A Tale of Two Cream Teas: Why the British Are Still Arguing Over Their Scones

The debate at hand: jam or cream first?

A cream tea prepared the Devon way next to a cream tea prepared the Cornish way

Photo courtesy of The English Cream Tea Company, Graphic / Serious Eats

Like all neighbors, the English counties of Devon and Cornwall have their rivalries and disagreements. But one conflict burns so strongly between these two southern states that it has the entire country talking: When it comes to assembling a cream tea, does the jam go on first or does the cream?

Cream tea is traditionally a midday treat, a kind of afternoon tea service in which you're presented with a pot of tea, scones, jam, and clotted cream; pour the tea, slice the scones, and then slather the scones with cream and jam—or jam and cream. Despite its simplicity, the preparation has caused quite a stir.

Devonians lay claim to the first ever cream tea being served in Tavistock Abbey in the 11th century. Following Viking raids in the year 997, the Abbey was damaged and had to be restored. Fragments of manuscripts written by monks from this time, and discovered by local Devonian historians, tell us that the Earl of Devon, Ordulf, rewarded his workers with bread, clotted cream, and a strawberry preserve. At some point down the line, the bread was replaced with scones and the cream tea was realized. This, according to Devononians, was the original cream tea and was served cream first and then jam, and still is today—the right way, if you ask me. Devonians say the cream is like butter and forms the base of the scone “sandwich.” 

In Cornwall this is heavily disputed. They say the jam must go on first, the better to protect the cream from the warm scone, which would otherwise simply melt the cream. They have a point, but I’ve always taken my cream tea the Cornish way, undoubtedly due to many summers spent in Cornwall as a child where I consumed endless amounts of cream tea.

A graphic labeled Cream Tea Two Ways with a photo of two cream teas, one prepared the Cornwall Way and the other prepared the Devon way. Pull quotes from the article applying to each preparation surround the photos

Photo courtesy of The English Cream Tea Company; Graphic / Serious Eats

When it comes to the question of jam or cream first, James Strawbridge, an ambassador for the online farm shop 44 Foods, considers himself a bit of an expert on the subject—the Cornish celebrity chef once served 15,000 scones in just three days at the Royal Cornwall Show. "Without wanting to start a riot, we know how to serve a proper cream tea in Cornwall, while over the Tamar in Devon, they've always been a bit confused,” he says. “The only way to serve a scone is by putting on the jam first. It's easily spreadable, and visually, it looks much better with the jam on the bottom and a good spoon of Cornish clotted cream on top. We take a lot of pride in our clotted cream. It's slowly cooked to get that fantastic crust on top, and we want to show it off, not hide it away.”

The Queen recently attempted to settle this ongoing debate when she revealed she eats her cream tea the Cornish way, jam first. But even an intervention from the Queen herself couldn’t put an end to the argument, and both sides still claim theirs is the right way.

“When I launched my book, it had a ‘diplomatic’ photo of one half of the scone being cream on top and the other jam on top,” Jane Malyon, author of Scone or Scon, says.“Cornish folks redesigned the cover on Twitter and obliterated the jam-on-top scone, saying, ‘That’s better, Jane.’” 

Malyon runs a Twitter hour on Thursdays via the account @CreamTeaHour, where she set the Guinness World Record for the largest English Cream Tea Party in the world. “In my experience, the more vocal complainers are the Jam First ones—Cornwall is very quick to defend what it thinks is the right way. They say the jam will protect the cream from a warm scone, and that it’s the crowning glory. Devon says not to be ridiculous. Of course the dairy goes first and the jam on top, just like you would with your bread or sandwich.” Cornwall even has a Twitter hashtag: #creamisnotbutter.

Robert Kingdon, Devon born entrepreneur, chocolatier, and patisserie and cafe owner of XO Chocolate, explains that in Devon, they take the issue equally as seriously and like to add little extras to their cream teas now and then.

"Cream first, in an overindulgent volume every single time,” he says. “Nothing beats a traditional or locally sourced jam, or even the one made from my mother's strawberry patch. I add a personal, controversial twist with a light addition of chocolate shavings, or, for a moment of luxury, my own cocoa and cherry compote."

Perhaps there is no answer to this burning culinary issue, unless you want to be historically correct about it and believe that the cream tea originated in Devon. Recently though, while enjoying a picnic that included a cream tea, my 21-year-old daughter happily began assembling her cream tea cream first. “Oh, you’re doing it the Devon way!” I said. She had no idea what I was talking about and simply replied that cream first made more sense to her as it was spreadable, like butter.