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What Is Cream Tea, Afternoon Tea, And High Tea?

By: Hummingbird Tea Room & Bakery | Published 07/12/2021

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What Is Cream Tea?

Unlike what many people think, cream tea isn’t a cup of tea with cream in it. Cream tea is a phrase the English use to refer to a time set aside during the day for replenishment. In American terms, it is what most of us know as an afternoon “snack” or, in more eloquent words, “nourishment.”

The various practices regarding tea time for the English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh can be perplexing for those living outside of those countries. Tea time in the U.K. can be afternoon tea, high tea, low tea, or just plain old tea. Not to make things more confusing, but “tea” may also refer to the evening meal time.


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Why Is It Called Cream Tea?

Cream tea is usually a mid-day break. The terms “cream tea” and “afternoon tea” are interchangeable in the U.K., so when you hear one or the other, you know it’s an afternoon event. The item which puts the “cream” in “cream tea” is clotted cream. Cream tea consists of tea, scones (or other confections,) clotted cream, and jam.

This mid-day time to replenish a growling stomach began in the 1800s. Back then, a full English breakfast was generally on the menu, lunch (as we know it) was not in existence, and supper/dinner was eaten in the late evening (which is bedtime for most of us.) The gap between the morning meal and evening meal left many hungry. Cream tea was brought forth to serve as a mini-lunch. Ever since then, it has been a part of the daily lives of those in the U.K.

But what about the other tea times that we hear about in posh hotels and tea shops? Where do they fit in with cream tea?

What Is The Difference Between Cream Tea and Afternoon Tea?

To better understand the differences between cream tea, afternoon tea, and high tea, let’s take a look at what sets each one apart from the other.

Cream Tea

Cream tea is what many of us know as a break in the day to have a snack. Cream tea consists of tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam.

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea is a much more robust version of cream tea with savory food items such as finger sandwiches and mini quiche. Scones, petit fours, or other small cakes or confections are also part of the fare. More emphasis is on the tea rather than the food.

High Tea

Those in the U.K. have high tea as the evening meal. High tea offers a much heartier food fare for the working class. Foods may include salad, meat, soup, and perhaps dessert. Tea is more of a background element of the meal. Not to make matters more confusing, the English may refer to a meal as “tea,” which includes foods that would typically accompany high tea.

Cream Tea Menu: What Is In A Cream Tea?

Cream tea is relatively simple because it includes tea, scones (or another similar confection), jam, and clotted cream. Cream tea isn’t cream tea without the clotted cream. So, let’s look at the elements of cream tea.

Imagine yourself on a beautiful veranda overlooking a garden of full bloom. You have a lovely cream tea to sit down and enjoy. In true English style, preparation of a cream tea is done in the kitchen and brought out on a large tray. The tray’s placement is on the small table next to a chair or sofa.

If you look at the tray, there’s a teapot with a fresh brew of tea, a teacup, a scone split in half with clotted cream and strawberry jam. The tea is a robust black tea made with loose-leaf Assam tea. First, you pour your tea into the teacup, followed by a dribble of milk. Using a spoon, you stir the tea side to side to mix. Lastly, you slowly savor the tea and creamy scone with its condiments.

That’s all there is to cream tea—a simple time set aside to have a bit of nourishment during the day.

Devonshire-Style vs. Cornish-Style

Because clotted cream is the center of cream tea, we will break down what this mysterious dairy product is. Now, most of us here in the U.S. have no idea what clotted cream is. The name sounds rather revolting. However, trust us, clotted cream is one of life’s little indulgences that, once you try it, you’ll love it.

Devon and Cornwall counties in England are the birthplaces of clotted cream. There’s been an ongoing dispute on which is better, Devonshire or Cornish clotted cream. You won’t find Cornish clotted cream anywhere else except in England because it is made with fresh milk from Cornwall cows.

What Is The Difference Between Devon And Cornish Cream Teas?

If you live in Cornwall, your cream tea will consist of tea, Cornish splits, jam, and Cornish clotted cream. A Cornish split is similar to what we know as an English muffin.  If you live in Devon, your cream tea will consist of tea, scones, jam, and Devonshire clotted cream.

The thing (other than scones or Cornish splits) that sets a Devonshire-style and Cornish-style cream tea apart is the layering order in which the jam and clotted cream go on a scone or Cornish split.

Devonshire-style has jam on top of clotted cream, whereas Cornish-style has clotted cream on top of the jam. Believe it or not, there is a surprising difference in flavor experiences by this one subtle change of condiment order. Before we dive into the flavors and tastes, let’s take a closer look at what clotted cream is.

What Is Clotted Cream?

Devonshire clotted cream that you see on the store shelves and in online retail is made from milk that goes through pasteurization. Cornish clotted cream is made from unpasteurized fresh milk. Here in the U.S., you won’t find this precious fresh milk unless you have access to a cow.

The milk goes through a resting period before heating. After heating, it rests again where the transformation occurs. During this final resting, the milk forms into a custard-like cream. Once this happens, the vats of creamy milk go into refrigeration, allowing it to set. Once set, a separating tool peels away the cream layer, which is goes into and sold as clotted cream.

Why Is Clotted Cream Illegal?

Cornish clotted cream was traditionally made from fresh, unpasteurized milk. However, the Food Standards Agency in the U.K. enforces tighter restrictions on fresh-milk products (which includes clotted cream.) Although pasteurization restrictions are in place in the U.K., the U.S. has even tighter restrictions when allowing the importation of dairy products.

What Does Cream Tea Taste Like?

There are two ways to savor cream tea; Devonshire-style or Cornish-style. However, layering jam and clotted cream in two different manners create two individual experiences for the palate. Your personal preference in one of the two determines which goes first; jam or cream.

With Devonshire-style, you’ll first taste the jam which is citrus, sweet, tangy, and fruity. The jam seems to overpower the clotted cream. With Cornish-style, your palate is first met with smooth, sweet, cream which for many is much more pleasurable. The jam’s tangy sweetness is less prominent and compliments the cream perfectly.

How To Make Cream Tea

Here in the U.S., it’s challenging to recreate a genuine cream tea because of not having fresh clotted cream. You can still enjoy cream tea either in a tea shop or preparing it at home. Remember, cream tea isn’t about chowing down and taking off. It’s an intentional time set aside in your afternoon to pause the busy day to spoil yourself a bit.

Things you’ll need for your cream tea include a fresh brew of tea, scones, jam, and clotted cream. Guess what? You can get everything you need for cream tea in one place!

Make Your Tea Time A Daily Luxury

Now you all a complete breakdown of what is cream tea, afternoon tea, and high tea! Are you ready to experience a quintessential tradition of the English? Instead of visiting the vending machine in the afternoon or reaching your hand into the cookie jar in the kitchen, why not doubly treat yourself (body and soul) for tea time?

Hummingbird Tea Room & Bakery has several options to experience this lovely tea time in the comfort of your home. Click HERE to learn more!

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