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Clotted Cream, Splits, Scrumpy and Gin

by Dawn Copeman

Ask anyone in Britain to name a food associated with Devon and they'll say clotted cream. This cream was developed as an alternative way of using the high-fat milk typically produced by the local cows. The milk was heated up in copper pans and then allowed to cool very slowly. The result was a rich, heavy cream with a yellow crust. Clotted cream can be made at home (see below) but it is also possible to buy in the US at http://www.englishteastore.com or http://www.britishdelights.com/cream.htm, where it retails at $0.95 for 1oz to $4.70 for 5.6oz.

Clotted cream is the key ingredient in another famous Devon specialty: the Devonshire Cream Tea.

According to local historians in Tavistock, the Devonshire Cream Tea was created in the 11th century by the Benedictine monks at Tavistock Abbey. The Abbey was founded in 960 AD by Ordgar the Earl of Devon, but was severely damaged around 997 by plundering Vikings. Ordgar's son Ordulf arranged to have the Abbey rebuilt, and as this was arduous work the monks fed the labourers with calorie-rich meals of homemade breads topped with clotted cream and strawberry preserve.

The monks then began to serve this dish to other travellers. At some point scones replaced the bread and the recipe became a regional speciality, which is now being served all over the country. Tavistock Abbey did not endure as well as the cream tea; it was completely destroyed in the Reformation.

A variation on the Devonshire Cream Tea is Devonshire Splits. These are made from yeast-based dough, which are split down the middle and filled with clotted cream and jam. A recipe is below.

Devon's fat-rich, creamy milk was not only used to produce cream, but also a wide variety of cheeses most of which are still being produced in independent dairies today. Devon Blue, for example, is still handmade in Totnes. Beenleigh Blue is made from the milk of ewes that graze only on the banks of the River Dart, whereas Harbourne Blue is made from the milk of goats that graze only on Dartmoor. No prizes for guessing where the milk for Exmoor Blue comes from! But there are more than just blue cheeses in Devon. Curworthy is a creamy cheese made to a 17th cCentury recipe; Sharpham, made in south Devon, is similar to French brie; Tyning is a hard cheese with a caramel taste; and Belstone is similar to cheddar.

A popular Devon specialty you might like to try is Deep Fried Cheeses with gooseberry sauce. Three 1-oz portions of different cheeses are coated in flour, egg and breadcrumbs before being deep fried until crisp on the outside but retaining their original shape. They are then served with cold gooseberry sauce as a starter (appetizer). Another Devon specialty is potted cheese, traditionally made from leftover hard cheese.

A good place to buy cheese is the Victorian Pannier Market in Barnstaple, where most local producers have stalls. While you're here, why not buy some fresh seaweed? Butcher's Row sells plenty of it every day -- locally it's known as laver and it has always been a traditional part of the North Devon diet. Locals used to gather seaweed from the beaches, then cook it at home in a variety of recipes, not many of which survive today. One that does survive is Laverbread and here's a link to the recipe if you feel adventurous: http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/discovering/taste/laver.shtml.

To accompany your local fayre you might be tempted to try some Scrumpy. Scrumpy is a type of cider particular to Devon. It is made from windfall apples, i.e., the apples that fall off the trees before ripening and that are therefore unsuitable for eating. Scrumpy is refreshing and delicious, but be warned, it is also very potent! If you can't get to Devon, you can always make your own Scrumpy; see http://www.devon-calling.com/food%20and%20drink/cider.htm.

An alternative choice of liquid refreshment and my personal favourite would be Plymouth Gin. This gin has been made in the Black Friars distillery in Plymouth since 1793. This distillery is the oldest working gin distillery in England, with records showing that there was a 'mault house' on the site in 1697. The oldest part of the building is the refectory, which was built by the Dominican monks or black friars in 1431. This is now protected as a national monument.

After the dissolution of the monasteries the building was used variously as a debtor's prison, a nonconformist meeting place and a refuge for Huguenots fleeing France. It was also the place where the Pilgrim Fathers stayed the night before they left Plymouth on the Mayflower, which is why there is a picture of the Mayflower on the labels of Plymouth Gin today.

