Certain foods defy any attempt at portion control. Think chocolate chips, or those disturbingly addictive pretzel pieces that must be flavored with some kind of stimulant in addition to the honey mustard. I have such a Cheez-It obsession that, studying abroad in Paris and unable to find them in any grocery, I ordered three boxes online in a hunger-fueled panic. My host mother – who, in typical French fashion, served perfectly portioned meals on an adorable tea tray – brought the package to my room with a look of pure horror. I guiltily ate a whole box as soon as her back was turned.
But Agatha Christie clearly felt no such shame when it came to her food addiction: She loved cream, and all of Devon county knew it. “Agatha was very fond of food – she was passionate about cream,” the local vicar’s daughter remembered. “She would have it by the cupful. She would have a cup of cream by her typewriter.” Even Christie’s fictional characters couldn’t escape the obsession. Miss Marple is similarly famed for her love of cream, and even the picky Hercule Poirot partakes.
Christie made minor attempts to curb her appetite, to no avail. “She used to drink cream from a huge cup with ‘Don’t be greedy’ written on the side, an injunction she never showed any sign of obeying,” her grandson Mathew recalled. Frankly, I think that anyone who has a designated cream-sipping cup is fighting a losing battle with willpower, but I’m the one with a personal bag of chocolate chips in the pantry, so who am I to judge?
There was only one person who had control over Christie’s dessert intake: her butler. George Gowler oversaw the elaborate two-hour dinner parties at Greenway, Christie’s country estate. But instead of letting her choose the menu for the final course, Gowler would randomly assign everyone a different plate of fruit – a game of dessert roulette – allowing guests to choose their favorite dish only once a week. Christie’s favorite was fresh figs, which you can still sample from the trees she grew at Greenway. But beware if you encounter them in one of her mysteries: One unlucky lady who indulges in Syrup of Figs gets poisoned for her trouble. Safer to stick with the cream instead.
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Tea was one of Christie’s favorite meals, especially as it was traditionally served in Devon—with scones, jam, and epic amounts of clotted cream. Recalling these ‘cream teas’ of her childhood, Christie wrote, “Devonshire cream was eaten in quantities; so much nicer than cod liver oil, my mother used to say.” Sometimes she would bypass the scone altogether and just eat it from the jar with a spoon. And if that thought makes you cringe, buy a jar of Nutella and take a spoon to it; I guarantee it tastes better that way.
“Alas! You never see real Devonshire cream in Devon nowadays – not as it used to be – scalded and taken off the milk in layers.” That’s Christie again, sounding like someone’s ornery great-aunt. She’s right, though: There are lots of shortcuts out there for making clotted cream, and there don’t need to be. Anyone with a working oven and a bit of time can make the real thing. You can even use a slow-cooker in a pinch, with apologies to Agatha – I get the sense that modern conveniences weren’t her thing.
24 ounces (3 cups) heavy cream (not ultra-pasteurized)
1. In an oven: Preheat oven to 180°F. Pour cream into a 8- by 10-inch baking dish, and cover with foil. Heat 8 to 10 hours, until a dark yellow film forms on top. In a slow-cooker: Pour cream into the crock of the slow-cooker. Heat on “warm” 10 to 12 hours, until a dark yellow film forms on top.
2. Transfer pan/crock, still covered, to a countertop until it reaches room temperature. Refrigerate overnight, or at least 8 hours.
3. Skim solid top layer into a small bowl or glass jar. Stir well, until clotted cream reaches a smooth consistency. Reserve remaining cream for cooking or baking.
Fig and Orange Scones:
(Adapted from Pinch My Salt)
1 large egg
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
1 cup fresh figs, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together egg, buttermilk, and orange zest.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cardamom, and salt. Cut butter into flour with a pastry blender or rub together with your fingertips until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add chopped figs and toss lightly until spread throughout.
4. Add buttermilk mixture to flour mixture and stir until the mixture clumps together, being careful not to overmix. On a floured countertop, gather mixture into a ball and knead once or twice to combine. Pat into a 1/2-inch-thick circle. Cut into 8 slices, like a pie, or into circles using a biscuit cutter. Place on lined baking sheet.
5. Bake 13 to 15 minutes until lightly browned. Remove to cooling rack, and eat warm with an “enormous amount” of cream, as Christie dictated.