How the scone discovered Britain

Like so many of the things I write about here, the history of the scone is murky.

But first a definition. And if you already know what a scone is, stay with me for the pleasure of watching me fall on my face as I struggle to do something simple.

Definition

Lord Google will tell you that the scone is a small, unsweetened or lightly sweetened cake. Lord Google couldn’t find his ass with his many floury hands. A scone is not a cake, it’s a baked thing made without yeast.

And that, my friends, is why I’m not in the dictionary business.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline. Oh, hell, I think I used this one not long ago.

Wikiwhatsia does a more accurate if less specific and less linguistically convincing job by defining it as a baked good.

Can a baked good survive without enough friends to become baked goods, plural? And if it can, is a baked evil lurking out there somewhere? Don’t we have enough to worry about in the world today?

The first stumbling block in defining the scone is that what things taste like runs off the edge of the English language. And probably of other languages.

The next stumbling block is that different recipes find different ways to make the dough rise, so you can’t define it by that. It can be made with assorted combinations of baking powder; cream of tartar; bicarbonate of soda, which Americans know as baking soda; self-raising (or self-rising) flour, which is cheating but go on, it’s your kitchen and no one’s watching. So you end up defining it by what it doesn’t use: yeast.

Defining things by what they don’t include is inherently dangerous. Scones also don’t include chopped liver. Or gravel. They don’t include fire extinguishers or (at least in my experience) pickled onions. The world is rich in things they don’t include.

But in spite of that, let’s charge in where angels fear to bake and talk about what a scone isn’t: It’s not highly sweetened. It’s not a cake. It’s not a baking powder biscuit. It’s not an American scone because the American scone takes the British scone and adds steroids. It’s also not an anvil or a soup or an armchair.

You’re welcome. I do try to be helpful.

And there endeth in failure my attempts to define the thing. Aren’t you glad you stuck around?

Variations

Whatever the scone is, the British eat it happily, generally with butter and jam or (in the southwest, if they’re going to hell in a handbasket) with clotted cream and jam. Or if they’re me (which of course they’re not; I’m more American than British, no matter how long I’ve been here), just with butter.

All that changes if the scones are savory, which means not sweet and spelled with an extra U but it went wandering somewhere and I can’t be bothered looking for it just now. Savory scones can involve cheese or herbs or anything along those lines, in which case skip the jam and stuff and just slather on some butter and be happy.

History

The scone’s origins (and we’re back, at last, to where I should have started) are murky.

A food reference site tells me they were either originally Dutch (from the Dutch for beautiful bread, schoonbrot, or Scottish, a descendant of the Scottish oat cake. Let’s take those possibilities one at a time.

I humbliy petitioned Lord Google to translate schoonbrot for me. First he corrected my spelling: It’s schoonbrood. Then he told me it means clean bread.

I told him to dust the flour off his hands because he was getting my screen dirty, but if he’s not listening I’ll admit to you that I can actually see a connection there.

I slipped a few more words into his all-devouring maw and learned that schoonbrot is Middle Dutch, so I can keep my snarky remarks about the site where I found the word to myself.

A WikiWhatsia article translates the Middle Dutch as fine bread and says the language was first brought to England by about a third of William the Conqueror’s soldiers, who came from Dutch-speaking Flanders, and more bits of it were brought by Flemish refugees between the eleventh until the seventeenth centuries, who were fleeing floods, overpopulation, and warfare.

“When England’s population numbered 5 million, London alone had tens of thousands of Flemings, while an estimated third of the Scottish population has a Flemish background,” it said.

That’s not the same as saying that a third of the population of Scotland was Flemish, but never mind. The point is that the English language picked up a pretty fair dusting of Middle Dutch and (irrelevantly) that Britain has assimilated large numbers of refugees in the past without losing its essential Britishness, whatever the hell that may be.

So there, and also harumph.

All of that is actually more interesting than scones–at least to me–but, sigh, we’re talking about scones so let’s go back to our topic.

