No cream for coffee in England?
July 31, 2007 2:17 PM   Subscribe

My son and his father recently returned from 16 days in England with the kiddie's choir. I'm lapping up allll the details like a madwoman, but there's one thing that has me stumped. The adults report that the coffee situation was horrible. Mainly, wherever they went, they were unable to have cream (or half and half) in their coffee.

Even at Starbuck's, they say, which you'd think would be annoyingly American no matter what the locale, they were able to have only milk for their coffee, and in most places, they were given skim milk. The horror!

What's up with that? Do British folks drink their coffee mainly black or with skim milk? There seems to be no shortage of dairy about, and clotted cream was everywhere, so what's the story with cream and coffee?
posted by houseofdanie to Food & Drink (41 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
a) coffee? not nearly as big here. think tea.

b) half and half doesn't exist here. there's milk, then there's single cream. no in-between.

c) people just use milk
posted by wayward vagabond at 2:20 PM on July 31, 2007

I don't believe "half and half" (a North American item) has an equivalent in the UK. This might help clarify.
posted by pineapple at 2:21 PM on July 31, 2007

"Half and half" doesn't exist in the UK. When I was a bartender in Ireland this was one of the things Yanks would order that confused us completely. Iced tea was the other one.
posted by jamesonandwater at 2:22 PM on July 31, 2007

nthing "no half and half". It really just doesn't exist in England.
posted by djgh at 2:30 PM on July 31, 2007

Yeah, the only places I've ever had cream in coffee in England are, for some reason, Indian restaurants.
posted by chrismear at 2:57 PM on July 31, 2007

Response by poster: You people are most excellent. Here, in addition to half and half, we have light cream and heavy cream. What's the cream you can get in England?

The boys enjoyed England very, very much, and I'm dying to go, so there'll soon be a choir-less trip, tho I'll definitely want to see the cathedrals my little guy got to sing in. I do love tea, and I will avoid ordering it iced. Milk goes in last, yes? ;-)
posted by houseofdanie at 2:59 PM on July 31, 2007

We don't have light/heavy cream. We have single or double cream.
posted by essexjan at 3:00 PM on July 31, 2007

Skimmed milk is not all that popular in the UK, unless they specifically asked for it they probably got semi-skimmed which is much nicer - it's the most popular type of milk in the UK.
posted by teleskiving at 3:02 PM on July 31, 2007

As others have said there is no concept in the UK of half and half. However, there's the usually option of full fat or semi-skimmed milk rather than just (yucky) skimmed.
posted by patricio at 3:05 PM on July 31, 2007

The British have been drinking coffee since the mid 1600s and around 1700 London apparently had more coffee houses in it than today. Most of today's trends can be traced to the period after WW2 when there widespread shortages however. At this point instant coffee was the only sort widely available. This was a period when milk - complete with a layer of cream on top - would be delivered to most people's doors in bottles. Since the 80s people have stopped getting their milk delivered, switched to semi-skimmed and steadily regained their interest in higher end coffee. Coffee drinkers - particularly in places like Starbucks - are following what marketeers call a "lifestyle choice" and many have obviously fallen for the idea that too much cream is very bad for you. Outside of a few hotels and restaurants if you want half and half -or just cream - you will have to be very specific in your request or be prepared to mix it yourself.

But then we used to think that olive oil was for cleaning our ears so cut us some slack.
posted by rongorongo at 3:08 PM on July 31, 2007

Coffee in the UK tends to be served as either: cafe au lait, espresso, or latte.

I know how your son feels. Getting a decent cup of tea abroad is nigh on impossible.
posted by popcassady at 3:09 PM on July 31, 2007

Coffee is almost as popular in Britain as it is in the United States. In Cambridge, there are 5 or 6 coffee shops in just a few blocks, and coffee shops beside other coffee shops. Okay, maybe that's a bit insane - it is a university city. But coffee shops are just as easy to find in London, even common in Ely or Lincoln. It is different in that many coffee shops serve only espresso-based coffee (with the notable exception of Starbucks), and, of course, many more people drink hot tea than in the United States (Canadians also drink more tea than Americans, as well as more coffee per capita than any other country. We have a fixation on hot, caffinated beverages). But whatever it might have been like in Britain 30 years ago, coffee is definitely here and has come to stay (this time -- it came in the 17th century, but lost out to tea in th 18th and 19th).

but yes, there is no cream. Cream with coffee is the formal thing, and you might get it at a very formal dinner, but not in coffee shops or in most restaurants. And the cream here really is too thick for coffee - even a single is about 18% milk fat, when coffee cream should be about 9% (10% in Canada). I don't know why - maybe it is just that without a suitable thin cream whole milk or 2% become the natural alternative. I'm surprised that your husband and the others were given skim milk - I've always found whole or semi-skim (2%) to be the default. But maybe it varies by region (I've mostly been in the southeast).

