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Celebrating the delicious Cornish cream tea 

Words and photographs by Rebecca Bentley

There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” So said Henry James, and it’s hard to argue. Surely the very definition of perfection is embodied in the form of the Cornish cream tea: plain scones, topped first with strawberry jam, then topped with a dollop (or lashings) of proper Cornish clotted cream. Admit it – you’re salivating at the mere thought.

As synonymous with Cornwall as the cream teas it adorns, Rodda’s Clotted Cream is celebrating 125 years in business throughout 2015. Eliza Jane Rodda began producing her prized dairy products in 1890, at a farmhouse in Scorrier, near Redruth; it is still made there today, albeit on a much larger scale. In those 125 years, it has become a firm favourite with the Royal family, especially the Queen Mother. It was served during Prince Charles’ and Princess Diana’s wedding breakfast and was also featured in the last meal ever served aboard a Concorde flight from London.

Eliza’s great-great-grandson Nicholas Rodda is now at the helm of the company, which produces 220 million servings of clotted cream every year, to be enjoyed in top hotels and restaurants as far flung as Dubai, Japan and Australia. In fact, Rodda’s began supplying to Australia this year, shipping the cream over deep-frozen so that it defrosts just in time for its arrival.

Summer is always a key time for sales, as warmer weather encourages us out to tearooms or on picnics. As well as celebrating its 125th anniversary, Rodda’s has set up the Cream Tea Society in association with jam makers Wilkin & Sons Tiptree. Together they launched the inaugural National Cream Tea Day on Friday, June 26 in partnership with the charity Marie Curie. The Society is free to join and aims to create a community of cream tea lovers.

Managing director Nicholas Rodda says: “We want to spread the love of cream teas across the country; they represent the best of British, and we want to create a place where cream teas can be celebrated with recipe ideas, etiquette tips and recommendations of the best places to enjoy a cream tea.”

As part of the anniversary celebrations, Rodda’s has created a community pledge with its 140-strong workforce in which each member of staff can donate up to three hours of work time to community causes, putting time and effort back into the county. Fundraising is an important part of the Cream Tea Society, which is why Rodda’s and Tiptree are offering free samples to support as many charitable causes as possible.

Nicholas says: “We wanted to do something important to help signify this special year – we hope the Society will be around for 125 years too.” And of that all important question – jam or cream first – he says: “It doesn’t matter where you are – a cream tea should be served with the very best ingredients. Cream on top or not, it’s a product to be proud of.”

The crowning glory of Rodda’s clotted cream is its delicious golden crust, which is especially rich and delicate because of the high quality of the Cornish milk carefully sourced from dairy farmers within a 30-mile radius of the creamery. Combine this with family expertise and the traditional way it’s baked, and you’ve got a product that is the company’s pride and joy in a range that now includes butter, crème fraiche, pouring cream, custard and milk.

With tea drinking so embedded in British culture, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that we’ve only been drinking it in Britain since the 1660s. King Charles II’s wife Catherine of Braganza made the habit popular at court after it was brought to Europe from China by the Portuguese. Even so, it wasn’t until 1840 that the tea drinking ritual branched out into a more wholesome activity when Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, started the tradition of afternoon tea. The long wait between lunch and dinner
often left her feeling peckish around the late afternoon, so she requested that a tray of tea with bread, butter and cake be brought to her boudoir around 4pm to stave off her hunger pangs. Scones draped in jam and clotted cream were a popular choice; and when Anna invited her friends to join her, afternoon tea was elevated to a popular social event, with upper-class and society ladies dressing specially for the occasion.

The debate as to whether the cream tea originated in Cornwall or Devon still rages on, but one thing’s certain: the cream tea is well and truly embedded in Cornish culinary culture. You’ll be hard pressed to find a café here that doesn’t serve the traditional treat and countless venues have won awards for the sheer quality and effort they put into the cream teas they serve.

One such place is The Waymarker, near Constantine. It has earned itself quite a reputation for its beautifully presented cream teas, and was named champion of the Truly Cornish Clotted Cream Tea at the Choose Cornish Awards 2014. Huge square scones come in plain and fruit, but also apple and cinnamon, and the delightful butternut squash and maple syrup, which is gluten-free.

Proprietor Rhiannon Mann celebrated National Cream Tea Day by hosting live jazz in the afternoon.
“Cream tea is an occasion that should feel a bit special,” she says. “We’ve always been driven by using Cornish produce, and it’s lovely to be recognised for making the effort to keep the food we serve as local as possible. We even have our tiered cake stands made from Delabole slate by Stevens Cornish Slate Company – it’s not only local, but also gives our cream teas that extra glamour. And our home-made square scones are served warm, which is something customers really love.”

Companies dedicated to the traditional Cornish cream tea are popping up all over the county in different shapes and sizes, with a relatively new addition being Miss V’s Cornish Cream Tea, run by Amy Long. A self-taught baker, Amy hosts vintage tea parties and weddings, serving beautifully prepared cream teas to up to 100 guests at times. “My scones are made from an ancient family recipe that has been passed down through the generations, and I’m very proud of that,” says Amy.

The ritual of indulging in a cream tea is a part of Cornish heritage, something that families have shared together over the centuries and will continue to do so for many more. The Cornish are adamant that a true cream tea is served with the jam on first, followed by a generous helping of clotted cream; some, like Dr Eugenia Cheng of Sheffield University, have even come up with scientific evidence to prove this.

The matter is a hot topic for the Cream Tea Society and you can join in on Twitter by following @CreamTeaSociety. We asked Rhiannon from The Waymarker for her opinion, and she replied: “It should always be jam first, because this way makes you dollop more cream on top, which can never be a bad thing.”

Ever the diplomat, however, Nicholas Rodda concludes: “It’s about more than that. Quality ingredients are paramount as well as a perfect setting, but the most important element is the act of sharing this traditional food experience with others.”

Find out more at www.creamteasociety.co.uk and make your own delicious version of Baker Tom’s scones with our recipe here.