Scones and Jane Austen

Did Jane Austen enjoy an occasional scone with her tea? 

I seriously doubt it, for the simple reason that baking powder had not yet been invented.

The word scone has been around since at least the sixteenth century, but the scones of Jane Austen’s time were nothing like the delicate little cakes we enjoy today. The scones of old were made of oatmeal or barley meal or both mixed with water and, possibly, a bit of fat, patted into a circle and cooked on a girdle—a flat circle of iron that was hung over the fire. What we would call a griddle.

Sometimes that cake was called a bannock, and the term scone was used for the wedges into which the bannock was cut.

Scone or bannock, whatever you want to call it, this was peasant fare, a hearty, stick-to-the-ribs food for those who labored for their bread. Not something a gently bred lady would be likely to encounter.

I’ve hunted in vain for scone recipes in early cookbooks: Mrs. Hannah Glass, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1747; Eliza Smith, The Complete Housewife, 1758 (16th edition); Elizabeth Cleland, A New and Easy Method of Cookery, 1755; Frederick Nutt, The Complete Confectioner, 1807; Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell, A New System of Domestic Cookery, 1824; Alexis Soyer, The Modern Housewife, 1851; Charles Francatelli, The Modern Cook, 1859. Not a one of them even mentions scones.

There are all sorts of sweet delicacies, of course. Mr. Nutt has recipes for biscuits, maccaroons, cakes, wafers, drops, jellies, jams, ice creams and ices, and preserves. All the books have recipes for cakes and buns, but these use either yeast or eggs as leavening agents.

No scones.

Mrs. Rundell offers a recipe for tea cakes:

Rub fine four ounces of butter into eight ounces of flour; mix eight ounces of currants, and six of fine Lisbon sugar, two yolks and one white of eggs, and a spoonful of brandy. Roll the paste the thickness of an Oliver biscuit, and cut with a wine-glass. You may beat the other white and wash over them; and either dust sugar, or no, as you like.

This is getting close, but more like cookies/biscuits than scones.

In her 1857 English Bread Book for Domestic Use, Eliza Acton does mention scones, but as an emergency measure rather than a delicacy:

The inhabitants of the Isle of Skye depend entirely for bread on supplies brought to them from Glasgow; and they are often entirely without when the steamer, which ought to arrive at intervals of eight days, is delayed by stress of weather. The residents are then compelled to have recourse to scones —as a mixture of flour and water and a little soda (cooked on a flat iron plate) is called—or to ship's biscuit ; and these are often found unsuitable for young children and invalids.

And the famed Household Management of Mrs. Beeton? The 1861 edition has a few recipes that make use of baking powder, but no mention is made of scones.

The problem is that without baking powder, you can't make those delicious little round or square cakes that are served with butter and jam or piled high with Devonshire cream. Without baking powder you also can't make those large lumpy cakes full of dried fruit and nuts and chocolage chips that bakeries call scones these days. (Those look more like rock cakes than scones to me, but that's another story.)

At any rate, it wasn’t until 1843 that Alfred Bird, a Birmingham chemist, developed a usable version of baking powder. Another fifteen years later, Eben Horsford of Rhode Island formulated the first calcium phosphate baking powder—the kind we use today—and manufactured it as Rumford Baking Powder.

Even then, baking powder took some years to become ubiquitous. Breads and cakes continued to rise with the aid of yeast and eggs. Those spectacular teas we think of as so typically English, with scones and crumpets and cucumber sandwiches and watercress sandwiches—they are Edwardian rather than Regency.

Poor Jane Austen. She never had an opportunity to enjoy a scone lavishly spread with Devonshire cream and jam and had to settle for a modest biscuit or two with her tea. But if you would care to indulge, here is a basic scone recipe. Feel free to pile on the cream and jam.

Basic buttermilk scones

4 cups flour
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
½ cup sugar
1 cup cold butter
3 eggs
1 - 1 ½ cups buttermilk

Mix dry ingredients and cut in butter. Beat eggs with 1 cup buttermilk. Stir into dry ingredients, adding more buttermilk if needed. Pat out about 1/2-inch thick and cut into rounds or squares. Bake at 425° for 10 minutes or more until done. Serve warm. 

The painting of Afternoon Tea is by John Everett Millais, 1889 


Wonderful post.

I will try this recipe. :) I enjoyed your post.

They are also a good way of

They are also a good way of using up sour milk, which makes them lovely and light.


Just my cup of tea for today! :-) Very interesting. I've noticed that nowadays all kinds of things are called "scones." After having something at a restaurant called a scone and which I thought was very un-scone-like, (more like a dessert) I made my kids some real traditional scones.

Angelina, Doreen and

Angelina, Doreen and Rebecca—thank you for stopping by. I love the traditional scones, with or without Devonshire cream. When we went to England as a family, the high point of every day, as far as my children were concerned, was stopping for tea, always with scones.

This article

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I do not eat grains or sugars, so I do not bake scones, but the history is fascinating. Thank you for researching this and entertaining me for 10 minutes.

I love to entertain (almost

I love to entertain (almost as much as I love to eat). :-)

Can't wait to taste these!

One thing I love almost as much as history is food so you've got me on both fronts! Add foods from history and I'm done for! Loved this post. My family went to Gettysburg years ago (and plenty of times since) where we had our first taste of spoon bread (and other civil war foods). I searched every where for a just-right recipe for the spoon bread and finally found one... so I truly appreciate the time you put into this post.

Poor Jane Austen. She truly missed out. :-)

I'm eager to try this recipe.

Scone and Jane Austen

Great Post! I am not over fond of scones and have only tasted them in one place in Stony Brook that makes them light and fluffy - most of them have been the heavier biscuit type that you talk about above. Not my fave, but there is something to sticking to the ribs of peasants!

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