This fancy bread from Britain finds its way to American tables


October 10, 1990|By Lynn Williams

Check with Shakespeare: Scone was the medieval residence of the kings of Scotland,home to the semi-sacred Stone of Scone, on which monarchs were crowned. In the 13th century, wily Edward I of England filched the Stone from the Scots, and brought it back to England, where it was built into the coronation throne at Westminster Abbey. Hence, a bit of Scone has supported seven centuries of British rulers.

A fitting namesake for a bread that has became a timelestradition in a tradition-revering land, right?

Well, no. Sorry, anglophiles and Scots nationalists, but the edible scone (which sort of resembles a stone, come to think of it), is not named for the historic Perthshire village. Most food historians agree the root word is German or Dutch; "schonbrot" and "schoonbroot" mean white (or fine, or beautiful) bread. A few dissenters opt for the Celtic "sgonn," which means a mouthful; this root has an ethnic advantage, as well as being pretty close to the British pronunciation of the word, "skonn."

Wherever they may have got their name, scones are linked most indelibly in the popular imagination with British tea time. The British tea scone is slightly sweet and cakelike, with a tender crumb that looks heavy but melts in the mouth. Its closest American relative is those crumbly, golden biscuits that you can find in old-fashioned tearooms in the South, the recipe for which may have been brought over the Atlantic by Scots-English settlers.

These types of scones are typically served with butter, jam, and in certain areas with clotted cream -- which is, as visitors to Britain soon learn, a lot tastier than it sounds.

As with so much of English tradition, tea scone-eating has its own etiquette. You don't just munch away, as you would a bagel or Danish. Proper Brits split the scone down the middle lengthwise with a tea knife. They then take a morsel of butter from their tea plate, and spread it on just one discreet bite of scone, and follow this with a smidgen of jam. (A blob of clotted cream might be added to this already caloric mouthful.) Then they eat just that bite. The steps are them followed again and again until the scone is gone, washed down with plenty of tea.

This is not all there is to the scone story, of course. In addition to sweet scones -- which, by the way, make a terrific base for strawberry shortcake -- there are plain and savory varieties as well. Some scones are are not round and bumpy, but neatly triangular. And while the English tend to bake their scones, Scots, Welsh and Irish scones are often cooked on a heavy cast iron griddle (or "girdle," in the vernacular.) In contrast to the upper-crust stereotype of theEnglish scone, the traditional Celtic scone is a plain, filling thing, hearty enough to sustain harvesters in the fields.

"For an everyday staple, itwas much easier to cook scones on a griddle that cooked over the fire than to fire up the oven on the side," says Laura Norris, whose mother, Jean McKinnon, came from Scotland's Shetland Islands. "Many crofts in Scotland wouldn't even have stoves, so the women would become very inventive." In more affluent households, says Ms. Norris, proprietor of Bertha's restaurant in Fells Point, women would grease their griddles with the fat from the roast, but women from the crofts would ferry to the mainland and barter their knitted goods for lard for baking.

Prosperity and more advanced technology made English-style baked scones more popular in Scotland, and these are the kind that Mrs. McKinnon bakes for Bertha's Scottish-style teas, available six days a week with advance reservations. Flavored with a little lemon, these scones are served with jam and with whipped heavy cream.

Both girdle scones and oven-fired scones will be included in "The Art of Taking Tea," a presentation scheduled for 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at the 1840 House. Sue Latini,the resident herbalist for ,, the Baltimore City Life Museums, will be preparing several sorts of tea breads, cakes and crumpets, all cooked with the technology available 150 years ago.

"I'm going to be baking a couple of kinds of scones," she says. "I like to use as many methods of cooking with the fireplace as I can. We have a little tin reflector oven that sits in front of the fire, so I'll be making oven scones, a plain scone that they used for cream teas. Then I'm going to be making Welsh currant scones, which will be cooked on ahanging griddle. Then I'm going to be making another scone, a simple sweet scone, in the Dutch oven."

Ms. Latini hasn't been able to determine if scones were routinely eaten in 1840s Baltimore, but feels confident they were: "Mr. Hutchinson, who owned the 1840 house, was an Englishman," she says. "His wife would have tried to cook things that he liked."

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