This is my version of the ‘cream tea’. A faint echo, at least. The English cream tea consists of warmed scones (and in our family it was always ‘scon’ and not ‘scoan’, but each to their ‘oan’), a tranche of clotted cream, yellowing and puffy in its ramekin with the merest hint of a crust, and an avalanche of strawberry jam (does it have to be strawberry? I think it does). There was always a debate about whether it should be scone/cream/jam or scone/jam/cream. I believed in the former, because I didn’t want the cream to be too sullied.
Cream tea was always some sort of reward, recompense for having waited hours for the wrong bus, or walked too many miles in the wrong direction. Then spying a tea room, we would go in. And they were always remarkably similar; too small with little dolls’ chairs and spindly tables and one harried, red-faced waitress with sweaty armpits and a tabard that could best be described as ‘snug’.
And despite the heat, the sun that shines merrily on high and the hummingbirds that drill their way through our garden like tiny helicopters, this is more comforting than ice cream, or a cooling fruit salad. Scones it must be, with a dollop of tangy cream and some syrupy, balsamic strawberry jam. I need some Englishness, some rural Devon and Cornwall. My family lost someone very special this week, a Cornish rose. This is all I can do, where I am; bake something comforting, and sit and think of her. And they better have a bloody good cream tea where she’s going, or there’ll be questions asked.
There are debates about the perfect scone that could rival the death penalty in terms of depth and range. Obviously height is always nice because you want everything to look as if it’s just toppling over, and the only way to save it is to cram it into your mouth in one go. To achieve this billowing effect, a combination of raising agents is needed (bicarb and cream of tartar) and an extra-fine flour, such as Italian 00, if you can get your hands on it. And work the mixture as little as possible; the more you knead, the denser and flatter the results. Once baked, the light and fluffy interior should act as a delightful contrast to the crunchy shell. And it really needs to be eaten straight from the oven, so that the cold cream clashes with the warmth of the scone and the jam starts to liquefy. Some people like butter and jam here, and not cream. But my belief is, given that you’ll only eat this once or twice a year at the most, you might as well go the whole hog.
A scone for a cream tea
Adapted from Rachel Allen, Bake
500g (1lb 2 oz) light Italian 00 flour or plain flour
1 rounded tsp bicarbonate of soda/baking soda
2 rounded tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp sea salt
125g (4½ oz) unsalted butter, cubed
25g (1 oz) caster/superfine sugar)
1 egg, beaten
275ml (9 fl oz) buttermilk or milk, plus extra for egg wash
To make buttermilk, add 1 tbs lemon juice to the milk and let it sit for 5 minutes
100g (3½ oz) sultanas or raisins (optional)
6cm (2½ in) cutter
Preheat the oven to 220C/425F. Sift the flour, bicarb, cream of tartar and salt into a large bowl. Using your fingers, rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and raisins/sultanas (if using) and mix well. Set aside about a third of the beaten egg and combine the rest with the buttermilk, then add to the flour mixture and mix very briefly to combine. It will be a very moist dough.
Place on a lightly floured surface and knead ever so slightly to bring together, then press or roll out to a thickness of 2cm (3/4 in). Using the cutter, cut out approximately 12 scones and put them on a floury baking tray. Add about a teaspoon or so of buttermilk to the remainder of the beaten egg to make an egg wash. Brush the scones with the egg wash and bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown on top. Eat as soon as possible. These also freeze well, and can be eaten within the month.
I didn’t make my own clotted cream (obviously), which is the richest and most luxurious cream of all. Made originally from Jersey milk (the Jersey breed, from the Channel islands, is known for the high butterfat content of its milk), it cooks in a basin in a shallow pan of water, simmering for a few hours, until the cream rises to the top and forms a bubbly crust – the so-called clots. If you can’t get hold if it, crème fraîche works very well and brings a pleasing sourness. I love what Nigel Slater has to say about cream in its various incarnations. Read on at your peril.
This jam might be the best way of using up the ‘monster’ strawberries currently doing the rounds here. Year-round straws’ have long been emblematic of LA farmers’ markets, which can be off-putting, particularly when you see miles and miles of them, big as tomatoes and hollow as a drum. But March and April in our area is on average the closest the berries get to peaking. Gaviota are lovely but incredibly sweet and best eaten straight from the punnet. Seascape have more acidity and complexity, and make a more interesting jam. Recipe to follow.