The fat of the land

Food - Bee Wilson on the superiority of British cream

My New Year's resolution is to eat more cream. January seems the last month to be starving yourself. At this time of year, we keep being told we have eaten "one too many mince pies", but for the kind of people and magazines that say this, even a single mince pie is one too many. Ignore this folly. What you need now is a pick-me-up, not a pummel-me-down. Spoonfuls of the best cream, taken neat in judicious doses, will serve this purpose. Another reason to eat more cream in 2002 is because it seems such a pity not to, when cream is one of the few remaining things that are better in the British Isles than anywhere else in the world.

Some may argue that the French make better butter, whether Normandy or Charente, whether unsalted and sweet or very salted and crystalline; and one might suppose that the same cows which produce such wondrous yellow fat ought to be able to make the finest fresh cream, too. For some reason, however, they don't (which isn't to say they couldn't). I once spoke to the Paris correspondent of a British broadsheet who said that, in all her years in France, whose food she mostly preferred to that of her homeland, she couldn't get to grips with the different categories of French cream. Legally in France, there are only two kinds of cream, both slightly fermented - creme fraiche (with a fat content of at least 30 per cent) and creme legere (with a fat content of at least 12 per cent). If you wish to whip some cream, or to make a gratin dauphinoise, and need cream that is not soured, you must buy creme fluide (with a fat content of 35 per cent, like our whipping cream), which can often be found only in little UHT cartons, and has that strange, cooked, Continental taste, fine for making creme caramel, but less than delectable for straight pouring.

Admittedly, creme fraIche is pretty heavenly, but the finest I've tasted is not French but British. Neal's Yard creme fraiche from Golden Valley, Hereford (01981 500 395), costs £3.49 from my local cheese shop, more than twice as much as creme fraiche d'Isigny from the supermarket, and it tastes more than three times as good. Super-rich, with a fat content of 47 per cent, it has a slight crust of creaminess and, underneath, an impossibly smooth unguent just tart enough to forestall the feeling that your arteries are clogging. Eating it, you can see why the word "cream" derives from the Greek for "to anoint" (khriein).

But the most characteristic creams of Britain are unsoured. Even in their pasteurised, supermarket form, our range of fresh creams is excellent, from double to top-of-the-milk. First, there is half cream at 12 per cent fat, then single at 18 per cent. Next comes whipping cream at 35 per cent, which Simon Hopkinson observes is, bizarrely, not very good for whipping but excellent for sauces because it doesn't over-thicken as double can (double has a fat content of 48 per cent). Fattiest of all is buttery clotted cream, at 55 per cent.

Cream used to be made by letting milk stand for half a day in a coolish place, or a whole day for double cream. Tom Stobart explains that "cream consists of the larger fat globules which float because they are less dense than water". The cream would therefore rise to the surface and could be skimmed off. Now, however, cream is usually obtained using a mechanical separator operating by centrifugal force, which partly explains why it doesn't have the ripened dairy taste of hand-made cream. The other flavour-killer is pasteurisation. The second drawback of pasteurised refrigerated modern cream is that it goes straight from nice to nasty, with no sour stage in the middle, because the souring organisms don't operate at low temperatures. But you can still get untreated yellow Jersey cream from some delicatessens (for example, Ivy House organic double cream, which costs about £1.50; call 01373 830 957). With its slightly muddy, cow-y flavour, it is lovely on sweet pies, though probably not the kind of cream you'd eat by itself.

If an instant cream boost is what you are after, however, there is none better than Thunder and Lightning, as described by the bohemian muse Henrietta Moraes in Darling, You Shouldn't Have Gone to So Much Trouble (the most amusing compilation ever of "celebrity" recipes, sadly now out of print). This should not be confused with other combinations going by the same name, such as the Italian dish of chickpeas and pasta, or the West Country coupling of black treacle and cream. All you need is clotted cream and some honeycomb. Eat small spoonfuls of each, either together or from alternate spoons, and swoon at the richness. The textures are perfect together, one waxy, the other smooth, though I'm not actually sure which is thunder and which lightning (any suggestions?). Moraes comments that it's just the thing to give people when they are feeling weepy - another reason to eat cream in the new year.