CREAM OF THE CROP

Sue Milne’s quest for the per­fect Devon­shire tea is re­warded in a pic­turesque vil­lage

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

THIS is Ex­moor, Lorna Doone coun­try, a ro­man­tic land­scape of heather-clad hill­sides, tum­bling, boul­der-strewn rivers and steep, wooded val­leys lead­ing to the craggy north Devon coast­line. Red deer, sheep and shaggy ponies roam the moors. But there’s dairy farm­ing here, too, and the high rain­fall and lush pas­ture pro­duce rich milk and, in turn, high-qual­ity but­ter and cream.

I’m here in search of the per­fect Devon­shire cream tea, the real thing, not the pale im­i­ta­tion found across the world, es­pe­cially in coun­tries with Bri­tish colo­nial con­nec­tions where the scones are fre­quently as hard as bil­liard balls, the jam has barely been in­tro­duced to fruit and, worst of all, ‘‘ cream’’ is squirted from an aerosol pack rather than the ud­der of a con­tented cow.

Armed with a map and a rec­om­men­da­tion to visit Bren­don House, twice a re­cent win­ner of the North Devon Cream Tea Award, I head to­wards Lyn­ton, in Devon’s north­east, close to the county border with Som­er­set, driv­ing along nar­row, twist­ing coun­try lanes and through sleepy vil­lages of thatched, white­washed cot­tages sur­rounded by gar­dens of lupins and hol­ly­hocks.

I en­ter Ex­moor Na­tional Park and fol­low the signs for Bren­don but the vil­lage is elu­sive. Fi­nally, I ask di­rec­tions from a group of cheery ram­blers dressed for bliz­zards on this warm, late-sum­mer af­ter­noon, who, af­ter much de­bate, point me in the right di­rec­tion. Bren­don is one of Ex­moor’s pret­ti­est vil­lages and boasts a me­dieval pack­horse bridge span­ning the East Lyn River, but for me an even more de­light­ful dis­cov­ery are bird­feed­ers, loaded with nuts and seeds, hang­ing from the road signs.

On rainy days meals are served in 18th-cen­tury Bren­don House’s cosy tea­room but to­day the 2ha cot­tage gar­den seems the per­fect spot to sit. I want to sam­ple a stan­dard cream tea: scones, straw­berry jam, clot­ted cream and a pot of tea. White plas­tic ta­bles and chairs are a jar­ring note in this rus­tic set­ting (al­though prac­ti­cal, given the re­gion’s high rain­fall), but oth­er­wise all is as it should be: the gar­den is a tan­gled pro­fu­sion of colour­ful flow­ers, sweets­cented plants and shrubs, with only bird­song, the buzz of pollen-laden bees and the lazy clip-clop of a horse cross­ing the nearby bridge dis­turb­ing the deep peace.

Ac­cord­ing to food his­to­ri­ans, the Devon­shire cream tea tra­di­tion, or at least the cream part, dates back 1000 years to when the Bene­dic­tine monks of Tav­i­s­tock, in the south of the county, re­warded vil­lagers for their help in re­pair­ing the abbey, with gifts of clot­ted cream. With the mi­nor ad­di­tion of jam, scones and tea, things haven’t changed much over the cen­turies.

Here at Bren­don House the scones are baked fresh each day by Iso­bel Rigby, who runs the coun­try-house ho­tel and tea gar­dens with her par­ents, Ian and San­dra; when the scones ar­rive at my ta­ble they have that de­li­cious straight-from-the-oven smell. There are two to a serve and they are large, much more than I can eat, and the bowls of ruby-red straw­berry jam and thick, golden clot­ted cream are in­de­cently gen­er­ous for one. This is a rus­tic cream tea, noth­ing like the gen­teel ver­sions served in top ho­tels. The scones are ir­reg­u­larly shaped, brown and crunchy on top, the tea is served in a sturdy brown earth­en­ware pot and there’s noth­ing fine about the china, but it all tastes de­li­cious and at £3.95 ($8.80) is great value for money.

The flour, eggs, milk and but­ter for the scones, the jam and cream are all sourced lo­cally, says Iso­bel, who spends hours ev­ery day bak­ing a mini-moun­tain of scones in the kitchen’s oil-fired range. ‘‘ The in­gre­di­ents are sim­ple but they must be good qual­ity. Our scones are noth­ing like the ones you buy in a shop and it’s be­cause they are tasty and we are gen­er­ous with the cream and jam that we’ve been awarded top cream tea twice in the last few years,’’ she says.

As a cream tea ex­pert she can ad­ju­di­cate on the cor­rect way to eat a scone. In neigh­bour­ing Corn­wall, scones are split hor­i­zon­tally, both halves are but­tered, then a layer of jam is added and fi­nally a dol­lop of Cor­nish clot­ted cream. Wrong, ac­cord­ing to Iso­bel, who says the cor­rect method is the Devon way: ‘‘ Split the scone, no but­ter, cover each half thickly with cream, then add a tea­spoon of straw­berry jam on each side, and en­joy.’’

Cream teas are served from Easter to the end of Septem­ber, and in the off sea­son Bren­don House pro­vides evening meals, es­tab­lish­ing a fine rep­u­ta­tion as a show­case for Ex­moor’s abun­dant game. The restau­rant menu in­cludes poacher’s rab­bit casse­role, pheas­ant en croute, par­tridge served with white wine and grape sauce, game pie and sev­eral vari­a­tions on veni­son, in­clud­ing veni­son Welling­ton (loin of wild veni­son en­cased in a light puff pas­try).

‘‘ Some of th­ese dishes may con­tain shot­gun pel­lets,’’ reads a dis­con­cert­ing warn­ing on the game menu. Arteryclot­ting it may be, but a cream tea sounds safer to me.

www.bren­don­house4u.com Other cream teas in north Devon: The Beachcomber Woola­combe. Cafe-restau­rant over­look­ing Woola­combe’s fa­mous surf­ing beach. www.beach­comber­cafe.co.uk. The Corn Dolly Tea Shop South Molton. Tea Guild’s Award of Ex­cel­lence. www.corn­dol­lyteashop.co.uk. Cliff Top Cafe Lyn­ton. Views of Ex­moor from the top of the fa­mous Cliff Rail­way. +44 1598 75 3366. Quay Gallery & Restau­rant Ap­ple­dore. Es­tu­ary views in charm­ing fish­ing vil­lage. www.9the­quay.co.uk. Swiss Cot­tage Cafe Il­fra­combe. Cakes and scones from on-site bak­ery. www.swiss­cot­tage­cafe.com. South­ern Cross Tea Rooms New­ton Pop­ple­ford. In south Devon but highly rec­om­mended, and with that name a must for Aussie trav­ellers in search of the per­fect cream tea. +44 1395 56 8439.

Rich pick­ings: Dairy cows graze on Devon’s lush pas­tures, pro­duc­ing the thick cream for which Devon­shire teas are fa­mous

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