I made a quick effort to find out what schoonbrood was (and may still be) and found that it’s a company that sells “art by a number of painters” (a “perfect gift for someone starting his/her life in Maastricht. or leaving the city after graduation”) and also a not-uncommon last name. If it’s yours, I can point you at ways to trace your ancestry or to a possible relative who’s raising money for pancreatic cancer. Not, I assume, for the disease itself, which needs no help from us and isn’t interested in money anyway, but either for research or to support people who have it.

None of which was what I was looking for.

I tried “schoonbrood recipe” and came up with a recipe for harissa coleslaw with pomegranate and an article on emulsion polymerization (no idea what that is–I know my limits). It’s that last name business. So never mind. We’ve spent a lot of time on this and learned almost nothing. We’ll just have to assume the one baked good and the other baked good are in some way related to each other and are willing to form the happily pluralized phrase baked goods.

We’ll also assume that both are very clean because around here we wash our hands before cooking.

But where are my manners? Thank you, Lord G. I have left the usual offering of data. I’m not sure how much is in there. More than I expected, I expect.

And with that, we can move to the next possible origin for scones: Scotland in the early 1500s. These proto-scones would have been rolled out to the size of a smallish dinner plate, baked on a griddle, and cut into wedges, and they’d have been made without baking powder (or soda) because baking soda only became commercially available in 1846 and baking powder hit the store shelves a bit later. Although the ancient Egyptians did use baking soda as part of the mummification process.

If that doesn’t put you off the next baked good you see, I’m not sure what will.

Baking powder, to be technical about it, is just baking soda plus some other stuff that makes it easier to use, but it revolutionized baking. You can find an explanation here.

The scottish proto-scone would have been made of oats and barley. Or of just one of them. Whatever was grown locally, I expect.

And now we get a bit where scones go upmarket.

According to the food reference site I linked to above (and you’ll need several grains of salt to do with this, so have some at hand, please), “Scones became popular and an essential part of the fashionable ritual of taking tea in England when Anna, the Duchess of Bedford (1788 – 1861), one late afternoon, ordered the servants to bring tea and some sweet breads, which included scones. She was so delighted by this, that she ordered it every afternoon and what now has become an English tradition is the ‘Afternoon Tea Time’ (precisely at 4:00 p.m.). They are still served daily with the traditional clotted cream topping in Britain.”

The site’s American, which you can spot by its recipes (cups, not grams and millithingies) and by its conviction that England stops dead at 4 p.m. and has afternoon tea. Also by its claim that all of Britain has scones with clotted cream.

Geez. Who knew Americans were so easy to spot?

So that’s two grains of salt.

The third one? A food historian, Joyce White, says the Duchess of Bedford’s early teas would have been dainty bread-and-butter sandwiches, not scones.

It is true, however, that the D of B introduced the idea of food with her afternoon cup of tea, because until she got loose on the tradition, having a cup of tea involved nothing more than having a cup of tea. After a longish evolution and the democratization of tea (because in her day it was both expensive and aristocratic), it’s indirectly thanks to her that we now have people talking about eating their tea. No one except outsiders like me thinks that’s an odd thing to say.

The D of B also started that business of high tea and low tea. Low tea was set on a low table. High tea involved a meal and was eaten off a table high enough to slide chairs under.

I tried to find out when the scone escaped the D of B’s elegant clutches and lowered itself to be eaten by the likes of you and me, but Lord Google and his minions (of whom, in spite of myself, I am one) aren’t interested. But escape her they did, and they now cost less than half a pound for ten at a discount supermarket. Or more. It all depends where you shop.

*

Now that the scone’s baked, bagged, and priced, we can move on to tea. Because what’s a scone without a cup of tea? In the next couple of weeks, I hope to inflict on you first a post about tea and then one about opium, which most people don’t ask for with their scone and tea but is related anyway.

116 thoughts on “How the scone discovered Britain

    • I found your second comment first, but I’ll put this one through just to prove that neither of us hallucinated it. Again, thanks for adding a new element to the discussion. I’d love to be more of a language nerd than I am–they fascinate me–but it’s not the direction life took me in.

