating your cream tea in the western English counties of Devon or Cornwall and whipped cream elsewhere although that too is by no means a hard and fast rule.

Scones are an essential part of the cream tea. Depending on which part of England you come from, scone can be pronounced to rhyme with either gone or bone (the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation advises that either is correct). Scones are made from a dough containing self-raising flour, butter, milk and sugar. The dough is thickly rolled out and cut into circles about 5cm (2 inches) in diameter. The circles of dough are then cooked in the oven until risen and golden brown. Dried fruit such as raisins is sometimes added to the scone dough to make fruit scones.

To enjoy your cream tea you split the scone in two and spread the thick cream on the broken faces. Then spread the jam on top of the cream. That's it. Enjoy a bite of old England while filling your cup from a pot of tea.