Last updated on November 28th, 2016
There’s something comforting and special about afternoon tea, whether it’s being served in a traditional tea room in England or in your own living room in the United States. Maybe it’s those little sandwiches filled with cream cheese and cucumbers, or maybe its just the excitement of being presented with a multi-tiered tray full of miniature goodies. Whatever the case, it’s always a fun experience.
Last month, while we were touring around the south west of England, courtesy of VisitBritain, we had numerous occasions to sit down and enjoy afternoon tea, as as we were enjoying our scones, we learned quite a bit about it – how it began, the difference between the various types of afternoon tea that are served throughout England – including in which order to spread the jam, and even how to make our own scones! We’ll share our new-found knowledge with you, and then we’ll share the recipe, so make sure you make it all the way to the bottom of this post.
The History of Afternoon Tea
As you might have suspected, afternoon tea has more to do with tiding you over for dinner than a celebratory ceremony, as we tend to view it today. In the mid 17th century Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is said to have invented afternoon tea as a way of relieving her afternoon hunger. It was typical to only have breakfast and dinner, so by midday, the duchess needed something to eat. She then began inviting her friends to join her, and it became a popular practice.
Today, we tend to view afternoon tea as a celebration, or a treat, usually while on vacation or as a special occasion. In the United States, you can really only find it in high-end hotels where mother’s take their daughters to spend some quality time together. While we were in England, traveling around, we had many occasion during which to indulge in some tea.
Our favorite place for afternoon tea:
The Pump Room Restaurant in Bath, England
While we were in Bath, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have afternoon tea at the ever-popular Pump Room, located right beside the roman baths in the center of town. We were definitely not the only ones with that brilliant idea. If you want to have afternoon tea or lunch at the pump room, be sure to make a reservation in advance. The Pump Room is housed in a beautiful Georgian building dating from 1795. You feel almost like you’re part of that fashionable Georgian society when you dine there.
They don’t skimp on the “delights” part of afternoon tea at The Pump Room. The beautifully arranged tray includes the obligatory scones with clotted cream and raspberry jam, an array of finger sandwiches and a pot of salmon creme with toasts, plus a top layer that is crammed full of sweets.
At popular times in Bath (which seems to be always), it might even be best to book a few weeks or more in advance. Just keep in mind that reservations are only taken Monday-Friday, and Sundays for brunch and lunch only. Traditional Pump Room Tea is £22.50 per person.
What is Cream Tea?
Prior to arriving in Cornwall, I was not aware of the term cream tea. My limited tea vocabulary includes high tea and afternoon tea, and I wasn’t even completely sure of the difference between the two. I knew about three-tiered trays packed with scones and miniature cucumber sandwiches, but I had never heard of cream tea.
As it turns out, cream tea is just a variation of afternoon tea that includes tea plus scones with clotted cream and jam. No three-tiered tray, mini-sandwiches, or sweets. Since I am not much of a sweets person, this new cream team idea really suits me. My favorite part of afternoon tea is the scones anyway.
Our favorite place for cream tea:
Carnewas Tea Room
When we arrived at the Carnewas Tea Rooms at the Bedawan Steps in Cornwall, we were in for a treat – and the rare occasion to learn a new eating custom. Cream tea takes its name from the iconic clotted cream that is spread copiously on top of the warm and flaky scones. The adorable Carnewas Tea Room is located at the Bedawan Steps, part of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, a conservation society in England. It has been family-owned and operated for more than 40 years. The scones are made fresh multiple times per day. The clotted cream, which is amazing, is locally made, along with the jam.
We were served four enormous scones, fresh from the oven, along with a cup full of strawberry jam and clotted cream. The instructions in the menu kept us from making the terrible mistake of spreading the cream on first and the jam on second. In Cornwall, the only appropriate order in which to dress a scone is jam first, cream second.
Open for most of the year (with exception of the winter months), Carnewas Tea Rooms is a small and inviting brick house with room for only 50 or so people inside, and maybe 60 outside. If our visit was any indication, it is always packed full of locals and visitors who have come from near and far for the opportunity to sink their teeth into one of those tasty scones.
Making Our Own Afternoon Tea
I wasn’t completely sure we could make our own afternoon tea. I can make the finger sandwiches with not trouble, but I’ve never made scones and to be honest, I’m not much of a baker. However, we needn’t fret about that. The lovely Judy Dain from Vaughan’s Cookery School in Wiltshire taught us everything we needed to know about making scones and put our minds at ease about baking up the goodies that form the perfect afternoon tea.
Vaughan’s Cookery School is run by chef Peter Vaughan, who owns The Bistro and Cookery School in Devizes. The classes are aimed at adults and children who want to explore and expand their culinary skills. We participated in an afternoon tea cooking class, but they have all kinds of classes available. Judy runs the cooking school and she makes the learning fun and easy – despite all the whipped by hand that is necessary to make the Victoria Sponge and shortbread cookies we made.
After the 2-hour class, we sat down to an afternoon tea made entirely by us. It was gratifying to be eating our own home-baked scones, so I wanted to share the Vaughan’s Cookery School scone recipe with you, so that you can make them at home, any time you feel like it!
Scones from Carnewas Tea Rooms
- 250g plain flour
- 10g baking powder
- 50g butter
- 25g sugar
- pinch salt
- 150ml buttermilk
- Sieve flour, baking power and salt into bowl.
- Rub butter into flour to form crumbs
- Add sugar (also add fruit/cheese at this stage if required)
- Mix buttermilk into dry ingredients until soft dough is formed. Do not overwork.
- Press or roll out on floured board to 2cm depth
- Cut out scones, being careful not to twist cutter.
- Place on greased baking tray. Brush milk or eggwash on top.
- Bake at 220C (430F) in preheated oven for 12-15 mins until golden brown.
It’s really pretty easy! Try it at home and see what you think. The only issue we have is getting the clotted cream, since it’s not as prevalent in the United States, but you can find a substitute in mascarpone cheese or by whipping your own cream.
(As always, all thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are my own honest reflection on our travel experiences).