Rich, unctuous and wickedly good, clotted cream is the pride of the West Country thanks to the care with which it’s made, reports Flora Watkins.

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How is clotted cream made?

Depending on which side of the Tamar you’re on, clotted cream either came to Penzance in about 500BC through trade with Phoenicia—certainly, Middle Eastern kaymak cream is similar—or was first served by the Benedictine monks of Tavistock Abbey in the 11th century.

Traditionally, milk was heated gently on top of the range, the cream rose to the top and was taken off with a paddle; the skimmed milk left behind was used to feed the pigs and turkeys.

Today, a separator is used and the cream is pasteurised, then baked, so that it forms a crust, then chilled until it’s set.

Cream or jam on first?

There are history’s great ideological disputes—Sunni and Shia, the Cold War, and so on—and then there is jam or cream on first, which is no less intractable.

In Cornwall, the jam goes on the scone first, but, in Devon, it’s cream. The Cornish like to carp that it’s jam on top in Devon so as to hide the poor quality of the product. Get it wrong and you risk souring the atmosphere quicker than you can say ‘All together in a floral dance’, as David Cameron found out on the election trail last year.

The Prime Minister—who famously holidays in Cornwall—was caught on film getting it wrong in a tearoom in Barnstaple. Extraordinarily, the Tories still managed to take North Devon from the Lib Dems.

Cornwall: Jam on first

‘Why wouldn’t it, as the cream is a delightful extra, a topping,’ says my source in Perranuthnoe. The exception is for Thunder and Lightning (treacle or golden syrup and cream; if you put the treacle on first, then the cream slides around on top).

The key thing, says Mr Trelawny,  is that ‘freshly baked splits (a very soft bread roll) rather than scones should be used. A scone provides too much bulk and means that a second (or third) portion becomes an idea too far.’

Devon: Cream on first

‘If you were spreading jam on bread and butter, you wouldn’t put the jam on first, would you?’ points out Lin Houlford.

The appliance of science

In 2013, in a victory for the Cornish, Dr Eugenia Cheng of Sheffield University concluded that the perfect weight ratio for a cream tea was 2:1:1 (scone, jam, cream), with the jam, due to its density, needing to be spread before the cream. You should note, however, that the study was commissioned by Rodda’s.

clotted cream

The clotted cream family businesses

There’s the ‘little bit of texture to the crust, the initial silky smooth mouth-feel, the cool, fine, slightly nutty flavour’ that comes through as it ‘delicately coats the roof of your mouth,’ eulogises Nick Rodda. He’s describing the clotted cream his family has made at their farmhouse in Redruth, Cornwall, for the past 126 years in the lyrical way that a master winemaker might evoke a particularly good vintage.

Mr Rodda is the fifth generation and current managing director of the business started by his great-great grandmother, Eliza Jane, in 1890. Like most farmers’ wives, old Mrs Rodda knew about heating milk so a crust formed, but she came up with a way of sterilizing cream in the jar that enabled her to send it up to London with the eggs.

Today, if you’re tucking into strawberries at Wimbledon, afternoon tea at The Ritz or in Club Class on British Airways, your scones (of which, more later) will be accompanied by a little pot of Rodda’s. The Prince of Wales used to have some sent to the Queen Mother once a fortnight and clotted cream is now big business. Mr Rodda estimates that his firm produces ‘300 million dollops a year’—a turnover of £30 million.

Thanks to the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for Cornish clotted cream secured by Rodda’s in 1998, it enjoys the same status as Champagne and Stilton. It must be made from unpasteurized milk and contain a button-busting minimum of 55% fat (single cream has 18%).

That pretty, pale buttercup colour is due to the high levels of carotene in the grass, as Rachel Clarke of Trewithen Dairy in Lostwithiel, explains: ‘Our milk comes from happy, healthy cows, on pasture for much of the year, from family farms, all with a story to tell.’ Mrs Clarke and her husband, Bill, began ‘adding value’ to their milk by making clotted cream, ‘just as our mums did, on the range,’ 20 years ago.

In these difficult times for dairy farmers, forced to accept derisory prices for their milk (about 22p–23p a litre) by the supermarkets, it’s heartening to hear that clotted cream enjoys a wholesale price of £6–£7 per litre. Trewithen cream is now stocked in Fortnum & Mason and it’s been so successful that the Clarkes ended up selling their cows in 2001 to concentrate on production.

Like the Roddas, the Clarkes source milk from local farmers within a 30-mile radius with whom they enjoy ‘a close relationship’, acknowledges Mrs Clarke, ‘to work out the fairest deal we can’.

Of course, clotted cream isn’t just made in Cornwall. Over the border in Devon, Paul Winterton of Langage Farm, south of Dartmoor, is working with students at Plymouth University to apply for a PDO for Devonshire cream. Mr Winterton admits there’s ‘friendly rivalry’ between the two counties over their cream and the thorny issue of whether jam or cream goes on the scone first (see box). Langage Farm cream differs, Mr Winterton contends, because it only includes the richer milk from Jersey cows to ensure ‘the distinctive yellow colour’. Cornish cream, he sniffs, is ‘anaemic’ in comparison.

In the north of the county, Lin Houlford of Church Farm, near Barnstaple, can be found in her creamery at 3am, while her husband, Steve, milks the cows in the parlour next door. The milk ‘is warm, straight from the cow’ and gives her cream ‘a thick crust with a lovely texture underneath—like a crème brulée’.

Whether from Cornwall or Devon, clotted cream is the stuff of golden childhood memories. Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny, who comes from St Martin on the Lizard Peninsula, recalls ‘terrific teas in a farmhouse garden’. The farmer’s wife, Mrs Jenkins, would dispense ‘scalding-hot tea, splits, homemade jam and cream with a rich yellow crust almost too strong to break through’.

However, there’s no need for clotted cream to be a seasonal treat. Mrs Houlford is surprisingly petite for someone who admits to eating hers on ‘porridge with brown sugar most mornings’ and Bill Clarke of Trewithen Dairy breakfasts on cream and marmalade on toast, ‘as often as I’m allowed’.

Perhaps the best advertisement is Nick Rodda’s great uncle Eric, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 99—he always started the day with a dollop on his cornflakes. Now, we’re told it’s carbohydrates that are bad and the old low-fat-is-good orthodoxy has been thrown out, there’s never been a better time to indulge. Add in the low food miles and those happy cows—and farmers—and it’s positively virtuous.

Clotted cream has come both a long way and no distance at all from Eliza Jane’s Rayburn. It may be exported as far afield as Australia and Japan, but, wherever you are, that glorious, silky taste is as evocative as Proust’s madeleines. Mr Trelawny sums it up best when he describes ‘that moment on a BA flight when little pots of Rodda’s arrive. Thirty-seven thousand feet up over another continent and there’s a bit of Cornwall for tea’.

Where to buy clotted cream

Rodda’s in supermarkets and via mail order—a gluttonous 907g tub is available (01209 823300; www.roddas.co.uk)

Trewithen Dairy sells pots, priced from £6.50, by mail order (01208 872214; www.trewithendairy.co.uk)

Langage Farm shop at 72, The Ridgeway, Plymouth (01752 337723; www.langagefarm.com)

Church Farm Dairy cream is sold in local shops in north Devon and via mail order (01271 850320; www.churchfarmdairy.com)

At The Dairy Café on St Mary’s, Scilly (01720 422446), the best-selling cone is Roskilly’s clotted-cream ice cream topped with Rodda’s clotted cream

Or try a Hedgehog at Chapel Porth Beach Café, St Agnes (01872 552487): vanilla ice cream in a cone smothered with clotted cream, then rolled in hazelnuts