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Sally Lunn Buns or Solilemmes

A Sally Lunn is a large bun or teacake made with a yeast dough including cream, eggs, and spice, similar to the sweet brioche breads of France. Served warm and sliced, with butter, it was first recorded in 1780 in the spa town of Bath in southwest England, though it is not the same as Dr. Oliver’s Bath Bun.

A selection of Sally Lunn buns on display.
A selection of Sally Lunn buns on display.

The origins of the Sally Lunn are shrouded in myth – one theory is that it is an anglicisation of “Sol et lune” (French for “sun and moon”), representing the golden crust and white base/interior. The Sally Lunn Eating House claims that the recipe was brought to Bath in the 1680s by a Huguenot refugee called Solange Luyon, who became known as Sally Lunn, but there is no evidence to support this theory.

There is a passing mention of “Sally Lunn and saffron cake” in a 1776 poem about Dublin by the Irish poet William Preston. The first recorded mention of the bun in Somerset is as part of a detox regime in Philip Thicknesse’ 1780 guidebook to taking the waters at Bath. Thicknesse describes how he would daily see visitors drinking 2-3 pints of Bath water and then “sit down to a meal of Sally Lunns or hot spungy rolls, made high by burnt butter!”. He recommends against the practice as his brother died after this kind of breakfast- “Such a meal, few young men in full health can get over without feeling much inconvenience”.

There is little historical evidence for Sally Lunn as a person. The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1798 uses Sally Lunn as an example during a discussion of foods named after people – ‘a certain sort of hot rolls, now, or not long ago, in vogue at Bath, were gratefully and emphatically styled “Sally Lunns”‘. But it is not until 1827 that a historical person is described by a correspondent of William Hone using the pseudonym “Jehoiada”, who says she had sold the buns on the street “about thirty years ago”. A baker called Dalmer had bought out her business and made it highly successful after he composed a special song for the vendors, who sold the buns from mobile ovens. The earliest evidence of commercial production is an 1819 advert for the Sally Lunn “cakes” sold by W. Needes of Bath, bread and biscuit maker to the Prince Regent.

Westmorland Gazette - Saturday, 23 December 1826.
Westmorland Gazette – Saturday, 23 December 1826.

The Sally Lunn is mentioned alongside muffins and crumpets by Charles Dickens in The Chimes (1845). The same year Eliza Acton gave a recipe in Modern Cookery for Private Families, describing it as a version of “Solimemne – A rich French breakfast cake, or Sally Lunn”. Solilemmes is a kind of brioche that is served warm and popularised by the great Parisian chef Marie-Antoine Carême in a book of 1815. Carême claimed the “solilem” originated in Alsace but there is no evidence to support that claim; he may have taken the idea from contacts in Bath and then tried to disguise the origins of a recipe that came from France’s great enemy.

Sally Lunn's Tea Room in Bath.
Sally Lunn’s Tea Room in Bath.

The medieval building now known as the Sally Lunn Eating House is at 4 North Parade Passage (formerly Lilliput Alley) in Bath (51.3808°N 2.3582°W). The site was originally occupied by the south range of Bath Abbey and the lowest floor level dates to the reconstruction of the abbey after a great fire in 1137. The masonry oven in the basement dates from this time. After the Reformation it came into the hands of the Colthurst family of Wardour Castle who sold it to John Hall of Bradford on Avon in 1612. In 1622 Hall leased the site to George Parker, a carpenter who built the current house. The Hall estate was later acquired by the 2nd Duke of Kingston, who sold the house to William Robinson in 1743. There may have been baking on a small scale during the 1700s but it only became the main commercial use of the building around the turn of the century.

The building was acquired in the 1930s by Marie Byng-Johnson who opened it as a tea-room specializing in Sally Lunn buns, promoted with a story that she had discovered an ancient document in a secret panel above the fireplace explaining that Mlle. Sally Lunn was a young French Huguenot refugee who brought the recipe to Bath around 1680. The building is now Grade II.

This original recipe for Sally Lunn Buns comes in verse form from ‘The Monthly’ Magazine, vol 2, 1796. It is reminiscent of Mrs. Austen’s boiled pudding poem.

RECEIPT TO MAKE A SALLY LUN
A well-known cake at Bath
Written by the late Major DREWE, of Exeter

NO more I heed the muffin zest
The Yorkshire cake or bun
Sweet Muse of Pastry teach me how
To make a Sally Lun.

Take thou of luscious wholesome cream
What the full pint contains
Warm as the native Mood which glows
In youthful virgin’s veins

Hast thou not seen in olive rind
The wall-tree’s rounded nut
Of juicy butter just its size
In thy clean pastry put

Hast thou not seen the golden yolk
In Chrystal shrine immur’d
Whence brooded o’er by sostring wing
Forth springs the warrior bird?

Oh save three birds from savage man
And combat’s sanguine hour
Cush in three yolk, the seeds of life
And on the butter pour

Take then a cup that hold the juice
Fam’d China’s fairest pride
Let foaming yeast its concave fill
And froth adown its side

But seek thou first for neatness sake
The Naiad’s crystal stream
Swift let it round the concave play
And o’er the surface gleam

Of salt more keen than that of Greece
Which cooks not poets use
Sprinkle thou then with sparing hand
And thro the mass diffuse

Then let it rest disturb’d no more
Safe in its steady feat
Till thrice Time’s warning bell hath struck
Nor yet the hour compleat

And now let Fancy revel free
By no stern rule confin’d
On glittr’ing tin in varied form
Each Sally-Lun be twin’d

But heed thou west to lift thy thought
To me thy power divine
Then to the oven’s glowing mouth
The woud’rous work consign

Modern recipes abound, but Eliza Acton’s 1845 recipe from her “English Bread Book for Domestic Use” is considered a standard:

To make a Sally Lunn, dissolve three ounces of good butter, cut small, in less than half of the milk with which the sponge is to be set; cool it down with the remainder; and, if a sweetened preparation be liked, stir three ounces of pounded sugar to the flour before it is moistened; pour gradually the milk and butter to the yeast, of which there must be a full ounce, and proceed in all else as above. Three hours will sometimes be required to bring this sponge to its height. When it is ready add the second pound of flour to it, put it into a round buttered tin or tins, which it should not more than half fill, and when it has risen nearly to the edge let it be put without delay into the oven, and baked a nice brown. An egg or two, when they are considered requisite, can be mixed with the milk and butter either for the Sally Lunn, or to convert the dough into buns; but, to allow for the addition, a few spoonfuls of the milk should be omitted. Carrawayseeds, currants, or candied citron or orange-rind, can be kneaded in with the other ingredients when the second pound of flour is mixed with the sponge, or immediately after it is worked in. Two or three ounces more of sugar may, for many tastes, be thought needful for the buns.

Bread.— Best flour, 1 lb.; new milk, 1 pint; little salt; German yeast, £ oz., to rise 2 hours or more; or yeast, 1 oz., 1 to 2 hours. Flour, 1 additional lb.; to rise 1/2 to 3/4 hour.

Sally Lunn. — Flour, 1 lb.; butter, 3 oz.; pounded sugar, 3 oz.; German yeast, full ounce; 2 to 3 hours, or until extremely light. Flour, in addition, one pound; to stand in tins until risen to their edges.

Buns.—Butter, yeast, and milk, as above, with an addition of sugar and an egg or two at pleasure; carraway-seeds, 1 oz.; or currants, 1/2 lb.

Information and photos from Wikipedia.com

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