I was asked recently by the charity Tuberous Sclerosis if I would write a blog post to promote their Tea and Scones week which runs from 12th to 18th May. The charity raises funds and awareness into this rare genetic condition which can cause epilepsy, learning disabilities, autism and renal problems. There is currently no cure for the condition and so they hope to raise money for medical research by encouraging people to indulge in a spot of baking. It was only when I came to sit down and write the post that I started to wonder how I could relate scones to gardening. Then I thought about all the gardens I have visited over the years and some of those which stick in the head most are often those where I can remember whether their baking was up to scratch too. I don’t know what that says about me, that I’m a little obsessed by food perhaps, or that I’ll forgive any gardening fashion faux pas if you’ve sated my appetite with something sweet.
Whether it’s a National Trust garden, a lavishly designed private space or somewhere on a more modest scale the gardening year wouldn’t be quite the same without a visit to one or more of these for inspiration. A sunny afternoon spent noseying around someone else’s garden revelling in their peonies or questioning their taste in garden ornaments is as quintessentially British as it gets. But the day isn’t truly complete unless there’s the opportunity at some point for tea and cake.
For any garden which opens to the public the refreshments on offer are a vital source of extra income whether it’s to raise revenue to maintain the garden or in the case of the NGS to make more money for charity. The National Gardens Scheme have facilitated the public access to thousands of gardens across Britain since it started in 1927. Not only does it give gardeners the opportunity to show off their creations it’s also the chance to taste some pretty impressive baking. This is not the time to turn up with some shop bought Mr Kipling’s.
I am partial to a slice of traditional Victoria sponge or the zesty hit of a lemon drizzle but I’m not sure you can beat the classic cream tea. A scone, some jam and a dollop of clotted cream is a simple but winning combination. Yet this simplicity belies the controversy which surrounds the humble scone. How you pronounce ‘scone’ for a start will reveal where you grew up. Say ‘scone’ so it rhymes with ‘gone’ and you’re most likely a northerner; pronounce it so it rhymes with ‘cone’ and you’re from the south. Where the demarcation line between the two is I don’t know; it would be interesting to find out though. Is there a town somewhere in Nottinghamshire or Bedfordshire where north becomes south? So often in Britain the simple pronunciation of a word can mark you out immediately as an outsider. We once lived in a suburb of Guildford called Burpham. To us, until we had been shown the error of our ways by the estate agent, it was ‘Burp – ham’, turns out the locals referred to it as ‘Burfam’. Now I live in Wales and there’s a long list of places I wouldn’t even know where to start when it comes to pronunciation. I wonder if other languages have this too?
Getting back to the scones, there is also the whole ‘which goes on first’ debate as to whether you smear your scone with jam first or the cream. For something that only consists of three ingredients it’s remarkable and some might say very British that it can stir up such a fuss. Much of this is due to the rivalry between Britain’s most south-westerly counties – Cornwall and Devon. A Cornish cream tea places the jam on first and a Devon cream tea is vice versa. I’m sure my late Cornish grandmother would be pleased to know I’m a jam first girl.
It’s easy to think that something like this was dreamt up by some PR person for the tourist board but I know something of the fiercely protected regional differences of the south-west. When members of my family moved, the not particularly great distance of 26 miles, from a small fishing village in Cornwall to the city of Plymouth at the start of the 20th century it was considered a move to a ‘foreign’ country as they had crossed the River Tamar into neighbouring Devon.
Scones are so simple to make, in fact they were the first recipe I was taught in home economics. A bit of self-raising flour, milk, sugar and butter. I prefer a plain scone and I always reduce the amount of sugar suggested in the recipe. In my opinion, the sweetness should come from the jam. I’m happy enough with the addition of a few sultanas but the pleasure of a scone is it’s simplicity. As for recipes, there are plenty to choose from. I tend to use a Mary Berry one but have used Delia and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall too. I’d draw the line at the blueberry, coconut and lime scones I came across the other day. Several steps too far, I think.
Then we come to the jam. A cream tea generally comes with strawberry or raspberry both of which I love, but if I had the choice it would be blackcurrant every time. If you fancy something seasonal to try at your Tea and Scone event next week try this rhubarb and vanilla jam. I tasted it at Lia and Juliet’s Supper Club last year in the middle of some homemade jammy dodgers and it was delicious.
So why not get together with some friends to scoff some scones, chat about plants and raise a bit of money for charity. For more details about Tea and Scone Week visit tuberous-sclerosis.org.uk and if you’d like to share recipes and photos tweet @UKTSA and use #TeaandSCones.
Oh! And I’d love to hear your garden and cake stories. The best and the worst and the sweet treat you can’t resist.