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Sunday Baking: Seeking Sally Lunn

On a bright October 2018 morning in Bath, England, I set out in search of Sally Lunn’s Eating House, a bakery and dining room built in 1482, reportedly existing as a bakery since circa 1680. The story goes that a young Huguenot refugee by the name of Solange Luyon came to Bath around 1680 and found work in the kitchen of a bakery. She had also brought a recipe from home for a brioche-like bun that gained popularity as a base for sweet and savoury toppings. Today, Sally Lunn’s Eating House describes it as “part bun, part bread, part cake… A large and generous but very very light bun”.

In New Zealand a Sally Lunn is a sweet bread roll, and domestic recipes are bulked up with leftover mashed potato, dotted with raisins and spread with a thick, sweet layer of icing, dusted with coconut to stop it from sticking to the bag. It can also be referred to as a Boston Bun, especially in the South Island. In Bath, it is entirely different: an enriched but otherwise plain bun, served in halves with a sweet or savoury topping.

And then I found a recipe for a New Zealand Bun in the 4th edition of the Edmonds Cookery Book, which has been digitised by the National Library, so that we can all explore its contents. It’s a recipe for enriched bread rolls, really, with flour, sugar and a little

Recipe for New Zealand Buns, Edmond’s “Sure to rise”cookery book, 4th ed, National Library of New Zealand.

The recipe intrigued me – it seemed like a scone, and had a very similar list of ingredients for other Sally Lunn recipes in books from my own collection: the use of a breakfast cup of flour, sugar and butter and leavened with baking powder instead of yeast. So naturally, I had to make some.

A breakfast cup equates to about 190g of flour. I rubbed in 90g of butter, added a headed teaspoon of baking poweder, a spoon of raw sugar, egg and around 75ml of milk. This was then divided into 6 rolls, and baked at 200° Celsius for 15 minutes. The buns can out and were quickly gobbled up, and are particularly good with even more butter, some jam and a cup of tea.

Freshly baked New Zealand buns
A very similar recipe for Sally Lunns, Victoria League of Auckland, Tried Recipes, 5th ed.

But neither of these recipes are anything like a modern Kiwi Sally Lunn, or like the version sold at Sally Lunn’s bakery.

In the UK the buns are enormous, easily a hand span across. They weren’t as sweet as we expected from something promoted as being like brioche, and the texture was a bit dusty, as though the gluten hadn’t been encouraged to develop. In Bath we were told they were typically eaten with a knife and fork. The myth around the buns is fascinating: Sally Lunn’s Eating House says is because the recipe was passed on (3rd paragraph) with the deeds to the house. They contradict themselves several pages on, stating that the recipe was discovered in a secret cupboard during renovation s in the 30s. Sally Lunns are also reputed to have killed an acquaintance of one Phillip Thicknesse, who wrote in 1780: “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“. This anecdote is the first record of Sally Lunns in the Oxford English Dictionary, which indicates that the buns had definitely been known about and referred to in speech prior to its first written record, and that a recipe for them existed.

To complicate things a little further, you can also get Bath Buns in bath: sweet, yeast-risen rolls with sugar nibs on top. They were reportedly developed to help offset the flavour of Bath’s famed spring water, which is actually revolting. Whether or not they helped is questionable: Jane Austen complained that she “disordered my stomach with Bath Bunns” in January 1801. By 1851 and The Great Exhibition Bath Buns had become heavier and fruited, named the London Bath Bun, which sold nearly a million pieces in five and a half months. These various buns and their popularity over the centuries show that sweet and enriched breads are an English favourite, and that New Zealand took on its own version with the New Zealand bun in the 1924 release of the Edmonds Cookbook.