Order a Bath Bun in the Pump Room for your “elevenses” and you’ll receive a glazed, sugary, slightly flattened English tea bread. Slip round the corner to a tearooms in Lilliput Alley, “the oldest house in Bath” (except that it isn’t quite as old as it’s often claimed to be) and you can sample its rival, the Sally Lunn, softer, paler, more like an outsize bap, possibly an adjusted brioche— or another kind of tea bread. Partisans of each will claim that theirs is an authentic recipe, adjusted to suit modern taste, but going back in a direct line into the mists and fumes of a distant past.
The Sally Lunn walks the walk. It can supply no less than four possible sources as to its origins, one with the conviction of an urban myth, another based on hearsay, a third founded on gastronomic assertions and a fourth, well, an outlandish possibility.
Let’s consider the last of these. Whitsun 1914: suffragettes set fire to St Mary’s Church, Wargrave, Berkshire. A register, dated 1537 is saved from the flames. Examined it reveals the name of a hamlet that has since vanished called Sally Lunn. From this snippet a variety of scenarios may be inferred that would account for the cake’s emergence at a fashionable spa two centuries later.
The popular story is of a Huguenot refugee, Sally Louan or Luyon, fleeing France some time after the Restoration of Charles II (1660) and baking brioches for a baker in the town. This tale has the inconvenience that no record of her exists. At any event Sally isn’t a French name (could she have been a Solange?).
Also lacking corroboration is the mythical, eponymous maiden (beautiful, of course) hawking her wares about town in Beau Nash’s day.
Quite a bit of scholarship, however, has gone into showing that the name is a deformation of “Sol et Lune” [sun and moon] a breakfast cake that’s golden on top, pale beneath the surface. This passed into the patisserie of Alsace as Solileme or Solimeme and wound its way back into Victorian books as such.
What is certain is that the name was familiar to Georgian society. In one of his many scribblings Philip Thicknesse [see chapter xx} lamented: “I had the misfortune to lose a beloved brother in the prime of life, who dropt down dead as he was playing on the fiddle at Sir Robert Throgmorton’s, after drinking a large quantity of Bath Waters, and eating a hearty breakfast of spungy hot rolls, or Sally Luns.”
Still in the 18th century the Bath Chonicle, October 1796, carried a verse receipt:
No more I heed the muffin’s zest
The yeast cake or the bun.
Sweet muse of pastry teach me how
To make a Sally Lunn.
It’s attributed, all eleven verses of it, to a musician-baker, William Dalmer who delivered them warm to the gentry via a mobile oven, carted through the streets.
The strands of the stories, some of them, do tie loosely together. Workmen restoring what was already known as Sally Lunn’s house in Lilliput Lane in 1930, found a cache behind some wood panelling that had concealed two dolls, trinkets and a variant recipe.
It suggests that each baker added a personal touch. Nor, as the poem made clear was it a specific shape:
And now let fancy revel free
By no stern rule confin’d
On glittering tin in varied form
Each Sally Lunn be twined.
If anything, this gives the impression of plaited rolls, similar to the Jewish Hallah, rather than the current habit of moulding them, putting them in hoops and baking them so that a golden-brown dome balloons over the edges.
Bath buns don’t slip into the English language until a young Jane Austen writes a typically mischievous letter about “disordering my stomach with Bath bunns.” The extra letter ‘n’ may not be an accidental slip. She could be referring to Sally Lunns. Nor is she criticising their indigestibility, simply implying that she liked pigging out on them as a form of comfort eating.
Until then, cookery writers had always referred to “Bath Cakes” that were eaten at the endless round of breakfast parties. Like brioches, they were eaten hot if possible, split open and liberally doused with melted butter. Bakers made them in different sizes that could either be cut up or eaten as individual portions.
Eliza Smith’s “A French cake to eat hot”(1753) comes closest to what I imagine the Company enjoying:
“Take a dozen of eggs, a quart of cream and as much of flour as will make it into a thick batter; put to it a pound of melted butter, half a pint of sack (sherry), and one nutmeg grated ; mix it well, and let it stand for four hours; then bake it in a quick oven, and when you take it out, slit it in two and pour a pound of butter on it melted with rose-water; cover it with the other half, and serve up hot.”
By itself, this won’t work. Add fresh yeast or a natural leaven and it might.
From high status specialities enjoyed by the wealthy, to local curiosities both Lunns and “Bunns” have endured as many shifts in fortune as they have in the ways bakers prepare them.
The popularity of Bath Buns soon spread throughout Britain, preferred to its rival the sticky Chelsea bun that was rolled up similar to a Swiss roll before baking, the currant bun and the penny bun. Meg Dod’s The Cook’s Manual, a classic Scottish cookery book published at the end of the 1820s gives a clue as to what they were really like. “They are almost,” she said “the same preparation as the brioche cake so much eaten and talked of in Paris.” She proceeds to a recipe for Bath cakes –they should rise very light- and then observes, that the buns are moulded by hand rather than cut out with stamps and decorated on top with sugared caraway seeds.
