English Cream Tea

english cream tea

Photo by Makery

While people have drunk tea for centuries, the English tradition of an afternoon tea is surprisingly recent.

There are suggestions of afternoon tea as early as 1804 in an unfinished Jane Austen novel. But it wasn't until the 1840s that the concept of a light meal with tea in the afternoons became a popular way to break the lull between lunch and dinner.

These long afternoons particularly bothered Anna, Duchess of Bedford, who would complain of a “sinking feeling” between meals. She started asking that some bread and butter (the Earl of Sandwich, a few decades earlier had the revolutionary idea of putting a filling between slices of bread) be brought with tea to her room. She soon began inviting friends for this meal and as word spread through high society circles, the afternoon tea was born.

These origins among fashionable and wealthy women who could afford to pause for tea, tied the concept of afternoon tea to class. It became an occasion to dress up and show off tea sets and crockery.

Over time, the tradition became more democratic and consumed across social classes. The differences lay in the degree of ceremony and the accompaniments. As Henry James put it, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the ceremony known as afternoon tea”.

Afternoon tea developed many variants.

Today, most people outside the UK think of “high tea” as the most elegant or mannered when it in fact began as a working class meal enjoyed by miners and labourers when they returned home in the evening.

Low tea, not in opposition to high tea, is named so because those who drank it were seated in low armchairs with low side tables for easy reach.

Royale tea was distinguished by champagne at the beginning or sherry at the end.

For Makery’s first baking kit, we chose the simplest and most comforting of afternoon teas, the cream tea. It is simply tea served with warm scones, jam and clotted cream.

When exactly the term came to mean a form of afternoon tea and not tea with cream in it is in dispute. (In cream tea service, tea is usually served without milk though it wouldn’t be an outrage of manners if you added some of that clotted cream to it.)

The Oxford English Dictionary dates it to the 1964 novel, Picture of Millie by Philip Maitland Hubbard that uses cream tea with the phrase to “eat” rather than drink:

"We just bathe and moon about and eat cream teas."

Other sources attribute an earlier use in the 1930s.

Cream tea is most associated with Devon and Cornwall counties in England that have developed a friendly contest over whether the scones taste better with the cream applied first or the jam.

There is no question though that the main event is the scone itself. They should always be baked fresh and eaten warm, straight from the oven.

They are easy to make, owing to their origins as a Scottish bread of convenience for home cooks when yeast was perishable and expensive. Some claim the word scone traces back to the Scone of Destiny or the Stone of Scone, were Scottish kings were coronated. Others trace it to the Gaelic “sgonn”, a mouthful; the Dutch “schoonbrot,” white bread; and the closely-related German “sconbrot,” fine bread.

Purists prefer their scones soft and light, with some crumble when they yield. Jam and clotted cream are the traditional toppings.

You can always make way for your own variations, though. Even Queen Elizabeth II did in this recommendation for President Eisenhower where she suggested adding golden syrup or treacle instead of sugar. While the National Trust guards Queen Victoria’s recipe, Queen Elizabeth helpfully included her recipe along with her letter.

If you’d like to make your own dough for scones from scratch, give it a try!

QE Letter

Courtesy of the National Archives


Courtesy of the National Archives