February 3, 2012
Guest blogger Dana Bate last wrote for Food & Think about Salisbury’s medieval market.
England’s historic city of Bath is known for its Georgian architecture and Roman baths and as the one-time residence of Jane Austen. But the city is also the birthplace of two of the country’s famous yeasted buns: the Sally Lunn and the Bath Bun, both of which have a fabled and dubious history.
Of the two buns, the Sally Lunn has the plainest appearance and flavor: at nearly six-inches in diameter with a soft, domed top, it is like a brioche bun on steroids. But its simplicity belies the elaborate and fanciful story that accompanies its history.
According to the legend, the Sally Lunn Bun was invented by a 17th-century Huguenot refugee from France named Solange Luyon, who landed a job at a bakery in Bath. She introduced the baker there to the French style of egg- and butter-enriched breads, which residents began to call Sally Lunn Buns, in a perversion of her French name. The buns were served at public breakfasts and teas and soon became a part of Bath’s baking tradition. The original recipe was lost in the late 1800s, but (the story goes) the recipe was rediscovered in the 1930s, when it was found in a secret cupboard in Sally Lunn’s former home.
So-called Bath Buns, on the other hand, are smaller and sweeter than Sally Lunn Buns, with a lump of sugar baked into the bottom, crushed sugar sprinkled over the top and, often, currants or raisins swirled throughout. Like many aspects of Bath’s history, this bun, too, comes with a story.
The most popular involves an 18th-century physician named William Oliver, who would treat patients visiting the city’s Roman baths and, allegedly, furnish them with sweet, yeasted treats called Bath Buns, which he supposedly invented. As the story goes, Oliver went on to invent the Bath Oliver – a hard, dry cracker, similar to a water cracker—after the Bath Buns made his patients pack on a few too many pounds.
Unfortunately, both stories are full of as many holes as a fluffy loaf of brioche.
According to British food historian Laura Mason, there is no record of the Solange Luyon story before the 20th century, and, in her opinion, the whole Sally Lunn tale is complete fiction. “People were very fond of making up these kind of stories,” she says, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Another source describes the Sally Lunn story as a fabrication by a woman named Marie Byng-Johnson, who bought a rundown townhouse in 1937 and concocted a story about a French refuge and a mysterious cupboard to attract visitors and popularize the site as a tourist attraction.
Some claim the name “Sally Lunn” comes from the recipe for “solilemne,” a rich, yeasted, French breakfast cake popular during the same period, but, while plausible, the connection has never been confirmed.
As for the Bath Bun, the recipe likely derives from the Bath Cake and has no connection to either Dr. Oliver or his overweight patients.
In both cases, Munson says, the cakes likely link to an 18th-century baking tradition of yeast-leavened rich breads, which were popular for breakfast. As for the legendary stories…well, they’re just that: stories. Good for a laugh and not much else.
But whether the stories true or false, the charms of the buns themselves cannot be denied: a sweet, sticky Bath Bun goes perfectly with a hot cup of tea, and a Sally Lunn Bun makes a fine partner for a bowl of soup, regardless of its dubious legacy.
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