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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.

Plastic-free Cookery: wanna chip bro?

Here in New Zealand, we love our chips. According to Potatoes New Zealand, 71,914 metric tonnes of potatoes were turned into crisps and a further 282,446 metric tonnes of potataoes were turned into chips (meaning french fries and thicker). That’s an insane quantity of snacks that Kiwis have troughed through.

Crisps are a modern phenomenon: a little too complicated for the home cook to waste time and oil over, perfect for street vendors to sell, and when packaged in plastic, the ideal thing to sell to the consumer in supermarkets, dairies, petrol stations, and just about anywhere you could find yourself hankering for a snack. Two of the most recognisable brands in crisps in New Zealand are Eta, founded in 1955; and Bluebird, established in 1953.

In 2016 stuff.co.nz asked New Zealanders to vote for their favourite chip flavour as an influx of new and interesting flavours came to tantalise our tastebuds. Salt and Vinegar and Ready Salted ranked the highest, but some surprises were in store – we were acquiring a taste for chilli, or even along the lines of caramelised onion. My biggest surprise was to see Barbeque poll lower than Chicken flavour, but as you can read in the Spinoff’s ranking of chip flavours, everyone has Opinions.

Poll results for popular chip flavours. As you can see, I’m a fan of Ready Salted.

But it’s crunch time – I made my own crisps. It required purchasing a mandoline and three varieties of potatoes, to test floury against waxy and ‘all purpose’. This is my experience.

Finely slice your potatoes with a mandoline, rinse them, and soak to remove excess starch before drying each individual slice before frying. It’s really important to dry the chips, because water expands explosively in hot oil and can cause bad injuries.

I fried my crisps in canola oil in a deep cast iron pot. They took longer than I expected to cook, around 3-4 minutes per small batch. The absolute success went to the agria potatoes, which fried evenly and had great body to them. The Desiree potatoes were a flop – they absorbed the oil, wouldn’t crisp up (even with ‘drying time’) and became slimy discs of dissatisfation. I was so discouraged I decided against even bothering with the Nadine – the dumb blonde of the potato world – and added my slices to soup the following night in place of noodles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I couldn’t find any historic recipes for potatoes in my small collection of cookbooks. They’re a pain to make. The legend of the potato chip/ crisps creation harks back to Saratoga Springs in New York, in 1853 where, as the story goes, a fussy customer kept sending his potatoes back to the kitchen, demanding thinner slices until the chef, George Crum, in a fit of spite sliced them so thin and fried them so crisp that he inadvertently delighted his finicky customer. This story has been claimed to be a romanticised lie, with several key facts not aligning. Like many foods, the origins of the potato chip are obscured in time, and likely contributed to and refined by a number of cooks.

The question remains over whether I will quit my chip habit due to their plastic packaging. Proper Crisps now sell a small range in home compostable bags, which I often choose. But while making your own is fiddly and fills your home with the smell of hot oil, I might make a habit of making crisps (outside) for special occasions, to impress my friends just as George Crum is said to have done 150 years ago.

Agria crisps, salted and gobbled up before I could get a pretty picture. Frankly, can you blame me?

Plastic Free cookery Challenge

Plastic is ubiquitous and seemingly inescapable. The first man-made plastic compound, ‘Parkesine’, was unveiled in 1862, and since then plastic and its various types have evolved and grown. Light, cheap, hygenic, preserving and flexible in use, plastic eventually became intertwined with the modern packaged food industry. Go to your local supermarket and you’ll find just about everything in plastic, from meat to milk, bread to cheese, fruit to peas. According to National Geographic, of the 78 million metric tons of plastic packaging produced globally each year just 14% is recycled.

A leading justification for the use of single use plastics to package food is the role that packaging can play in extending shelf-life of food and consequently reducing food waste. However, per capita food and packaging waste rates in Europe remain amongst the highest globally, suggesting that packaging has not offered a silver bullet to the food waste problem. 

Institute for European Environmental Policy

In my home, we’ve been trying to cut down on plastic for about two-and-a-half years. But we still end up with thing in the rubbish bin, filled with the treats that we can’t yet buy plastic free from our local grocers. As Plastic free July is coming, I thought I’d undertake that long-needed audit of the rubbish bins to see what my weaknesses are, and if there’s a way to circumvent the plastic by making it myself. A quick dig through our bin revealed a few places for improvement:

Chips.

Known as Crisps in the UK , reputedly the spiteful creation of an irritated chef in New York, and popular the world over, potato chips – those thin, crunchy slivers of potato come in a plastic bag that are a devil.

Cheese.

Before plastic, cheese could come wrapped in fabric (cheesecloth), covered in wax, or even in jars (particularly Stilton cheese). Dishes such as rarebit, raclette and fondue were dishes that specifically used the hard, dried ends of your cheese. And while waxed cheese is still seen, it is usually in wedges – and shrink wrapped in plastic.

Crackers.

To go with my cheese addiction, crackers come in loads of packaging. While in Florence last year, I was astonished to see towers of crackers at the local bakeries for sale. It struck me as symbolic of the relationship Italians have with their food, which seemed (to me) much more diverse in terms of suppliers, and more intimate with your foods origins.

Pasta.

Breaking the alliterative trend here, Spaghetti is the hardest pasta for me to source plastic-free. I imagine that it’s hard to sell without it breaking, but given the simplicity of the ingredients I should really be better at this.

The challenge:

During Plastic Free July, I m going to try to find recipes that I can use to replace the commercial version. In this attempt I’ll seek to use historic recipes to try and recreate the foods that people would have eaten before plastic became quite so entrenched in our pantries. That might mean a Victorian recipe for crackers, a modern recipe for pasta, or a made-up recipe for crisps. But what it means is that I can reduce my waste further, and I can explore the recipes for food that comes from a time when more was made at home, and when plastic wasn’t everywhere.

Join me on instagram or Twitter with the hastag #plasticfreecookery. Food and recipes can be modern, vintage and historic in the spirit of togetherness and of fighting a modern problem that people lived for thousands of years without.