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Pause for a holiday tea

A Christmas tea with light-as-air scones is the perfect way to relax during December.

By / December 17, 2008

Tea Party: English scones and tea make a cozy holiday treat.

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff


After college, when I wasn't quite sure what to do next, I went to live with a British friend and her family in a London suburb. Tamsin had moved into a flat on the third floor of the house, and I slept down below in the narrow room where she had grown up. We used the flat as a kind of hideaway after supper and on weekends.

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Each night, we ate the evening meal with her mom and dad, tucked around the circular table in the downstairs kitchen. The table glowed with decorative oil lamps, and the four of us would sit there long after the dishes had been cleared, discussing our days and playing games. Even the cat, Mouse, had a perch on an old piano stool strategically positioned in front of the radiator. It was a cozy time.

Cozy is important, because what I most remember from my fall in England (besides working as a checkout girl at the local grocery store) was how dark it was. England may have a mild climate, but it is also close to the Arctic Circle, which means that the sun drifts to the horizon by 4 p.m. come late October.

Enter the traditional English teatime.

Between 4 and 5, everyone would begin to arrive home as the streetlights came on. First me, with a half gallon of milk picked up on my employee's discount (the family called me "the milk maid"), then Tamsin, from her day of teaching school, and finally John, her father, returning from the university where he taught.

We'd light the fire in the sitting room, sink into the overstuffed couches, and have tea and cake in front of the television – all this before supper. I felt as though I was in heaven.

As the Christmas holiday neared, and strings of lights and boughs of evergreens were hoisted above the shopping plazas, stopping for tea and cake or a scone in between finding the perfect gift was part of the flow of our weekends.

On the topic of scones: Do not think you've had the traditional British variety if the scone was dense and larger than the palm of your hand. The scones I relished in England were small, round, and light. And while saying the words "Devonshire" or "clotted cream" can make one feel very British, the fact is that thick cream on a scone was the exception rather than the norm during my time there.

"When I was growing up, you would have to get Devonshire cream by post," remembers Tamsin. "But now you can get it in the supermarket because it is shipped up from the West Country." The quaint and pastoral West Country includes Devon, located in the far southwest of England.

Before Devonshire cream expanded its market beyond speciality shops, many Brits living in central England as recently as 15 years ago were accustomed to spreading only a bit of butter and jam on a scone.

My favorite was a warm scone, topped with jam and then crowned with unsweetened whipped cream. At first bite, the whipped cream floated on your tongue followed by the sweetness of the jam. Finally, the whole experience was grounded by the comfort of the humble scone. Then it was washed down with a mug of spicy Christmas Tea with milk. (A good American counterpart is Bigelow's Constant Comment, which has hints of clove, cinnamon, and orange.)