I grew up in Devon, England. On paper it may sound idyllic for Devon surely conjures images of rolling green hills and tinkling rivers, bobbling their way down to the sea past thatched cottages and fields of sheep and cow . The image is ingrained on a can of Ambrosia custard, a can which may be spotted overflowing from a pile of black bin bags in a grimy back lane of Plymouth, Devon, as I endeavour to find the shortest route home from school, avoiding the dog mess and scary people hanging around the dreary Thatcher-era jobcentre. The can is eventually collected by a wearily underpaid and grizzled local, transporting it by diesel truck to a stinking pile of garbage, where seagulls scavenge for bits of leftover pastie and people scavenge for usable second hand furniture and car boot trinkets. When it comes to custard cans, what you see is not exactly everything that you get.
That is not to say the custard can is a total fabrication, and the idyllic Devon does exist in spades, particularly once you get out of some of the more run down parts of its towns and cities. Within fifteen minutes of that cobbled back alley I can be on the edge of Dartmoor, with the rolling hills spanning ever higher until they become barren and sparse, topping out with crumbling rocks that eventually give up pushing their way out of the earth and tumble downwards over the steep hillside, like a very very slow moving volcanic eruption of granite. Here lie rocks that I once had the dubious pleasure of measuring for a geography field trip on the kind of day where misty rain sits stagnant in the air and soaks you to the bone. Still, it was so worth it to learn that there was some correlation between the size of the granite rocks and their position on the hillside .
By now you may be thinking this is all rather nice but what has any of this got to do with the letter C? It all seems to be a bit D like, rambling on about Devon and Dartmoor. And while there is something to be said for a double D it is not conducive to the order and logic that you have set yourself with this quite possibly pointless time-wasting task of writing something about each bloody letter of the alphabet like you are some magic floating pencil on Sesame Street. However, to you naysayers I pronounce that it is a truth universally acknowledged that when I return to Devon from wherever I have been lately I make a beeline for one thing: cream. Thick, yellow dollops of local clotted cream, with jam and scones and tea, or treacle tart, or ice cream and raspberries, or, well, just about anything. This exercise is not solely restricted to Devon, and the county of Cornwall can also be cleverly incorporated. Cornwall, custard cans, cream, coagulated coronaries. That’s clearly more like it.
Though I could lovingly list out the top ten cream tea moments or some such, I want to first draw out an expanded definition of creaminess, without degenerating into smutty innuendo too much. I think creamy can be appropriately used as an adjective to describe the landscape of Devon and Cornwall as it can nowhere else, in its cosy seaside villages, its wooded river valleys and rolling quilt of comforting green hills. In a Fifty Sheds type way , you can definitely have a ‘creamy’ experience, squeezing through tight country lanes to go for an invigorating stride in the countryside, butterflies and bees milling about in the dappled sunlight as tits and warblers penetrate the air. This is a rich and verdant landscape that produces, and is thus encapsulated, in that dollop of smooth, silky heart attack.
Incidentally, I love how, being at the extremes of the country, Devon and Cornwall have taken cream to the max by making it ‘clotted’ or, if you like, ‘extreme cream’. I think there is an embodiment of local spirit and independence here, the fact that some bumpkins have done something a little against the grain, taking unpasteurised cream and simmering it and skimming the very richest part off the top for themselves. They have undoubtedly created something to be targeted in future obesity campaigns and crackdowns by Brussels Bureaucrats as writers to the Daily Mail letters page would have us get in a flap about. But I don’t think they will get anywhere, for locals will resist in a barrage of fine Westcountry accents: “Arh sod it, a lil bid a cream wownt urt yer now, willett?”
If I was to pick one spot in Devon that is particularly creamy to me (though I should caution, not in a cream my pants sense) it would be the small village of Noss Mayo. It’s only a short jaunt from Plymouth but another world entirely; a cluster of cosy coloured cottages cascading down a narrow wooded valley to meet the gently bobbing boats on Noss Creek. Here lies a starting and finishing point for a fairly easy yet delightful walk that captures an archetypal, timeless Devon. There are country lanes rising past fields of sheep and hay and dotted islands of buttercups. There is the coastal headland, from where you can look far down to splintered rock fingers reaching out at the shimmering blue water. There is the estuary and river, which is fringed with copious, flourishing woodland, and then the creek itself, upon which sits a perfect pub. The only thing lacking – ironically – is a cream tea, which the pub never seems to offer, though a cider is recompense, especially since it too handily begins with a C.
For a full on Devon Cream Tea there are some fond memories past, but for a regularly reliable, convenient experience in a still quite blissful setting it would be hard to beat the endeavours of the Badgers Holt Tearooms on Dartmoor. At something of a tourist honeypot on the River Dart, here they simply make the cream the star, with scones and jam mere portals for the thick pale yellow cream piled high in a china bowl. A similar experience more off the beaten track – though I cannot vouch for its reliability having only been there once – was found at the Fingle Bridge Inn, visiting a few years back with my brother and his partner on one of our once regular cream-seeking excursions. We would go on these day trips for a good walk and some sightseeing, though secretly we all knew it was mostly about the cream tea and the other things were just diverting time-fillers!