The actual production of Plymouth Gin began in 1793 when a Mr Coates joined the distilling business of Fox and Williamson. So successful was Mr Coates' idea that by the 1820's the company was known as Coates & Co, which remained its name until 2004.

Plymouth Gin is based on wheat grain spirit and is still handmade in copper distilling pots to the original recipe from 1793. It is a unique gin, and unlike London Gin or Dutch Gin, it has a legal designation stating that it cannot be made anywhere outside of Plymouth. This is because to make Plymouth Gin, you need the water from Dartmoor National Park. Incidentally, the water from Dartmoor was first tapped to serve the town of Plymouth on the orders of Sir Francis Drake, who in 1581 was the town's mayor.

In 1836 Plymouth Gin was mentioned by name in the first ever recipe for a Dry Martini and by the middle of the 19th century it became the official drink of the Royal Navy. By 1900 it was the world's best seller with over 1000 cases a week going to New York alone. During the Second World War grain shortages and the bombing of the distillery severely disrupted production and sales continued to suffer in the post-war years; by 1996 only 5000 cases a year were being sold. Then new owners took over and re-launched the gin as a premium brand. It has recently won export awards and sales are now thriving. You can buy Plymouth Gin at many outlets in the US, for your local distributor check: http://www.plymouthgin.com/index.cfm?articleid=36.

But if you're in Plymouth, why not visit the Black Friars Visitor Centre, where you will not only get a guided tour of the distillery, including the 15th Century refectory, but also get to taste the entire Plymouth Gin range and take away a miniature bottle of Plymouth Gin. Visit http://www.plymouthgin.com for details.

Devon offers its visitors a rich dining experience: in its restaurants you can try 32 types of oysters, fresh crab or lobster. Or maybe you'd prefer Exmoor Venison? The fact is if you like food, you'll love Devon.


Clotted Cream (simple version)

  • 1 pot double or whipping cream.
  • Pour the double cream into a shallow tray.
  • Place the tray in a pre-heated oven at 110°C or 225°F.
  • Cook for 2-3 hours and the resulting thick crusty layer is clotted cream. Discard
  • the watery layer beneath.

Here are links to two other, more involved recipes which lead to a version closer to the original clotted cream:

Devonshire Splits

0.5 oz fresh yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups milk
4 cups flour
1 oz sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Half a stick of butter

  1. Mix together the yeast, warm milk and 1 teaspoon of sugar and let it rest for 30 minutes.
  2. Rub the butter into the flour and add the remaining sugar and salt.
  3. Add the yeast mixture and mix to form soft dough.
  4. Knead until elastic and leave covered, in a warm place for an hour or until doubled in size.
  5. Knead again and divide into 16 bun shaped pieces, place the buns onto baking sheets that have been dusted with flour.
  6. Leave again to allow the buns to rise the bake in a preheated oven at 220°C, 425°F or Gas Mark 7 for 12-15 minutes.
  7. When cool, split down the middle and fill with clotted cream and strawberry jam.

More Information:

Country Cheeses:

Discover Devon

Sugarvine (online food magazine for Devon and Cornwall)


Artillery Tower Restaurant
Durnford Street, Plymouth
Traditional English cooking in a 500 year old fort! A midweek à la carte 3 course meal costs around £35 per person (excluding wine); weekends there are menus at £27.50 for two courses or £31.00 for three. Bookings advised.

The Jack in the Green
Rockbeare near Exeter
Winner of a Michelin bib gourmand, all organic produce. Costs around £40-50 per person for 3 courses without wine.

The Michael Caines Restaurant at the Royal Clarence Hotel
Cathedral Yard, Exeter
Tasting menu £58.00

The Old Bakehouse
South Molton Street, Chumleigh, 01769 580074
Offers a Devon tasting buffet of traditional Devon food and drink. Dinner 7.30pm onwards.

For more great recipes, see the rest of Dawn Copeman's Taste of Britain series.

Dawn Copeman is a freelance writer and commercial writer who has had more than 100 articles published on travel, history, cookery, health and writing. She currently lives in Lincolnshire, where she is working on her first fiction book. She started her career as a freelance writer in 2004 and has been a contributing editor for several publications, including TimeTravel-Britain.com and Writing-World.com .
Article © 2006 Dawn Copeman


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