The Brits are well known for their love of tea. A cuppa is appropriate for all occasions and moods. It's for first thing in the morning and as a last drink of the night; it can be celebratory or for more somber moments; and it can be a pick-me-up or a comfort. And there are so very many types of tea to choose from!
When I first went to England over 20 years ago, I was used to iced tea, an American South staple, so hot, milky tea took a bit of getting used to. But I soon jumped into the habit with enthusiasm. My favorites were English Breakfast and Earl Grey, and I found myself often sharing a cup of one of these with my fellow grad students in our study room, at the local cafes, and in our rooms at night as we talked philosophy and put the world to rights as all good college students do. (In other words, we talked a load of bollocks and thought we were profound. And honestly, we were probably drinking something stronger than tea.).
When I was in England a week or so ago, I stayed with my oldest (by which I mean longest) English friend, John. My first year in England, John and I did our Master's together, and he regularly and relentlessly made fun of my American-ness. Including the day that he told me I was acting like a "typical" American when I took the last biscuit (by which I mean cookie) for tea dunking while we were sitting in our professor's home learning about Roman inscriptions and other such exhilarating subjects. Apparently, that just wasn't done as Brits were always too polite to take the last biscuit and so there was always one sad, forlorn, never-eaten biscuit left on the plate. Madness.
My trip down memory lane with John also reminded me of all the years of digging in East Yorkshire when everyone would down tools at 4pm in order to sit on the spoil heap with a cup of tea in one hand and a biscuit in the other. You might be covered in muck after scrabbling around in the dirt for hours, and you might just have climbed out of a trench with a skeleton in the bottom, but that didn't stop teatime. The Brits truly are very civilized in their ways.
Still, my favorite aspect of the British tea habit is the wonderful cream tea. A cream tea involves a cup of tea (in its own pot and with its own little jug of milk for frequent refills) and a scone with clotted cream and jam. Now, this is important -- said scone should NOT be a fruit scone filled with currants or raisins. Others may like this but it is an abomination in my eyes. No, the scone should be a plain Devon scone, big and fluffy and not too sweet.
But it is not just about the scone's taste and texture. How you say the word "scone" and how you layer your clotted cream and jam says everything about you. When I first lived in England, I heard "scone" pronounced with a softer O, akin to "gone," and that became my pronunciation. Others, however, pronounced it with the harder O, akin to "bone." I always assumed this was a north-south thing, or possibly related to the British class system. Apparently, though, it is actually fairly random as to how the word is pronounced according to the Virtual Linguist, and each group believes the other to be completely wrong and usually too posh. I've definitely noticed that Americans pronounce it to rhyme with "bone" and I often get odd looks when I say the word and it sounds like "gone." (I'm right, people! I lived in England for almost 20 years and therefore should be viewed as the local authority on all things scone-wise!)
However, it is the layering of the clotted cream and jam that really sets scone-eating people at odds, and this is very definitely tied to place. Those of the Cornish persuasion put their jam on the scone first and then a dollop of clotted cream. Those of us who hail from Devon -- or who married into a Devon family as I did with my ex N -- ALWAYS spread the clotted cream on first, followed by a dollop of jam (strawberry, please, we aren't Europeans...).
One way is the right way, and the other is most definitely the wrong way, and trust me on this, never the twain shall meet.
* A footnote:
Somewhere I have a great photo of all of us mucky archaeologists sitting on a spoil heap with our cups of tea. Sadly, it could not be found for this post.
And for those who don't know what clotted cream is, here is a basic definition: a thick spreadable cream, more dense and heavy than whipped cream. All you really need to know is that it is decadent and delicious. Get thee to a tea shop and try some.
Photo 1: A cup of tea; a cup of comfort. [http://lisaknowstea.blogspot.com/2011_08_01_archive.html]
Photo 2: The Cornish way is seen on the left, and the RIGHT (or Devon) way on the right. In my mind, you are less likely to have the good stuff slip off the scone with clotted cream on the bottom and thus it is a no-brainer... [The Guardian online; Photograph: John Gollop/Alamy, Tim Hill/Alamy]