Light meal of pastry buns, almost always scones, split and each half topped, by the diner, with jam and thick cream. Usually accompanied by tea and light snacks such as sandwiches.
Cream Tea, 2008
Cream teas are often considered to be a Devon and Cornwall speciality.
No doubt people have often eaten split pastries with cream and jam, there is a vague reference to bread, cream and preserves from some accounts in 10th Century Tavistock (which looks to have been expanded by those with an eye to the tourist industry), but 'Cream Tea', as we know it now, seems to be relatively modern. Mrs.B doesn't mention them, nor does Escoffier, even Emily Rose Burt's extensive 1919 analysis of luncheons, teas and small meals in 'Entertaining Made Easy' is silent. The term does appear in Mabel Quiller-Couch's 1913 novel 'Kitty Trenire', but seems to refer to tea with ordinary cream cakes.
The OED can't find any mention before the 1964 'Picture of Millie' by Philip Maitland Hubbard which has; "We just bathe and moon about and eat cream teas."
Foods of England notes several advertisements from the 1880's onwards for 'Cream Tea Rolls' or 'Cream Tea Scones' and many reference in books and newspapers of that time to 'cream tea', but clearly meaning tea with cream in it. The earliest reference we can find to what appears to be the modern Cream Tea is in 'The Cornishman' of Thursday 3 September 1931 (p8), reporting a less-than-gruntled correspondent answering his own question as to why there were so few tourists in Cornwall...
Cornishman - Thursday 03 September 1931
A prosecution for wasteful wartime cream-profligracy,
Western Morning News - Wednesday 02 September 1942
See also: Cream Splits, Tiverton Chudleighs
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