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