At the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, caterers sold 870,027 buns, along with 33,456lbs meat pies, 37.300lbs biscuits, 36,000lbs potted meats, 33 tonnes ham and 36 tonnes potatoes to accompany 14,299lbs of coffee and more than a million bottles of soda, lemonade and ginger.
George Augustus Sala, the journalist who collaborated with Dickens mused: “To the end of time little princesses will ask their governesses why the people need starve for want of bread; when there are such nice Bath buns in confectioners’ shop windows,”
By then they had already undergone a kind of evolutionary split that created an extra rich London variety as well as the original. Rather than the smooth surfaced, neat buns that are stencilled out by mechanical means, these had a rocky unfinished surface, but there was little to complain about in the ingredients: half as much butter as flour, eggs, yolks, lemon zests and chopped citrus peel.
Not everyone was so lucky as to afford these. 19 children were poisoned eating Bath buns that had been adulterated with a yellow arsenic dye, rather than the approved “chromate of lead.” The magistrate refused any redress to one of the survivors on the grounds that he hadn’t been poison’d outright. “Who among us are safe?” fumed the Times. It accused doctors of conniving with poisonmongers, so that it could charge for treating the sick.
The downward qualitative spiral continued so that during the Edwardian era it had been reduced to “a sweet bun of a somewhat stodgy type, and is supposed to constitute with a little milk, the average form of luncheon taken by a mild curate.” Its quality grew worse. The author Max Beerbohm gave this impression of an empty railway station between the two World Wars: “A solitary porter shuffles along the platform. Yonder, those are the lights of the refreshment room, where all night long, a barmaid is keeping her lonely vigil over the beer-handles and the Bath buns in a glass case.”
Sally Lunns too, like Icarus, were spreading their wings. A writer to the prestigious journal Notes and Queries (1852) who, “Partial to my sweet teacake…I often think of the pretty, pastrycook of Bath” , inquired for details of their creator’s existence. He received the Dalmer story as an answer with the comment: “To this day the Sally Lunn cake claims pre-eminence in all the cities of England.”
In his short story The Chimes, Charles Dickens describes a dismal evening as: “the sort of night that's meant for muffins. . . Likewise crumpets. Also Sally Lunns."
Gilbert and Sullivan managed to combine both it and a bun, presumably from Bath, in a chorus of their first full length operetta where villagers that are about, unwittingly, to drink a magic potion at an engagement party anticipate tucking into:
The rollicking bun, and the gay Sally Lunn!
The rollicking, rollicking bun!
The twentieth century showed less enthusiasm, partly because craft bakers’ shops were closing down, partly because it was time consuming to produce, partly because it was costly and relied on lavish amounts of expensive ingredients. It did survive in unexpected corners of the country. When the food writer Jane Grigson toured Britain for her unique account of British food in the 1980s she found ones which were “more fun than the so-called originals in Bath” in Carlisle.
The tearooms in Lilliput Alley have continued to flourish as a “Refreshment House and Museum” or more recently, plain Sally Lunns. Its kitchens bake a modern all-purpose bun that reflects the food fashions of the day. A decade ago its menu offered chicken supreme, egg mayonnaise or baked beans à la bun. Things have moved on — scrambled eggs on bun for breakfast; toasted bun with lemon curd and clotted cream for tea and for dinner, sirloin steak with peppercorn sauce and a Sally Lunn trencher.
Its own bun recipe is a secret. The colour and the texture seem to place it among milk breads. That isn’t necessarily a heresy. An authority on folk cookery, Florence White argued that the dough was better made with cream than butter. For better or worse it does have a texture that’s much softer than brioche, closer, dare I say it, to the kind of bun designed for wrapping burgers.
The Bath bun has undergone even more changes. James Cobb opened a bakery in 1866. This family business supplied the Pump Room until it was bought by a Bristol firm Mount Stevens in 1990. Mr Cobb owned a recipe that was over 200 years old then, for caraway seed cakes “the size of a pippin”, sweetened with sugar and treacle which he believed to be a forerunner of the Bath bun that became his family’s speciality.
By the standards of modern British baking practices, his was an expensive item. The dough was rich, initially containing butter for which pastry shortening was later substituted. It was unusual in that it had a chunk of cube sugar pressed to its underbelly. Hand-crafted, it didn’t always leave the ovens as the baker had intended. Sometimes it would be nicely rounded. Often it was flatter and half-collapsed. It was always recognizable by the nibbed sugar and currants scattered over the top. The latter were an anomaly, not really necessary, often carbonised.
It may not be tragic, but it is regrettable that two genuine local specialities once so popular that they became a familiar part of the British culinary heritage, should survive more on the strength of their past history than any intrinsic merit. According to a respected professional baking textbook Bath Buns are no different from any other buns except for a little chopped peel and extra sugar used to decorate them. That’s not saying very much in their favour. What’s worse, it’s a form of vandalism not so different from, say, building a leisure centre on top of the Roman baths.
Maybe the root cause for the declining reputation of the city’s one-time favourites lies not with its own but with the London bakers. It was said, during the Great Exhibition, that the refreshments served were sloppy and unappetizing. Bath buns were an early casualty of mass catering
Copyright Michael Raffael, Curiosities of Bath [Birlinn 2006