Cream teas in Devon: jam or cream first?
PUBLISHED: 12:28 19 September 2016
Catherine Courtenay takes tea with the number one fan Ditch Townsend of a West Country classic
Say the words ‘cream tea’ in Devon or Cornwall and one of the first things that comes to mind is ‘that’ issue. The cream or jam on the top or bottom, foodie-joust between the two counties is well known. But what about the marmalade question?
You may find it a strange concept to have marmalade instead of jam with your cream and scone, but quite a few places will offer it apparently, so says Devon’s cream tea expert, Ditch Townsend.
I’m sitting with Ditch in a café, and we’re about to order a cream tea. I’m still struggling with this marmalade revelation as Ditch asks the waitress if she has an alternative to strawberry jam.
She offers him marmalade.
Showing no sign of surprise, and clearly having proved the point, he declines, graciously accepting the strawberry.
Ditch so loves a good cream tea he’s traversed the length and breadth of the county sampling them and then rating them on his blog. In the last year he’s been to more than 400 venues and sampled nearly 300 cream teas.
As we wait for our scones to arrive, he recalls his first taste of the West Country delicacy. Born and brought up in South East Asia, he was visiting Devon as a teenager, and was presented with a cream tea at the Hunters Inn near Parracombe.
“I’d never had something like that, it was amazing, a sensuous food,” he says.
“South East Asia has rich food, but it’s a different concept of richness.”
Warm scones, accompanied by two dishes filled with cream and jam arrive and Ditch begins his reviewing routine, which involves smelling, cutting and gently prodding the scone. He even delicately licks the top of it. “If the glaze is too thick there can be a metallic taste,” he tells me. He checks to see how craggy or misshapen it is, and for the “biscuit and cake” separation between the crust and inner section. He analyses the cream with equal care, and immediately spots that ours probably came from a big, catering pot due to its slightly loose, wobbly consistency. Having moved to Devon about seven years ago he began partaking of the odd cream tea.
“I like to analyse things and I just discovered so much difference in them, so I thought, ‘I’d like to do a survey on this’.”
With a career in community development, which involved leading projects on a global scale, Ditch found the concept of creating a Devon cream tea review blog relatively straightforward. Applying his fine tuned sense of logic and retaining a reviewer’s emotional detachment, he is frank and fair and insists it’s all, ultimately, a matter of preference.
He does admit to a passion for a raspberry jam with tamarind, which enhances the taste of the cream; and he also has a secret yearning for what he describes as “smoky flavoured cream”.
“I’ve had it just once. It’s when the cream is cooked with a lid off in a kitchen over a wood fire. It’s cooked and cooled for a long time and some smoke gets into the cream.”
This year he published a book, The Devon Cream Teaser, and he was one of the judges for Devon Life’s Devon Scone of the Year competition, but he refuses to get involved in the endless cream tea debates, declaring, “I’m a consumer, not a change activist.”
He adds, “Most people go out to eat and want a quiet time, a quiet life; so I can ask the questions and do it for them. After all, if you are going to be getting red flavoured jelly rather than jam, wouldn’t you want to know that in advance?”
Copies of Ditch’s book are available through his website devoncreamteas.info