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  1. Have you encountered drop scones? Just asking.

    I do love your anthropomorphising (phew) of Google. And all that liberal dusting.

    In the world in which I grew up, we never ate fruit scones (as in, ones containing raisins and/or sultanas/currants [no, not as in blackcurrants, as some American friends thought when I took them for low tea] with jam. Butter only. Yum.
    I may have to pass on your next post, it’s already making me nervous. I adore tea, do not drink coffee, and can’t understand why cafes that spend vast amounts of money on equipment that makes lots of noise making coffee can’t invest in tea pots with integral infusers so they can quietly make us half decent tea – as in LEAVES not BAGS!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Now, I need to find out what clotted cream might be.

    I came to Australia from Canada, and have fond memories of baking powder bisciuts. In my not at all humble opinion, they are head and shoulders above scones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love them both, but then I’m a sucker for (almost) anything breadish. For me, they fill different slots. Clotted cream, though–the simplest way of explaining it is that it’s cream that’s been beatified. It’s thick and spreadable, but not as thick as butter. Not as sweet or as frothy as whipped cream. It’s the perfect balance to something sweet.

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  3. You’ve reminded me of the time I took a German friend for a walk in Yorkshire. She got hungry. I kept reassuring her we would have tea when we got home. She got angry. It took quite a while to work out where the linguistic nuances had failed us. We went home. We had tea. Including food, obviously. She felt better.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Lovely! Took me back to Buxton Mill in Lincolnshire which had the absolute best cream teas as they were known (scones,jam and clotted cream) and was only a bicycle ride away from where I lived back then. Interesting history thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • And then you could tell yourself you’d ridden off the calories. Perfect. I tell myself that about walking down to the cafe in our village, because it’s down a steep hill. It’s bullshit, of course, but it makes me feel virtuous anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a feeling that the Dwavish fighting scones from the Ramtop mountains are made with gravel… but that might only be fiction.
    I have a hard time telling the difference between fact and fiction sometimes…especially if it is written by Sir Terry Pratchett…

    anyway…

    now I want a scone, which I have naked (the scone not me) with no butter or jam or cream of any sort. in the eyes of many this make me wierd.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Not only didn’t Lord G. (please, he gets touchy about being called Mr.) mention them, he didn’t need to. I’ve made them. They’re okay–sort of like pancakes but not quite as good. I haven’t figured out what the difference is–it would involve all sorts of mental contortions involving numbers that I’m just not capable of.

      I’m searching for some sort of joke about dropping a plate of scones but can’t seem to find it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the Flemish immigrants were not welcomed universally. Many of them were killed during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381.

    On a lighter note, tea with scones is a cream tea if you’re in a teashop.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Around here, nothing’s a cream tea if it doesn’t include clotted cream.

      I’m not surprised the Flemish immigrants weren’t universally welcomed. That seems to be the pattern, not just here but in the U.S. as well. And probably many other places.

      Liked by 1 person

    • A combination of ways. Some are topics that interest me or come to my attention in some random way. Others are suggested by readers, so if you have one to suggest I’d welcome it. I don’t always manage to do the ones people suggest (or that I suggest, for that matter). I’ve tried any number of topics that I just can’t manage to be funny about or that I can’t get interested in or can’t find much information on. But suggestions do broaden my range.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I like scones. There are several bakeries near where I live that sell them freshly made. Panama Bread also has very good scones. I eat them with coffee and sometimes for breakfast. Don’t tell anyone.
    A friend once asked me why people said Brits ate scones. He was a good customer and was buying lunch (he needed something and was trying to bribe me. I could not do it but he still paid for lunch) so I laughed as little as I could and explained they were scones. Then he asked me what they were. I was at a loss. I said something about they were biscuits or bread or cakes or pastries that were not very sweet and eaten in the afternoon. He looked puzzled. That was about fifteen or more years ago. I still wonder about how to explain what scones are. Your article was very helpful. I now eould answer that they are baked goods similar to a pastry but not very sweet eaten as a snack in the afternoon.
    I could not get into the no yeast bit but it is good to have the information.
    I like danish better. Have that for breakfast with coffee. Danish and scones must be somewhat related. Some danish us not very sweet. The cheese danish from Starbucks is not sweet and does not rise much. Must be part scone.

