Getting Creamed in Cornwall

By Gayle Keck
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 21, 2008

It was London, the early 1990s. We had our first encounter at the Hyde Park Hotel. Then a rendezvous at Brown's Hotel. Which led to a brief, unplanned interlude at Fortnum & Mason. The affair was outrageous, indulgent, decadent. I had fallen madly in love. With clotted cream.

Yes, I swooned over something that sounds like you should put a Band-Aid on it rather than eat it. But, oh, the stuff was glorious: unctuous, buttery, rich. Every afternoon of my trip, I slathered it on scones snatched from tiered silver trays in hushed hotel tearooms.

And, like most of those smitten with a new love, I didn't bother to ask for details. I vaguely assumed it was heavy cream, whipped almost into butter but stopped just short of that transformation.

Returning home to the United States, I pined for clotted cream. It wasn't to be found at even the swankiest hotel tea services, where whipped cream was foisted on me instead. That started the questions: What, actually, is this rich, golden goo? How is it made? And why are the Brits keeping it all for themselves?

On a recent trip to England, I set out to find the answers -- and the best clotted cream the country has to offer. At first, my research pointed me toward Jersey, one of the Channel Islands near France and origin of the Jersey cow breed. Jersey cows typically give milk with a higher percentage of cream, rumored to be the best for making clotted cream.

But wait, it's not just the cows; it's what they eat. Turns out, the lushest English grass grows in Cornwall, along the far reaches of England's southwest coast, where there's a microclimate so different from the rest of the country that palm trees thrive.

And, despite a bit of bluster from the neighboring shire of Devon, which touts its version as "Devon cream," I discovered that the country's largest clotted cream producer is based in Cornwall.

So my husband, Paul, and I point our rental car toward Land's End and set out on a meandering expedition to the Cornish coast. Besides clotted cream, the region is famous for fishing villages, artists, gardens, smugglers and the hand pies known as pasties (pronounced "PAST-eeze"). On our tour we will encounter everything on that list that is legal.

The first thing I learn, strolling the constricted streets of Polperro, a tiny village of whitewashed stone cottages arrayed on ocean-side cliffs, is that Cornish tea isn't a grand affair reserved for the afternoon. The town is clogged with modest tearooms and cafes offering "cream tea." And though the fishing fleet still bobs in a little cove, I suspect Polperro serves far more scones than mackerel to the tourists who ramble the maze of pathways between the ancient abodes.

Here, "cream tea," means two scones, a pot of tea and a hefty dollop of clotted cream, and it's served nearly all day long. Passing up a boat tour ("nice dogs and happy babies go free"), we settle at an outdoor table and order the "Scones From Our Own Special Recipe," not an uncommon claim here.

"Where're you from, then?" the proprietor asks as a pink-cheeked waitress delivers our tea. His bushy eyebrows shoot up when we reply, "San Francisco"; they shoot up again when I ask for seconds on the clotted cream. In the name of research, I know no shame.

The cream is cool, smooth and sweet (though not sweetened). It clings to the knife as I spread it in artistic swirls, then melts just slightly into the warm, round scone (containing no currants, blueberries, chocolate chips, nuts or other distractions). It's delicious, and I confirm the source is Rodda's, the country's largest clotted cream producer.

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