The concept of afternoon tea has been a popular one in England since 1840. It’s all thanks to Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. The duchess was a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria, who she also served as Lady of the Bedchamber, but her real legacy is as the inventor of the afternoon tea.
It’s said that afternoon tea first began when the Duchess of Bedford was visiting the fifth Duke of Rutland in Belvoir Castle. These were the days when luncheon had only recently been invented, but this was a very light meal in between breakfast and dinner. It gradually became the trend to eat dinner later in the day – typically between 7pm and 8.30pm – leaving a long afternoon of feeling quite hungry. The Duchess of Bedford started taking a mid-afternoon meal of Darjeeling tea with sandwiches or cakes, and so afternoon tea was born. Gradually the duchess started inviting her friends to join her, and mid-afternoon in England was forever changed.
Traditional afternoon tea consists of tea, delicate finger sandwiches, cakes and scones served with clotted cream and jam. When it’s only tea and scones served together, the meal is simply a cream tea – a slightly less lavish affair, but just as delicious. The cream tea is a speciality of Devon and Cornwall, and it’s from here that the contention of whether the cream or jam should be spread first on the scone arises.
There are many tea rooms in both counties serving Devon cream teas and Cornish cream teas. Served the Devon way, scones have the clotted cream spread directly onto each half of the scone, which is then topped with jam. The idea is that clotted cream is more similar to butter – which would usually be spread first on buns and breads – so it makes sense to add the cream first. The Cornish way is the exact opposite – jam is spread first on each half of the scone. Then a generous helping of cream is added on top, which apparently helps you taste the creamy local produce in its full glory.
Whether cream tea originated in Devon and Cornwall is a hot topic, since presumably the county where it originated from would ‘win’ in terms of whether it’s right to add cream or jam first! There is evidence of bread being eaten with cream then jam in Devon’s Tavistock Abbey in the 11th century. However, the mention of scones and cream tea hasn’t been discovered in literature until the 20th century, meaning the debate continues to this day. And although the Devon way is used more commonly in other counties in England, as well as in Commonwealth countries, the Queen – the ultimate upholder of British traditions – takes her scones the Cornish way.