Jam or Cream First? Notes From One Woman’s Decade of Eating Scones.

When Sarah Merker sat down one day in 2013 eating a scone at one of Britain’s many, many historic sites, she had no idea that she was embarking on a quest that would take a decade to complete and transform her into something of a celebrity. national.

She and her husband had just become fee-paying members of the National Trust, a conservation society that manages historic properties such as castles and manors in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (those in Scotland are managed separately). The idea was to reward yourself with scones for visiting and learning about the sites, and writing a blog rating the history and baking, each on a five-point scale.

Her blog posts eventually formed the basis of “The National Trust Scone Book”, a combination of recipes and their irreverent historical insights, published in 2017 just after Ms. Merker had eaten around 150 scones at the venue. And when Ms Merker, 49, visited her 244th and final National Trust property this month, she made national Headlines in a country that takes both its buns and its history very seriously.

But there was also something poignant about the attention: She had lost her husband, Peter Merker, to cancer in 2018, leaving her to finish the search without the partner she called her “Scone Sidekick.”

Lately, as she has been in the spotlight, she said it felt like he was back at her side.

“As anyone who has lost someone can attest, you just want them back, even for a short time, and that is what the media coverage and this project has given me,” he said. “That has been the most beautiful thing.”

Scones have deep roots in Britain. Recipes for them were printed as early as 1669 and the word bun appears in customs documents as early as 1480, according to “A history of British confectionery”, by historian and archaeologist Emma Kay.

It wasn’t until the early 19th century that the country’s “slightly irrational obsession” with them developed in earnest, Kay wrote in an email. They eventually came to be associated with the custom of having “afternoon tea”, a light meal in the late afternoon often including tea, scones, cakes and sandwiches.

In the late 19th century, afternoon tea became “codified and mythologized” as British motor tourism and holidays became more popular, said Annie Gray, a food historian. She also made the modern version of a bun, which is leavened with baking soda or baking powder, instead of yeast, as earlier versions were.

“They were cheap and cheerful, easy to produce in quantity and therefore good for generating profits for tea rooms and cafes that cater to the working class,” Dr Gray said.

The National Trust was founded in 1895 and continues to embrace that tradition of accessible rural tourism. Many of its stately estates have tea rooms, and together they serve visitors more than three million scones a year, according to the trust.

“There is something deliciously pleasurable about gorging on jam and cream, after an invigorating walk or delving into the historical treasures in our care,” said Clive Goudercourt, National Trust’s head chef of recipe development. It’s such a quick and simple gift that it’s relatively inexpensive and therefore something everyone can enjoy.”

Ms. Merker said that her favorite part of writing her blog, national trust scones, was that it gave him an excuse to visit beautiful places and drive on winding country roads. Many of his wry remarks about history and the people he met on National Trust properties were quite amusing.

In Melford Hall in South East England, reflected on how National Trust guides interact with the public. At one extreme were those who sat in the dark without speaking (“And none of the visitors ask them anything, because we are British,” she wrote). In the other were the guides who were talking breathlessly for fear that an “Expert Visitor” would interrupt them:

“We’ve all seen them: the architectural expert or professional historian who knows more than the guide and spends all his time gossiping and saying, ‘Well, that’s not EXACTLY correct: the horse that threw it in 1532 was actually named Archibald. because his other horse, Geoffrey, was lame that day,’ until everyone wants to push the Expert Visitor out of the top-floor window.”

Mrs Kay, the food historian, described the custom of eating scones and having afternoon tea as a “culinary religion for many in Britain”.

Like other religions, it has theological disputes. One relates to pronunciation: skon or skohn? Another concerns whether it is acceptable to serve fruit scones in a cream tea, or just the plain ones.

But for many, the most contentious question is which must-have scone topping (jam or clotted cream) should be applied first.

“He gets mad,” Merker said of that debate with a smile. “People are actually very adamant about the way they eat their bun. He’s a little crazy, in a way, because at the end of the day, he tastes the same whether you put cream or jam on it first. But it matters.

The jam first position is generally associated with Cornwall and cream first with Devon, a neighboring region of South West England where clotted cream tends to be easier to spread as a base layer. “We definitely don’t have a position” on the debate, said Claire Beale, public relations officer for the National Trust.

But trust has occasionally intervened, with brutal repercussions. In 2018, one of his Cornish properties apologized for the “appalling mistake” of post a picture of a cream puff first. And the trust’s communications director, Celia Richardson, apologized last year for a similar misstep.

“What kind of fool decides to end a wayward month at the National Trust by posting a picture of cream tea?” Mrs Richardson wrote on Twitter. “According to my timeline, I now need to apologize to Cornwall and possibly half of Britain.”

For her part, Ms Merker said that because the jam first-cream first debate is so touchy, she spent her decade blogging about scones without ever saying how she preferred them. She dodged the question in one post, and posted photos of “naked” buns in others, so as not to alienate the faithful from either side.

This month, however, Ms Merker revealed to reporters that she had always been the first to jam, for practical reasons. Because the Cornish clotted cream she normally eats tends to be sticky, she said, applying it first would create a “right mess.”

Her husband, who worked in construction, agreed, of course.

“He was a builder,” he said of his Scone Sidekick. “He definitely wasn’t going to do anything that was going to cause a mess.”

Ms. Merker chose her last stop, Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, with her husband in mind. The couple had visited the site together in 2006, long before the search for the bun officially began. “So even though I knew she couldn’t be physically present for this last mission,” she wrote last week“He knew he had been there and seen it and he loved it.”

The scone, he wrote, was so good that he went back the next day for another.