I was a judge in the 2019 Shropshire cream tea trail: here’s what happened
Marie Kreft, author of Slow Travel: Shropshire
It was an honour to be asked to judge Visit Shropshire Hills’ inaugural competition to find the best cream tea in south Shropshire. The cream tea trail had been running since Easter and I eagerly awaited news of the finalists. These would be the businesses I (and two other judges) would visit in secret to check out their venue, service and cream tea. Including their all-important damson jam – the part that makes a cream tea distinctly ‘Shropshire’. What a lovely assignment.
Before I tell you about my judging experience, I need to get two things out in the open. Firstly, I use the jam-first, cream-next method. I have my reasons and refuse to argue. Not because my way is necessarily right, but because I don’t mind how you take your cream tea. The sticky, fruity sweetness of jam tempered by indulgent clotted cream, slathered on a freshly baked scone and washed down with a pot of good tea, is one of life’s joys – not to be spoiled by petty squabbles. I see scant need for butter in this already heavenly concoction, but if you like butter that’s great.
Secondly, I pronounce scone to rhyme with ‘gone’. Again, I don’t mind if you’re a ‘throne’ person – let’s agree to disagree. My pronunciation is appropriate for me because, well, any scone in my presence is very quickly gone.
I’m flexible on tea blends and whether my scone is plain or fruity. But to ensure a fair judging process here I decided to be consistent and always ask for Earl Grey tea with a fruit (if available) scone.
It was fun being a mystery shopper, taking furtive photos in each of the four finalist venues, and scribbling notes outside. I’m certain a few people sussed what I was doing, though, arriving (usually) alone as I did in the last days of August when the judging process was underway. “And will that be a Shropshire cream tea with damson jam?” one tea-room owner asked. We may as well have winked at each other.
Each cream tea left me hungry – not for more scones (I’ve decided they make a filling if not entirely balanced lunch) but for insight into its maker’s recipes and approach. Kerry Vale Vineyard uses yogurt in its scone mixture and, without wishing to sound like Paul Hollywood, I could taste the lightness this created in the bake. A lady at Thyme in Bishop’s Castle explained how she keeps Shropshire prune damsons in the freezer to ensure a plentiful supply of jam.
I became discerning about what I love in a cream tea, wondering during one of my sugar-rushes whether I could forge an Instagram career as a sconfluencer. For me it’s all about a warm scone, not too floury, with an even distribution of fruit. Jam and cream are best decanted into tiny ramekins, with the hope they’re scooped from big containers rather than individual single-use pots. I prefer it when the jam is not too sugary and the clotted cream has been allowed to soften out of the fridge. To avoid waste I appreciate being asked whether I want cream (oh yeah!) and/or butter. Pretty china teacups and saucers can’t improve the taste but they do, I think, create a sense of occasion. I also love quirky objects: my teapot at the Maltings Café in Clun was dressed to impress in a knitted strawberry cosy; the tables illuminated by fairy lights in glass bottles. Such details make me smile.
The other judges will have brought their own preferences to the process, but I’m happy to hear we came to similar overall conclusions. Any one of the four finalist venues would have made a worthy winner. They were all warmly welcoming, comfortable, scrupulously clean and run by cheerful people who are a credit to Shropshire’s tourist industry. But the overall winner, for me, took the prize for its homely atmosphere of comfy nooks and polished wood tables that were conducive to savouring perfection: light, firm scones, a smooth blend of tea leaves, a generous helping of clotted cream, and a slightly chunky, not-too-sweet portion of homemade damson jam. Congratulations to Jemima’s Kitchen in Church Stretton – I can’t wait to return without the need to hide my love for your wonderful Shropshire cream tea.
A second edition of Marie’s book Slow Travel: Shropshire is due out in February 2020, from Bradt Travel Guides.