A guest blog from local cream tea expert Ditch Townsend on his top 5 finds from May...
They begged me not to eat their cream tea. “Come back after 2.30pm,” they said, “the scones will be freshly baked,” they said. That’s Exeter’s Tea on the Green for you. Too fastidious, by far. I ploughed on in my quest; now or never! It was large. It was hot. Could extra freshness have improved the buttery shortbread crunch as the scone’s glazed crust succumbed to me? Might not the dense and delicious cake-biscuit core be better for having matured overnight? My saliva glands squeezed ecstatically, as the tart blackcurrant woke from its soft, mild, creamy bed.
Seventy four cream teas down, I’m still standing. I don’t actually eat all of them. I tend to eat an eighth of a scone with cream and an eighth without. It’s the caffeine headaches that give me the biggest problem. Or finding two great venues in one day. (I tend to eat a whole scone with cream and jam, when I stumble onto the best ones.)
Except at the Oak Barn on the way into Budleigh Salterton. I almost jumped up and down, shouting “Mummy, Mummy!” when I bit into one of their cherry bakewell scones. It was so fragrant and exotically flavoured, that the jam ruined the small piece I tried it on. No – for this Duchess of scones, all you want is cream; lots of it. These are the moments when I need to eat it all.
Six years ago, I returned to the UK with my family after working in community development in Asia and Africa for 14 years. We settled in Devon and I soon developed a cream tea habit, having first experimented with it as a teenager on holiday in Lynton. A long work sabbatical is giving me the chance to indulge and share. But as I dig deeper and travel further, I wonder who is consuming whom...
Take the Corn Dolly in South Molton for example. When I stumbled in, apple and cinnamon was their scone of the week. Like a siren, it called plaintively to me from the specials board. Naturally, I capitulated. Baked like a cake, this giant scone wedge crumpled and crumbled its soft, chunky way to my heart, the fragrant loose leaf Earl Grey lubricating the way. Like I said, who’s eating whom?
Is there anything objective in my assessments, you might ask? I pretend to think so – at least I try to be consistent: I prefer my clotted cream like a paté, preferably flavoured (although my favourite smokey type is now almost extinct). I don’t score more or less between Devon and Cornwall (and once, even Dorset), but I like to know the source: if someone promotes a ‘Devon cream tea’, the least I hope for is that they source their cream in Devon. I like my scones to have some flavour, and preferably to veer down the biscuit end of the spectrum (soft and moist of course!) For tea, I’ll always go for a loose leaf Earl Grey with a cream tea if I can (although I review whatever is standard unless a choice is no extra cost). As for jam, my top bug bear is lack of choice. My second is the appalling insipidness and jellosity of the luminous, red flavoured, sickly sweet gunk, which I just want to rant and scream about, it crops up so often.
No – give me The Barn, up at Ullacombe, where THE raspberry jam lives: a thick nectar, plum-saffron coloured, suffused with the scents of paradise, yellow seeds hanging intoxicated with delight.
My other measure is that of the place – its grace in other words. I’m not aiming too high (no classy hotels for me), nor too low (no sun-drunk beachside kiosks either). But I’m looking for an interesting or pleasant local environment, and for some signs of care for the decor or garden, whatever its aspiration (some are themed, some traditional, some fun); have they achieved something worthwhile with the place? Lastly, how does it all arrive – is the visual sensation more shiver or shudder?
Just look at the setting of Powdermills Pottery and tell me it’s not awesome? That the pottery showroom isn’t just the perfect place to sit? That the home made crockery and tray aren’t quixotically special?
Well, nowhere is perfect, and I don’t let my scoring get in the way of that. If its close, it can have it. I don’t know how I’ll feel when I encounter my first 10/10. But for now, I can tell you that I’ve found a 9/10. Find out for yourself. It’s at Chagford, and it’s called The Old Forge Caffè. Go see; then tell me I’ve not done my job right...
© Text and photos by Ditch Townsend