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Tales of a Bath bakehouse

The City of Bath was an extremely fashionable resort for the upper echelons of Regency Society. Hordes of tourists descended on the spa town to take the famous healing waters. The spa water served up at the Pump Room was high in sulphur and notoriously foul-tasting, but for those not following an abstemious diet of Bath Oliver biscuits, there were culinary compensations nearby.

Queen Caroline taking the waters at the Pump Room in Bath, 1817

Queen Caroline taking the waters at the Pump Room in Bath, 1817

The Sally Lunn bun was a popular treat for people visiting Bath even in Jane Austen’s day. The legend surrounding its origins continues to draw visitors to North Parade Passage, and the old house where the story of Sally Lunns is said to have started…

The story goes that Solange Luyon was a French Huguenot refugee who fled to the city of Bath in 1680. She found work as a baker and started making her famous buns: well-risen, round, sweetened loaves, which are similar to a rich brioche. News spread of the young French baker, and the buns were soon in high demand. As the people of Bath found it difficult to pronounce her name, she became known locally ‘Sally Lunn’.

The tale of Sally Lunn survived the centuries, and in 1937 Marie Byng-Johnson acquired the house in which ‘Sally’ was said to have lived. Some 250 years after Luyon is said to have arrived in the City, Marie Byng-Johnson came across an ancient recipe, hidden in a secret cupboard. Byng-Johnson claimed this was the original Sally Lunn recipe, and she founded a teashop on the site dedicated to the Sally Lunn bun.

If you find the story of Solange Luyon a little hard to swallow, consider this other theory… Some believe that the name Sally Lunn is a corruption of ‘Solileme’, a rich French breakfast bread. A popular Alsatian pastry, it featured in Marie-Antoine Carême’s cookbook of 1815, Le patissier royal parisien. Just like the Sally Lunn, the solileme’s golden crust encased a pale and fluffy moist crumb, recalling a golden sun and pale moon or ‘sol et lune’.

Whatever the real story, the buns are just one example of a long tradition of enriched and sweetened tea breads. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at recipes from The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies for Sally Lunn buns and teacakes!

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One thought on “Tales of a Bath bakehouse

  1. I met Marie Byng-Johnson once when I was very young. I was on holiday with my parents in August 1963 and we visited Sally Lunn’s house. I remember a (to me) very old lady who showed us the old kitchen downstairs, the tunnel entrance and the cupboard where she told us Sally Lunn used to put her “little black boy” when he was naughty. She also drew views of Bath, which were printed as postcards and which she hand coloured and sold.

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