Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson
Newcomers to the afternoon-tea table oftentimes appear perplexed at their first encounter with a scone. That’s why I sometimes begin my talks around the country with a few basic guidelines on scone etiquette. My inspiration for these helpful hints came as a result of a teatime faux pas that happened at the Washington Ritz-Carlton. It was the middle of the afternoon, and I had missed my lunch that day because of a flight delay. As soon as the tea tray was brought to my table, I eagerly spread a scone with way too much clotted cream and strawberry preserves. The pastry could not bear the weight of those bountiful toppings, and en route from the table to my mouth, it collapsed in a sticky mess onto my lap. I am now on a mission to save fellow diners from that troubling embarrassment.
Scones come in all shapes these days, but I have a preference for round English scones. You won’t find triangular scones on many English-tearoom menus. And, I like to see 2-inch-tall scones that rise up and split in the middle. That handy feature makes it easy to open the scone without benefit of a knife.
There are several methods for eating scones—all of them correct—but with some, more hands-on preparation by the diner is required. Here are my suggestions for an error-free tea break.
Think of the scone as a silver dollar that will be broken into two halves and then four quarters. Using the knife from the place setting, slice through the scone horizontally, as it rests flat on your plate. Then break only one half into two pieces (quarters). Spoon small dollops of jam and cream onto your plate—never directly onto the scone. Take only the amount of toppings needed for one scone, and spread one bite—about a quarter—at a time, not the entire surface of the scone. After all, the first rule of teatime etiquette is that you never want to look hungry.
Use the knife to dab the edge of the quarter scone with jam, then cream. Eat that portion, and return the rest to your plate. Sip a little tea, make brilliant conversation, spread new jam and cream, take another bite, and so on.
I’m often asked, “What goes on first—cream or jam?”
Again, there is no correct answer, but if you are having tea in the English counties of Devon or Cornwall, place the jam on first and then proudly put the rich clotted cream on top so that all can see the yellow butterfat that makes the local cattle the pride of Great Britain. When having a formal tea at The Ritz or Claridge’s, however, it’s more discreet to spoon the clotted cream on first, and then hide your decadence by placing the jam atop the buttery rich cream—thus avoiding any semblance of hunger!
Bruce Richardson, along with Dorothea Johnson, is co-author of Tea & Etiquette. Follow his blog at theteamaestro.com.