    Enjoyed the history lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have ecstatic memories of the danish sold at New York lunch counters when I was a kid. If I could get hold of one now, I’d probably think it was too sweet and that they’d changed the recipe. I’d probably be right about the first half of that and wrong about the second. Some things are better left in your memory. But trying to describe food to someone? Short of giving them a recipe, it’s hard to make it work. You end up comparing it to something that, really, is only vaguely related to it.

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  8. What an interesting hoot of a read this is. Scones are biscuits, if you’re American. And biscuits in America can be sweet or savory (usually with cheese, but occasionally bits of bacon or…well suffice it to say people will go off the rails. Now I have thought that scones came from Scotland, which had many culinary influences, but there is a Gaelic word, sgonn, which is a quick bread rolled into a round… Can’t wait for the tea disquisition. Did you know that PGTips is the only brand of tea that doesn’t downgrade its product for the U.S. market? Tea wizard friends of mine get theirs from Canada and order direct. Weird, huh?

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I lived in the U.S., I used to go to an Irish shop and stock up on Lyons tea. I didn’t know anyplace near us that sold PG Tips, although maybe that’s changed by now.

      My taste buds insist that there’s a real difference between a scone and a biscuit, but I’m damned if I can tell you what it is. I make both. The method isn’t that different. I’m too incompetent with numbers to figure out why they turn out different. They’re clearly related, but that’s as far as I’d go. You might be interested in the comment (above, I think) about the Dutch Wikipedia entry which says the scone comes from Scotland.

      Liked by 2 people

      • When I make biscuits, they have rather a lot of shortening, but never eggs or cream. When I make scones, they include eggs and cream, and so come out richer, and not as crumbly. (Of course, when I make scones, they also include sugar, dried cranberries, and rather a lot of citrusy icing on top, because clotted cream is rather hard to come by in the states.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I used to have a recipe for take clotted cream–it wasn’t bad–but I threw it away when I moved to the Land of Clotted Cream. The scones here are plainer than the ones you describe–less shortening, less sugar, no icing, maybe a handful of raisins which for some damn silly reason are called fruit when they’re in scones. As if the world hadn’t invented more than one kind of fruit. But never mind, that’s off the topic, I’ve seen a recipe that uses eggs, but most don’t. No cream, just milk. But for some reason, they still don’t come out tasting like biscuits.

          Liked by 1 person

      • I think the difference is the fat. There seems to be more in scones. But there’s plenty in some biscuits as well. I’m wondering if there is the regional variation in scones that there is in biscuits…ahhh, food, such a lovely subject. I will check out the other comment!

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        • The American scone has tons more fat. The British one has less than–well, than the American one. The scones in Scotland (at least the ones I’ve seen) are bigger than the ones in Cornwall, but then they don’t have clotted cream. I’m sure they feel they have to make up for it.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. I make both Southern American biscuits and Londoner scones (same recipe) LOL interpretation up to the ones eating them. When I made them in London they called them scones in Memphis they call them biscuits. I theorized that the taste difference over the ocean was due to slight variances in the actual ingredients. The ingredients taste different so the final product does as well?

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  10. I find that oftentimes your explanations carry me into a tangled web which you weave deliberately – apparently – but with much flair and entertainment.
    I have a quick American question for you: Is a scone related to Scottish short bread? Because I love the short bread but will always pick a scone last when given the opportunity
    Have a wonderful weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do seem to have a gift for complicating any question. It used to be a hazard, but somehow it’s reappeared in my life as a virtue. No, I can’t explain it either. But to answer your question: No. A shortbread’s a very, very (very very) rich cookie, basically. A British scone’s a cousin of the baking powder biscuit. I get hopelessly tangled when I try to figure out, never mind explain, what the difference is, but it’s pretty far removed from a shortbread.

