The Sally Lunn is a traditional enriched tea bread that hails from the West Country city of Bath. To dispel any confusion, it is not a Bath Bun, which is an enriched dough filled with fruit and peel, topped with a smattering of sugar nibs.
The Sally Lunn has been likened to a British brioche, enriched with dairy and eggs, but it is not a sweet dough. 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 she was referring to, but the ones I have read seem straightforward enough, requiring, as with all yeast-raised goods, only time enough to rise, which requires practically no input whatsoever.
The first mention of the Sally Lunn bun has for years been generally accepted to be 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 recommendation, I’m going to rock the Sally Lunn world with some titbits that I’ve found 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 pleasure gardens set out across the River Avon from the city, 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 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 somewhat surprisingly, but very firmly, in the Dublin countryside.
And finally, we have a recipe. The only recipe I’ve been able to find that dates from the eighteenth century. A recipe which predates all other mentions by several years and comes, not from elegant, regency Bath, but from the north of England. From Newcastle. In a book published in 1772 by Mary Smith. Admittedly it doesn’t have the exact same name, but I think one has to admit that the title isn’t completely dissimilar and the recipe itself does indeed make a bun that fits the description of a Sally Lunn, right down to the serving suggestion.
There are a couple of interesting details in this recipe: the single rise and the bakeware. When you enrich a dough with dairy and eggs, it lengthens the amount of time the yeast needs to work. Frequently in old recipes, the dough is set to rise, and then the enriching ingredients are kneaded in before the dough is shaped. Enriching dough can be something of a double-edged sword, because yes, it makes it delicious, but then, without the correct proportion of liquid, or time, it can turn out heavy. The single rise here meant that the initial, exuberant frothiness of the first rise is tempered with the rich ingredients, producing the perfect balance of richness and lightness.
The second detail was the recommendation for an earthenware pot to bake it in. it makes perfect sense – a metal tin would get too hot and you’d run the risk of scorching. Early test batches of this recipe were baked in some red, 10cm, tapas dishes like this, but then I found – what I believe to be – mustard jars (pictured) at a brocante in France and they proved to be 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.