What was this? Some kind of scone trick? Were the locals sitting at home enjoying their splits in secret, and palming tourists off with second- class, Scottish imports? Cream teas had always left me feeling rather sick - not just too much cream, but too many ruched curtains and floral tablecloths. But perhaps there was more to this cream tea lark than met the eye.
I was staying in a part of inland Devon, within scone-throwing distance of the M5 but blissfully quiet, that most visitors see only through their car windows. I enjoyed the provincial bustle of nearby Tiverton, but headed straight out to nearby Knightshayes Court, whose cafe was recommended in my Cream Tea Guide. It mentioned, in particular, the Devonshire cream, but I found that the clotted cream in fact was from Rodda's dairy in Cornwall; furthermore, the assistant had never heard of a split.
No tea for me, then. But I made up for it with a quick tour of the house - the controversial (but unfinished) work of the flamboyant Victorian designer William Burges.
The Cream Tea Guide then lured me to South Molton, so I headed west along the B3227, relishing views north to the purple, puffed-up pillows of Exmoor. A centre of the local farming community, South Molton has a weekly livestock market, and its shops brim with local produce. There were enough tea shops to do a small cream tea crawl, but I got nowhere asking about splits. Finally, in the deli on the high street, I was told that I must mean "cutrounds", and that I might find them in North Molton, at Bulled & Son.
This, I discovered the next morning, turned out to be not just a village shop but a social hub. I felt like an extra in a rural soap opera as people came in a steady stream to collect their bread, and have a chat.
There were no cutrounds (or scones, for that matter), but the in-house baker did make them to order, usually for a church tea or some other local knees-up. Everyone seemed to have something to say about them, and Mrs Wallace (who runs the shop with her husband) said she'd rather have cutrounds than scones with her clotted cream - though for a home-made cream tea many people seemed happy just to use plain white bread.
I left with a pleasant taste of rural life, and the sense that I was getting warmer. I landed next in Chulmleigh, about 12 miles south. Once a busy market town, it is now more of a big village, yet Chulmleigh still has its own bakers, and a butcher and a grocer. In the bakery they told me they made cutrounds every day, but that they'd sold out.
I thought I'd make do with some cream. The grocer's had only Rodda's again, from Cornwall. Wherever I looked I saw cows, but where on earth was their cream? I'd spotted a farm by the roadside near Chulmleigh advertising clotted cream but the farmer was nowhere to be seen, and there was not a pot of cream, or a cow, in evidence.
After several frustrated enquiries I arrived at Lake Head Farm, which sits in the kind of spot I'd pick for my dream home, high above one of the many tiny rivers that run like veins through the Devon hills.
Mr and Mrs Lucas invited me in for a cup of tea. The head of a stag that took centre stage in their kitchen gave me the spooks, until he was introduced affectionately as Humphrey. The Lucases are among a dwindling number of farmers to make clotted cream on a small scale, most production being in the hands of the big dairies. Mrs Lucas produced a large bowl full of cream from the fridge. Apart from what they get through at home (her husband confessed to eating about half a pound a week), they sell it in their farm shop and to a few local outlets.
But I got the impression that they make it mainly as a favour to the locals. (Cream teas keep tea shops in business, but certainly not the farms.) EU regulations don't help, but the low profit margins are another disincentive. Not to mention the cream-making process: the cream has to be cooked for a very particular amount of time to produce the "right" consistency. The trouble is, everyone disagrees about what that is.
Having stocked my fridge with cream, I went after cutrounds again, this time around Dartmoor. Asking for cutrounds in Bovey Tracey was like asking for haggis in Tibet. One baker said, "They do things differently up there," ("up there" being about an hour's drive away). He knew the term "split", however, and also "chudleigh" (another word for the same thing) but said no one made them nearby - not even in the town of Chudleigh, a few miles up the road.
Not having clapped eyes on a single cutround - or split, or chudleigh - I returned disconsolate to Tiverton. I'd been there less than five minutes when I almost tripped over a blackboard outside the Upper Crust bakery advertising "chudleighs 12p"; they even had a plateful in the window. They bake them on Fridays as a teatime treat for the weekend. Treat? The sweet bun that I'd driven for two days to hunt down was decidedly ordinary. Its chief merit seemed to be that, being lighter than a scone, it would leave more space in the stomach for cream.
I went to seek solace in the nearby Four and Twenty Blackbirds tea shop, which got top marks in my guide, and discovered what makes a perfect cream tea.
First, there wasn't a frill in sight, just plain tables and an artful scattering of antiques. Secondly, the scones were perfect: just warm (too hot, and your cream runs all over the place) and of the ideal firmness (too crumbly, and you'll get into a terrible mess). Thirdly, the pile of farmhouse clotted cream was as plump as a Devon hill; and to top it all the jam was home-made blackberry and apple.
All I had to worry about now was the assertion in the cream tea guide that while "true" Cornish people always put their jam on first and then top it with cream, Devonians do the reverse. But that's another story ...
'The Good Cream Tea Guide to Devon and Cornwall' by Amanda Persey is produced by Cullompton PressReuse content