      Hope thats some help.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Before this discussion continues, can you please explain what “CLOTTED cream” is. Is it like butter ? Whipped cream ? Ice cream ? Sour cream ? Cottage cheese ? I’ve been given these impressions by a number of sources, so I am relying on you to clear things up. Thenk kew !

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not as solid as butter, not as fluffy or as sweet as whipped cream, not as sour as sour cream, and not as lumpy as cottage cheese. Maybe if you crossed butter and whipped cream but made the resulting stuff a bit gloopier you’d have it.

      I suspect that’s not very helpful.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I love scones, but I think I rarely tasted real ones. I first discovered scones while babysitting in the US, it was a Maple Scone, then while studying in the UK I could not get enough of hot Cheese Scones from M&S. My mom once made very nice scones (she had travelled to Ireland) and had to let everyone taste.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As long as we all understand each other, I don’t see the point of arguing about how to pronounce it. I haven’t given up my American pronunciation, of scone or anything else. For me, it rhymes with stone. Although given the range of English accents, stone may have more than one pronunciation and not really be a fixed point. Never mind. I’m complicating the issue. Let’s enjoy the variation and insanity of the English language–along with a good scone.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I have no choice. I must take issue with your definition. Saying that a scone is a baked good made without yeast implies that anything baked without yeast is a scone, be it cheesecake or meringue or chocolate cake or pothead. Clearly a scone is none of these things.

    A scone is a bread product made without yeast, and usually prepared in individual portions. It’s essentially a yeast-free muffin.

    You’re welcome. Now, moving on to crumpet…

    Liked by 1 person

    • The crumpet is a bread product made with yeast and baking powder, cooked on a griddle, and much harder to get out of the little rings I pured the batter into than the instructions said it would be.

      Shredded crumpet, anyone? They taste better than they look, even if not quite as good as the prefabricated stuff.

      Great definition, by the way. But where I come from a pothead isn’t baked, just stoned.

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  14. I love your posts, Ellen. You are a hoot and a half and now I can’t help but wonder if what I made were scones or not – the recipe said they were but now…. I don’t give a sh*t as long as they are good. And they were.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If they’re good it doesn’t matter. If you’re American, then they’re scones as long as they stay on your side of the Atlantic.

      And thanks for the compliment. It went immediately to my head. For the next ten seconds, I’ll be thinking I’m something quite special. Then reality will send me tripping over my shoelaces.

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      • You have a point. And I’m Canadian and think my version was more of the Scottish type, which I’m very good with as I’m of Scottish descent 😁

        Hey, I tell it like it is and while it lasts, dance away!

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        • I don’t remember eating scones in Canada, so I don’ t know if in general you guys make the US or the British kind. Or mostly neither. The ones I’ve had in Scotland are bigger than they make here in Cornwall–or did I say that already? Sorry, I end up carrying on so many simulataneous conversations on more or less the same topic that I really do lose track of myself. What I do know is that nobody up to now has suggesting dancing while it lasts, but it’s damn good advice and I intend to follow it. Thank you.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Well, I for one, love food and cooking it and sharing it so, it was just a question of time before scones (no matter what they are called) ended up in my oven. I won’t say a word if you repeat yourself!
            And damn straight, it’s good advice! Most welcome!

            Liked by 1 person

    • Nope, it wasn’t just your nan. I still see them for sale sometimes and see recipes for them in the papers from time to time. I tried one. They came out like your Nan’s scones. Forgive me if I just slandered her baking. I’m taking that from your comment, though, so it seems safe. Or safe-ish. Anyway, rock cakes–actually, I think they’re called run buns, or both–do seem to have the ability to transform themselves ini the over into something inedible. Sort of like Superman in the phone booth.

      I just looked at your website and couldn’t leave a comment on the apple-blackberry scone recipe but it looks good and I’ll have to try it.

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