I miss cream in my coffee - that's why whenever cream is served with dessert I steal a little for my coffee cup. It might be over-rich, but it's nice.
posted by jb at 3:09 PM on July 31, 2007

even a single is about 18% milk fat, when coffee cream should be about 9% (10% in Canada

This Canadian likes 18% "table cream," aka light cream, also called coffee cream...
posted by kmennie at 3:18 PM on July 31, 2007

Must be another strange division the English-speaking world. Here in Australia, I'd never heard of cream in coffee until I saw it on an American TV show. As far as I knew, milk went in coffee. But I put cream in to see what it was all about - I liked it. Nice work, Americans.
posted by Jimbob at 3:37 PM on July 31, 2007

No cream for coffee here in Australia either, or in New Zealand, and no "half and half". They were selling a type of milk here with an "extra dollop" of cream for a while, but I don't think it went down very well - at least I haven't seen it lately. We too have a HUGE coffee culture, at least in the cities, but it'd be espresso or lattes, cappuccinos, etc.
posted by andraste at 3:38 PM on July 31, 2007

In the US, cream is always super-pasteurized, super-homogenized. In the UK, when I got plain cream, and it was fresh, it was fantastic.
posted by theora55 at 3:59 PM on July 31, 2007

"coffee cream should be about 9%"

In New Zealand you couldn't legally sell such a liquid as cream. It has to be at least 30% butterfat. Something with 9% fat in it is just milk.

But let me lay it out for you, dear questioner.

Shockingly, the tastes of Americans are not universal - in fact, many of them are confined to the United States! So when you travel to another country, it may happen that you cannot gratify your parochial, local, domestic, specific, and in this case and in my opinion vile taste. That's just the kind of wonderful world we live in.

I mean, this makes as much sense as my horrified disgust when I discovered the concept of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:00 PM on July 31, 2007 [3 favorites]

I once had a latte made with half & half. sooo good. you could almost stand a metal spoon in it because the foam was so thick.
posted by juv3nal at 4:07 PM on July 31, 2007

I'm an ausssie. If you asked for 'half-and-half' in most coffee shops around here, you'd get a funny look and then something made on half full-cream milk and half skim milk. Cream *on* black coffee I understand - that's called a vienna here. But you guys actually put cream *in* coffee? That's ... really, really gross.

This is tempered by my experience in the US, where I could not get a decent cup of coffee for the life of me. What the hell is with all the brewed/filtered coffee around? Why isn't there decent espresso? It made me very sadface (and ragingly caffiene-deprived, until I remembered that mountain dew is caffieneated there).
posted by ysabet at 4:17 PM on July 31, 2007

I put two percent milk in my coffee every morning, here in NC. It's fine.

Can you get evaporated milk in the UK? I grew up using THAT instead of cream for coffee (I was a kid and my grandmother fixed me toast and coffee when I went to see her) and it was really good.
posted by konolia at 4:43 PM on July 31, 2007

I once had a latte made with half & half. sooo good. you could almost stand a metal spoon in it because the foam was so thick.

Isn't that usually called a "breve" in most US coffee shops? I used to drink those in college; if I did that now my arteries would probably all rebel and leave my body looking for a more caring host.

Honestly, I'm kind of with i_am_joe's_spleen -- I've always thought that these small differences are the real fun of travel. Seeing how seemingly monolithic corporations like Starbucks, McDonalds, and WalMart adapt to local tastes and behaviors is fascinating. There are some things people do that are really disgusting (marmite/vegemite for me; PB&J for joe's_spleen), but even that is still fun to encounter the first time.

So yeah, in England people don't use half and half in their coffee, but then the regular milk is often a lot fresher and tastier than it is here (not when it is that irradiated stuff, though), so there are some compensations. And you can get good tea everywhere, which seems like your son and husband would have figured out might have been a nice alternative to a coffee situation that they found so "horrible."
posted by Forktine at 5:27 PM on July 31, 2007

My wife (we're both yanks) puts whipped cream in her coffee whenever she's able, and we're both partial to ice cream in our coffee. A shot of espresso over vanilla ice cream is wonderful. I tried the coffee when I lived in the UK but went to tea quickly. Nobody else I knew drank coffee, and I had to be social.
I guess this isn't an answer, but it's nice conversation while I'm at work. (I'm so making coffee tonight, along with some chocolate lavender ice cream...thank you AskMe).
posted by monkeymadness at 5:33 PM on July 31, 2007

Another aussie here. I only met cream for coffee in germany (kaffeesahne) - totally morish, if artery clogging. I always assumed it was because Australia was originally a tea drinking country, and cream tastes awful in tea. Ug.
posted by kjs4 at 5:48 PM on July 31, 2007

Hah yeah, I remember my first peanut butter jam/jelly experience.. man that sounded gross, but was quite edible. I was 19 at the time.

