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.

British Brownies and U.S. Scones

My last post included a traditional British scone recipe, and American readers immediately wrote in (on the blog and on Facebook) and said, That sounds great. Can I add cranberries, chocolate chips, and marshmallows? The answer is, of course you can, and it may taste great, but it won’t be a British scone, it’ll be more like a British brownie.

Why is a brownie like a scone? Because once it crosses international boundaries you can’t recognize it.

Irrelevant Photo #2. Dorset. Photographer, Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant Photo #2. Dorset. Photographer, Ida Swearingen

Let’s start with the American scone. It’s great, but it’s got only the faintest relationship to the original. Which is British, and a cousin to the American baking powder biscuit—plain, round, workaday, and delicious. Usually. If it comes in cellophane, be suspicious. It’s usually a little sweeter than a baking powder biscuit, and sometimes comes with raisins, which for reasons I don’t expect to ever understand are called fruit. I mean, yes, they are fruit, in a dried-up sort of way, but the world’s full of fruit. We don’t insist on calling a carrot “vegetable” instead of “carrot,” do we?

Never mind. The fruit scone has raisins. The cheese scone has cheese. The plain scone doesn’t have either one. And the scone with ginger and lemon and blueberries and chocolate chips and deep-fried Mars bars? It doesn’t exist. But the cream tea does exist. It’s tea with two plain scones, jam, and clotted cream, which is cream that’s been beatified. If you see one and you’re not in (a) a highway café or (b) a railroad café, try it.

The American scone is a British scone on steroids. Triple the sugar, double the shortening, quadruple the size, and add every kind of fruit and candy you can think of. Exactly when every American turned into a Texan (you know: Everything we have is bigger, and everything bigger is better) I don’t know, but somehow we did. Or it looks that way from here.

What about the brownie? The British call anything dark, slab-shaped, and sweetened a brownie. Mind you, I’ve had a few over here that were delicious, but if I see them advertised I approach the display case with extreme caution. Wild Thing ordered one in London once. It looked pretty reasonable in the display case but turned up at the table decked out with ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and a blood-pressure monitor. The theory must be that if it’s American and you go over the top with it, it must be authentic. I mean, look what the bloody Americans do to the scone.

How to Bake a Scone

I can’t keep writing about life in Cornwall without posting a scone recipe. And not just any scone recipe, an English scone recipe.

You should understand that there’s no single, definitive English scone. Not only do scones divide into plain, fruit, and cheese (or savory, which is spelled savoury), but any one of those three will vary. You can also find griddle scones and drop scones. They’re like the brownie that way. Or religion. Lots of variations; lots of recipes; lots of people damning each other to hell for doing it wrong. You’ll also find regional variations. I could be wrong about this, but I believe scones get larger as they go north. It may have to do with the weather, or the longer O in the northern accents.

Some recipes include eggs, which is any right-living person would tell you is heresy, so this one doesn’t. I have no idea where I found it, or how much I’ve tinkered with it over the years. Whoever developed it, I’d give you credit if I could. All I can give instead is my apologies, and my thanks, because it makes a damned good scone.

Scone with jam. Photo by Benson Kua, and it's from Canada, not the U.K.

Scone with jam. Photo by Benson Kua, and it’s from Canada, not the U.K.

Scones: Makes 5 or 6

1 ½ cups flour, unsifted (see below)
1 Tbsp. cold butter
1 Tbsp. sugar
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
½ tsp. salt
[raisins if you want them]
Enough milk to pull the ingredients into a ball

Sift the dry ingredients. (I was taught to sift flour before measuring, transfer it grain by grain into the measuring cup, then sift it again after measuring, but I can’t be bothered. Half the time I can’t be bothered sifting it at all, I just mix the dry ingredients together. If we’re talking about kitchen heresies, this is a big one, but my baking comes out fine, thanks. Just don’t whack your measuring cup down on the counter to make the flour settle, because it will and you’ll end up with too much.) Cut in the butter. (You want to keep the butter cold, which will keep the scone from being heavy, so if you can cut it with a pastry blender, do. If you use your fingers to crumble it into the dry ingredients, handle it as little as possible.) If you want raisins, this is the time to add them. Stir in just enough milk to form the dough into a ball. Roll out to about ¾” thick on a floured surface and cut with a biscuit cutter or, if you don’t have one, the rim of a glass. If you twist your cutter, the scones won’t rise evenly. If your scones don’t rise evenly, it won’t make the least bit of difference, so don’t lose sleep over this. Place the scones on a greased cookie sheet and bake 12 to 15 minutes at 400 degrees. (To make sure they’re done, take the cookie sheet out of the oven, pry one open partway, and peek inside. If it’s gooey, put the cookie sheet back in for a couple of minutes.) Eat with butter—lots of butter—or jam, or both. They’re fine cold, but they’re better hot.

This is the real thing.