Afternoon tea is a quintessential English custom, and one that has been discussed on the Word Wenches before when Anne Gracie wrote a delightful post on the subject. (And if anything, Australians love their afternoon tea even more than Britons do. And let us not forget the New Zealanders!)
This blog began at the Virginia Festival of the Book, where Joanna Bourne and I were part of a lovely event for romance readers and writers held at a local Barnes & Noble. Two of the readers said they'd met Jo Beverley in England, and she'd showed them how to have a proper Devonshire cream tea with clotted cream. They even showed me a nice picture of the three of them on an iPad.
I mentioned this to the Wenches, not all of whom knew the correct way to have clotted cream and scones because not everyone had experienced it. And a delicious discussion was stimulated! (Pun intended. <G>) In fact, it became so complex that I decided I need to do TWO blogs: one on cream, clotted and otherwise, and one on scones. (True or false: a scone is just a biscuit. Stand by for fireworks!)
Firstly, what is clotted cream? Since fresh milk has a short shelf life, clotted cream is one of the ways developed to preserve cream longer–cheese and butter are other ways. It's particularly associated with Southwest England, especially Cornwall and Devon.( Photo from Wikipedia.)
It's made by being indirectly heated, like in a water bath, then slowly cooled. The thick layer that forms on the top is the clotted cream. It must have at least 55% butterfat, but averages around 64%. In the US, that would be categorized as butter, but the flavor is different–rich and sweet with a consistency like soft cream cheese.
The whole purpose of clotted cream is to make cream teas possible. It's simple, really. Split a scone and top with fruit preserves (or lemon curd) and a thick layer of clotted cream. Serve with hot tea. Delicious! But already the first controversy appears: does one apply the cream first, or the preserves? Opinions very and can become quite heated, but I believe that a proper Devonshire cream tea requires the clotted cream to go on first, as if it was butter, with the preserves on top. Aussie Anne Gracie begs to differ. <G>
Clotted cream still has a short shelf life so it's hard to find outside the UK, though the Devon Cream Company does produces a small bottle that can last for several months before it's opened. It can be found in really good grocery stores, on Amazon, and sometimes in a little container served with a transatlantic meal on British Airways. <G> It's not quite as good as fresh clotted cream consumed in Cornwall, but it's still a nice treat.
But clotted cream is only the tip of the butterfat iceberg when it comes to the myriad kinds of British cream! We Americans tend to regard fat with fear and loathing: hence the blue white abomination called skimmed milk. About the richest cream we can buy is whipping cream, which at around 36% butterfat is about half the intensity of clotted cream, and isn't as easy to whip as a thicker cream would be.
The UK has many more kinds of cream. Double cream has 48% butterfat content and it can be poured over a dessert like apple pie or a fruit crumble. It also whips beautifully, and as Jo Beverley pointed out, it become the filling of an incredible range of cream cakes such as these made by this company, Darvell and Sons. Breeds of cows like the Guernsey and Jersey from the Channel Isles have always been prized for the richness of their milk. That's a Jersey cow to the left.
In the US, one is more likely to find artificial cream (Twinkies, anyone?) or custard, which are just not the same. I suspect it's a matter of safety–the US is generally warmer than the UK, and we certainly heat our houses to higher temperatures, which risks cream turning bad. In a cool English kitchen, this isn't as much of a problem because A) it's cool <g> and B) it isn't going to last long enough to spoil!
There are a number of other grades of British cream, from extra thick double cream (lightly cooked and a bit like clotted cream but the same 48% butterfat content as regular double cream), single cream, and more. We Americans must make do with half and half, light cream, and heavy whipping cream.
When I was a kid, we had milk that was pasteurized but not homogenized and the cream would float to the top. In theory, you'd shake the bottle to mix it before pouring, but if my father was having coffee, he'd pour some of the top milk into his cup since it was the equivalent of half and half. Now we can buy boxes of half and half, including–light low-fat half and half. Which really rather misses the point!
Have you ever had a proper cream tea with clotted cream? Does this blog make you want to try one, or does merely reading about it make your veins clog? <G>
Mary Jo, who thinks that every true Anglophile should try a cream tea at least once.