Pretty sure in Sweden, as some part of Europe, black coffee is very common.. Adding sugar, and/or, milk is for the younger generation... :)
posted by lundman at 5:48 PM on July 31, 2007

According to the great Wikipedia and Hormel Food's site, here's the breakdown of fat content in various types of creams:

Whole Milk - 3.7% typ.
Half and Half (U.S.) - 10.5 to 18%, 12.5% typ.
Single Cream (U.K.) - 18-20%
Light Cream (U.S.) - 20% typ.
Whipping Cream* (U.S.) - 30 to 35%
Heavy Cream (U.S.) - 36 to 40%
Double Cream (U.K.) - 48%
Clotted Cream (U.K.) - 55 to 60%

So if you were in the U.K. and really wanted some Half and Half, the closest you could probably get would by mixing Single Cream with whole milk in about equal parts. If well mixed, I think it would be about right.

Personally, any heavier cream than about 13% fat and it doesn't mix well into coffee; any lighter than 10% and you have to add too much to get enough fat to cut the acidity in good strong coffee.

* A.K.A. "Heavy Whipping Cream" in some stores
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:44 PM on July 31, 2007

Response by poster: Er, as the "questioner," please do let me clarify:

When I pronounced the "horror" of the situation, I was being facetious. I surely do not expect people the world 'round or even my country 'round to share tastes in all things. Travel wouldn't be half as much fun if that were so.

I'm sorry if I offended, but I intended to present more tongue-in-cheek than anything.
posted by houseofdanie at 7:45 PM on July 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, and my son is ten years old. He doesn't have a taste for coffee, but did appreciate very much the plentiful tea; he enjoys tea frequently at home. His father was surprised by the coffee preparation and serving differences, but I wouldn't call that facet of his travel report a complaint. I was just unable to find much on the 'net about how coffee is served in England.

How do you spell the sound of a sigh?

The group was hardly a bunch of ugly, unappreciative Americans of vile taste. They're the choristers of a very proud Episcopal church in Connecticut. We're honored to have had the opportunity to send our young folks to sing at some of the world's most beautiful places, performing difficult, gorgeous music at concerts, Evensongs, and Eucharistic services. England was good, very good, to our kids.
posted by houseofdanie at 8:06 PM on July 31, 2007

Response by poster: Oh, and to keep commenting on my own question...

My little boy's father reports, for anyone interested, that he was given the tastiest milk of his recent memory at Bristol Cathedral. While the kids rehearsed for Evensong, the chaperones had tea and biscuits.

Moral of the story: if you want good milk, go to church. Or something like that.
posted by houseofdanie at 8:11 PM on July 31, 2007

So if you were in the U.K. and really wanted some Half and Half, the closest you could probably get would by mixing Single Cream with whole milk in about equal parts. If well mixed, I think it would be about right.

Isn't that why it's called half and half? Because it is half milk and half cream?
posted by internal at 8:21 PM on July 31, 2007

Getting cream with your coffee is a real pain in the UK, I agree. Best bet is to drink your coffee in a place that also serves a good range of food they prepare themselves (i e not Starbucks or other chains). They will likely have some cream in the kitchen and give you some if you ask. This may be double cream (say 45% fat), but that can be pretty good in moderation. But as a Londoner and coffee drinker I can tell you, you will never see coffee and cream offered on the coffee menu.
posted by londongeezer at 9:43 PM on July 31, 2007

dear houseofdanie, I meant that cream in coffee is a vile taste, not that you or yours have vile taste. I'm sorry I mistook your tone for something more kvetching.

"Do British folks drink their coffee mainly black or with skim milk?"

They drink it black, or with ordinary milk, or with whatever frothy crap they feel like buying from their local lamentable coffee franchise.

"There seems to be no shortage of dairy about, and clotted cream was everywhere, so what's the story with cream and coffee?"

It's not a local habit, and there's no accounting for taste.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:02 PM on July 31, 2007

Growing up in Ireland, I remember getting cream for coffee whenever we went to the local hotel for a meal for special occasions.

Come to think of it, now when I go home most places offer milk and regular milk at home seems more richer than here in Boston.
posted by zaphod at 10:33 PM on July 31, 2007

"Coffee is almost as popular in Britain as it is in the United States. In Cambridge, there are 5 or 6 coffee shops in just a few blocks, and coffee shops beside other coffee shops. Okay, maybe that's a bit insane - it is a university city. But coffee shops are just as easy to find in London, even common in Ely or Lincoln."