Alas such creaminess is rarer these days. Being based in Australia will do that, where a Devonshire Tea frequently comes with squirty cream from a can (I kid you not!), and variations of ‘Australian style’ clotted cream are more milk-like than anything else . The problem is the antipodean distaste for bacteria, by way of unpasteurised milk products, which I assume are considered a risk to the unique flora and fauna of this nation. So, rather than enjoying a fine cream tea and letting microbes run riot through the wild streets of Vaucluse, we destroy the country by pillaging its resources and selling them all on the cheap to China. Times have moved on. It is, after all, the Asian Century.
A redeeming feature of Australia is that they do generally make good use of cream when it comes to a Pavlova. In fact, the Christmas just past provided a perfect example, confirming that you can never have too much cream on a Pavlova because there is fresh fruit involved and that is healthy, right? Other countries too do not fare so badly. In Slovenia, there is Bled cake, which practically involves three inches of whipped cream sandwiched between two light pastry layers. In France there are any number of pastries involving some intricate creamy surprise; or think of Crème de Chantilly atop a Mont Blanc size ice cream. And in Switzerland there is La Crème de Gruyere…
Gruyere is noted of course for another dairy based product, which itself could form an entirely different and probably more entertaining entry under the letter C. And true to form I will fondly remember the fondue in the immaculate medieval town square and the odd, and thus very Swiss, self-guided tour though the cheese factory . Gruyere feels a bit like a concocted Swiss fantasy, designed atop a hill to lure cheese eating tourists. Surrounding mountains are not as grand as elsewhere, but offer a teaser of what lies beyond, a more manageable scene of hills and lakes, vines and meadows, rather than the eye-goggling and neck bracing spires and hulks of the high Alps. It has its requisite fill of castles and churches, courtyards and window boxes, cafes and gift shops. It is, then, perfect coach tour day trip territory.
It was partly a result of arriving early to miss most of the hordes that my brother and I found ourselves with time to spare before it could be deemed acceptable to eat lunch and drink wine. It must have been before eleven or something. Having explored all that the town had to offer, walking from one end to the other, even down a little out of the way to a church, and climbing town walls, and still with time to kill, we headed to a cafe that looked like it was kind of open maybe; well, at least the waitress let us in though without much of a welcome. A coffee was a good call (now there is another C I could write about with very much less detriment to Australia). This was nothing special in itself, very un-Australian in fact, which makes sense given we are in Switzerland remember. But it did come with a little chocolate cup, filled with this Crème de Gruyere stuff.
At this point the mind plays a trick as it’s naively thinking, hmm, this could taste a little weird, I mean Gruyere cream, Gruyere is a cheese, right, and this is cream from it or something, like the dregs once all the lumpy bits have been squeezed out?! I doubt if this is anywhere near true, but that’s what the mind associates with Gruyere. The stupid mind needs to stop being so lazy in its word association and just think that, well, actually, it’s just another product from those very well cared for, loved and happy cows chewing those lush meadows with the flavours of 31 different grass, herb and flower species or something. It only turns a little cheesy when you buy too much to take home and it gets neglected after a few days because you have been snowed under eating far too many other treats, many of which are also dairy based. Calcium deficiency cannot be a problem here.
Anyway, it was a delightful little nugget in a delightful setting, which is often the case with the best cream based experiences. Perhaps this stems from being able to appreciate a direct link between your surroundings and the produce in front of you; in fact there may even be cows mooing in the background as you collapse with a blocked artery and the ambulance arrives. The cows keep on mooing regardless, continuing to produce a very basic ingredient that is turned by man into all sorts of delight. I think good cream is a result of good country, happy, contented animals and people with respect for traditions and tasty food. Traditions such as jam first then cream, or cream first and…or… well, who cares, just whop it on there and shove it in your mouth me lover. That’s how we do it in the Westcountry.
 Lately, some of these tinkling rivers have grown to large brown lakes, cutting off Devon from the rest of the world and, sadly, inundating many homes
 Smaller rocks had managed to flee further down the hill. I think. The mist made it hard to tell, not to mention the 25 years that have since passed.
 One notable exception is from a small dairy in Tasmania, whose name I am not going to mention for fear of their products always being sold out when I look for them.
 Completing the clichés that day were a mountain cog train ride and chocolate factory tour. It was thus an amazing day.
Oo-ar, it’s ambrosia: http://www.ambrosia.co.uk/range/ambrosia-devon-custard/
Dartmoor granite, tors and clitter: http://www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk/learningabout/lab-printableresources/lab-factsheetshome/lab-geologylandforms
The Ship Inn, Noss Mayo: http://www.nossmayo.com/
Badgers Holt: http://www.badgersholtdartmoor.co.uk/
The Fingle Bridge Inn: http://www.finglebridgeinn.com/
La Gruyere: http://www.la-gruyere.ch/en/
Mastering the art of Jannery: http://www.chavtowns.co.uk/2005/02/plymouth-the-janner-textbook/