When Sarah Merker sat down one day in 2013 to snack on a scone at one of Britain’s many, many historic sites, she had no idea that she was embarking upon a quest that would take her a decade to complete and transform her into a kind of national celebrity.
She and her husband had just become dues-paying members of the National Trust, a conservation society that manages historic properties like castles and country manors across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland’s are managed separately). The idea was to reward herself with scones for visiting and learning about the sites, and to write a blog that rated the history, and the baking, each on a five-point scale.
Her blog posts eventually formed the basis of “The National Trust Book of Scones,” a blend of recipes and her irreverent historical insights, published in 2017 just after Ms. Merker had eaten about 150 scones on location. And when Ms. Merker, 49, visited her 244th and final National Trust property this month, she made national headlines in a country that takes both its scones and its history quite seriously.
But there was a poignancy to the attention, too: she had lost her husband, Peter Merker, to cancer in 2018, leaving her to finish the quest without the partner she called her “Scone Sidekick.”
Lately, as she has been in the spotlight, she said it has felt as though he was back by her side.
“As anyone who has lost anyone will attest, you just want them back, even for a short time, and that’s what the media coverage and this project have given me,” she said. “That has been the most beautiful thing.”
Where scones are an ‘irrational obsession’
Scones have deep roots in Britain. Recipes for them were printed as early as 1669 and the word scone appears in customs paperwork from 1480, according to “A History of British Baking,” by the historian and archaeologist Emma Kay.
It wasn’t until the early 19th century that the country’s “slight irrational obsession” with them developed in earnest, Ms. Kay wrote in an email. They eventually came to be associated with the custom of taking “afternoon tea,” a light, late-afternoon meal often featuring tea, scones, cakes and sandwiches.
In the late 19th century, afternoon tea became “codified and mythologized” as British motor tourism and vacationing became more popular, said Annie Gray, a food historian. So did the modern take on a scone, which is leavened with baking soda or baking powder, rather than with yeast, as early versions were.
“They were cheap and cheerful, easy to produce in quantity, and therefore good for turning a profit for tearooms and cafes catering to the working class,” Dr. Gray said.
The National Trust was founded in 1895 and still embraces that tradition of accessible, rural tourism. Many of its stately estates have tearooms, and they collectively serve visitors more than three million scones a year, according to the trust.
“There’s something delightfully indulgent about piling on jam and cream, after a bracing walk or a delve into the historical treasures in our care,” said Clive Goudercourt, the National Trust’s head recipe development chef. “It’s such a quick and simple treat that is relatively inexpensive and is therefore something everyone can enjoy.”
Ms. Merker said her favorite part of writing her blog, National Trust Scones, was that it gave her an excuse to visit beautiful places and drive along winding country roads. Many of her wry observations about history, and the people she met at National Trust properties, were pretty funny.
At Melford Hall in Southeast England, she reflected on how National Trust guides interact with the public. At one extreme were those who sat in the dark without speaking (“And none of the visitors ask them anything, because we’re British,” she wrote). At the other were guides who talked breathlessly out of fear that an “Expert Visitor” would interrupt:
“We’ve all seen them — the architectural expert or professional historian that knows more than the guide and spends the whole time tutting and saying, ‘Well, that’s not EXACTLY right — the horse that threw him in 1532 was actually called Archibald, because his other horse, Geoffrey, was lame that day,’ until everybody just wants to shove Expert Visitor out of a top floor window.”
The question that divides a nation
Ms. Kay, the food historian, described the custom of eating scones and taking afternoon tea as a “culinary religion to many across Britain.”
Like other religions, it has theological disputes. One relates to pronunciation: skon or skohn? Another concerns whether it is acceptable to serve fruit scones at a cream tea, or only plain ones.
But for many, the most contentious question is which indispensable scone topping — jam or clotted cream — should be applied first.
“It rages,” Ms. Merker said of that debate with a laugh. “People are really very firm about which way they eat their scone. It’s kind of mad, in a way, because at the end of the day, it tastes the same whether you put cream or jam first. But it matters.”
The jam-first position is generally associated with Cornwall and the cream-first one with Devon, a neighboring region of Southwest England where the clotted cream tends to be easier to spread as a base layer. “We definitely don’t have a position” on the debate, said Claire Beale, a public relations officer for the National Trust.
But the trust has occasionally weighed in — with brutal repercussions. In 2018, one of its Cornwall properties apologized for the “appalling error” of posting an image of a cream-first scone. And the trust’s communications director, Celia Richardson, apologized last year for a similar faux pas.
“What sort of fool decides to end a fractious month at the National Trust by posting a picture of a cream tea?” Ms. Richardson wrote on Twitter. “According to my timeline I now need to apologize to Cornwall and possibly half of Great Britain.”
For Ms. Merker’s part, she said that because the jam-first-cream-first debate is so sensitive, she spent her decade blogging about scones without ever saying how she preferred them. She dodged the question in one post, and posted pictures of “undressed” scones in others, so that she would not alienate the faithful on either side.
This month, though, Ms. Merker revealed to journalists that she had always been jam-first — for practical reasons. Because the Cornish clotted cream that she normally eats tends to be gloopy, she said, applying it first would create a “right mess.”
Her husband, who worked in construction, agreed, of course.
“He was a builder,” she said of her Scone Sidekick. “He definitely wasn’t going to do anything that was going to make a mess.”
Ms. Merker chose her final stop, Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, with her husband in mind. The couple had visited the site together in 2006, long before the scone quest officially began. “So although I knew he couldn’t be physically present for this last mission,” she wrote last week, “I knew he’d been there and seen it and loved it.”
The scone, she wrote, was so good that she went back the next day for another.