Yes, you can find coffee shops in most places. But culturally, coffee is not nearly as universal in the UK as it is in the US, where it pervades everyday life as pretty much the *only* hot beverage of choice. It's just not anywhere near as popular.

For example, here in the UK, most people seem to think freeze-dried coffee is perfectly acceptable to drink... which tells you everything you need to know about the role of coffee in this country :P
posted by wayward vagabond at 11:02 PM on July 31, 2007

I've been living in the UK for about 9 months now and I have yet to find a "decent" cup of coffee. Decent meaning what I'm used to from the states. I can't stand anything from Cafe Nero, Costa Coffee, Starbucks, here. It all tastes bitter and/or burned and no amount of sugar will make up for the lack of half and half. OMG I miss Coffee Mate. Hazlenut, mmmm...

But their tea with a generous splash of milk (NO sugar).... frickin brilliant. Some days I just need it tapped into my vein.
posted by like_neon at 12:53 AM on August 1, 2007

But you guys [Americans] actually put cream *in* coffee? That's ... really, really gross.

Regarding the cream in Australia, it isn't the same thing as the cream (which is much lighter and pourable) in the US. It's funny that the cream here down under is one shake away from butter. Ms. qwip and I like pouring cream in our long black and the little container is good for about 4 days before it turns to un-sweetened butter.

When we first moved here she ordered cream in a short black and got a cup of espresso with a dollop of butter in it. I don't know what the barista was thinking to add that to coffee withour asking if she was sure that's what she wanted.

Anyway, fresh pouring cream is the closest thing to what Americans like in their coffee here in Oz. But Australians are really missing out on a great way to drink coffee. Here, milk is the way they go and it is good, but just half of the palette available to those who enjoy good coffees.
posted by qwip at 3:08 AM on August 1, 2007

Dairy is truly excellent in the UK as a general rule. Most espresso that I have tasted at the chains like Nero or Charbucks are pretty bitter. Try coffee at Pret a Manger or places that have the sign for Illy or Lavazza -- the more important thing is to be sure that it is a real barista and not some droid making the coffee or maintaining the machine. You could also get the cheapest best coffee in London at Roehampton University which is run by an Italian couple using Lavazza beans. Roehampton has lovely grounds as well.

I never did figure out the fat percentages for the milk though. There is whole, semi-skimmed and skim. I find it great that there is still cream floating to the top of the semi-skimmed. A good breakfast tea with milk and sugar is one of life's true delights besides seeing your enemy ignominously dead.
posted by jadepearl at 3:16 AM on August 1, 2007

houseofdanie - George Orwell can give you some tips on how to prepare your tea when you get to England
posted by Jakey at 3:34 AM on August 1, 2007

qwip: my perspective is ... somewhat coloured. I can't stand fullcream milk in my coffee (unless it's a short macchiato), because the milk fat goes all greasy and forms a skin on top which is squicky.

... On the other hand, I have been known to enjoy vietnamese coffee - long black with a dollop or several of sweetened condensed milk in it. Maybe it's just the fresh milk here that does the separation thing ...
posted by ysabet at 3:58 AM on August 1, 2007

I was in Scotland recently, and on more than one occasion (including in the coffee shop in Virgin Records in Glasgow) ordered a "white coffee" which I'm certain had cream in it. If not cream, then a very high fat milk because it certainly didn't taste like just coffee with milk.

Also, I found the coffee in general to be much better in Scotland than here in Canada. That said, I do drink some pretty crappy coffee here.
posted by Jupiter Jones at 10:27 AM on August 1, 2007

Response by poster: Oy, I didn't mean to sound so defensive, Mr. Spleen. We've got an amazing choir comprised of kids from so many different backgrounds, many of them horribly difficult. This year, they performed under Barry Rose here at home and in nearby NYC, and we're so proud of them. Visiting England is literally a once-in-a-lifetime thing for many of our choristers, and we spent the entire year preparing them not only for the musical challenges, but for the utter joy of visiting a place filled with such history and culture. Our church's policy is one of "radical hospitality," and one of our desires was to send England some radically well-behaved guests.

Aaaanyway, back to the coffee thing...

Everyone, I appreciate all the information about cream, coffee, tea, travel, and beverage history. And George Orwell! Maybe it's geeky, but I'm utterly fascinated by all of this. I used to take my morning cup for granted!

I am so much more than psyched to visit England, myself.
posted by houseofdanie at 10:38 AM on August 1, 2007

Milk goes in last, yes? ;-)

Wellll that depends if you're a Mif or a Mil....!
posted by penguin pie at 2:48 PM on August 1, 2007

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