The Sally Lunn is a traditional, enriched tea bread that hails from the West Country city of Bath. It is a completely separate item to a Bath Bun, which is an enriched dough, traditionally filled with fruit and peel, topped with a smattering of sugar nibs.
The Sally Lunn has been likened to a British brioche, rich with dairy and eggs, but not sweet. The traditional shape is round and tall, allowing it to be easily sliced horizontally, usually into three, before being loaded with lashings of butter or, as asserted by Dorothy Hartley in her 1954 book Food In England, cream. More descriptively, she actually wrote:
“This yellow-white bun was an infernal trouble to make, taking from sunrise to sunset to raise, was made gold on top with the beaten yolks of eggs, and split hot and embosomed in clouds of cream”.
I don’t know which recipe Ms Hartley was referring to, but the ones I have read seem straightforward enough. As with all yeast-raised goods, this requires only sufficient time to rise, which involves practically no input from the maker whatsoever.
The first mention of the Sally Lunn bun has for years been accepted as 1780 when, in his publication “The Valetudinarians Bath Guide”, Mr Philip Thicknesse wrote:
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.
making them arguably the first buns so good they were simply to die for.
Moving on from this grisly-yet-detatched account, I’m going to rock the Sally Lunn world with some newly discovered snippets of information that pushes their provenance back even earlier in the eighteenth century.
Firstly a song, published in 1778 in The Gentleman’s Magazine” the opening lines of which read:
A general Invitation to Sally Lund at Spring Garden
Ye Beaux and ye Belles, who resort to the Wells,
Come to Bath, your loose guineas to fund;
One and all I invite, free from envy or spite,
To feast upon sweet Sally Lund.
Spring Gardens were the pleasure gardens set out across the River Avon, east of Bath, which held public breakfasts twice a week, with musical accompaniment, at sixpence a head.
Just to, if not rain, then certainly drizzle a little, on Bath’s bun parade claim to fame, in 1776, a (long and, to be honest, rather dreary) poem published in The Westminster Magazine contained the lines:
Where Donnybrook surveys her winding rills,
And Chapelizod rears her sunny hills
Thy sumptuous board the little loves prepare,
And Sally Lun and Saffron cake are there.
placing these teatime treats surprisingly, but very firmly, in the Dublin countryside.
And finally, we have a recipe. The only recipe I’ve been able to find that actually dates from the eighteenth century. A recipe which predates all other mentions by several years and comes, not from elegant, regency Bath, but from Newcastle in the north-east of England. Discovered in a book published in 1772 by Mary Smith, it admittedly doesn’t have the exact same name, but it is recognisably similar. In addition, the recipe itself does indeed make a bun that fits the description of a Sally Lunn, right down to the traditional serving suggestion.
As well as the early date and surprising location of this recipe, there are two further interesting details: the single rise and the bakeware. When a dough is enriched with dairy and eggs, it lengthens the amount of time required for the yeast to do its work. This explains why, in old recipes, the dough is first set to rise, and only afterwards are the enriching ingredients kneaded in, just before the dough is shaped. Enriching dough can be something of a double-edged sword, because yes, the result is very delicious, but also, without the correct proportion of liquid, or time, it can turn out heavy. The single rise here means that the initial, exuberant frothiness of the yeast is tempered with the rich ingredients, ultimately producing the perfect balance of both richness and lightness.
The second detail was the recommendation for an earthenware pot to bake it in. It makes sense – a metal tin would get very hot in the brick oven and the enriched dough would run the risk being scorched. Early test batches of this recipe were baked in some red, 10cm, tapas dishes like this. However, on a visit to a French market I found some ceramic mustard jars (shown in the top image) and they proved the perfect shape to allow the dough to really soar whilst still remaining protected from the heat of the oven.
Mary Smith’s (Sally) Luns Cake
450g plain flour
20g fresh yeast
60g unsalted butter
300ml milk, plus more to mix (maybe)
2 large eggs
- Put the flour into a bowl and crumble in the yeast.
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, then remove from the heat and add in the milk. Swirl to mix.
- Whisk the eggs, add about 2/3 of them to the milk mixture, then pour the liquids into the flour.
- Mix to a soft dough, adding more liquid if required.
- Knead for 10 minutes.
- Divide the dough evenly between your baking dishes (or tins if you haven’t anything else). The mustard pots took 150g of dough, the tapas dishes about half of that. Shape into round, smooth balls and place in the greased dishes/tins to rise for about an hour.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan.
- Use the remaining egg to gently brush the tops of the risen buns lightly. Make sure the egg doesn’t drip down the sides as it will cause the dough to stick.
- Bake for 30-50 minutes, depending on the size of your buns, until well risen and golden brown on top.
- Remove from the dishes promptly and allow to cool on a wire rack.
- Store the cooled buns in an airtight box and warm gently in the oven before serving.