Tag Archives: regional cookery

Bath, Buns & Sally Lunns

No, I haven’t died, so cancel the wake. I’ve been a little busy of late and the poor old blog has suffered from scant postings. For that I apologise. I need to catch up with a heck of a lot of food stories, recipes and history with you all; I may not have been blog-writing, but I have been eating!

At the end of June, I popped down to the beautiful city of Bath for the weekend to visit friends and had a jolly old time. The great thing about Bath is that it has such history; you cannot help but find something to be amazed by at the turn of every street corner.

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Entrance to the Roman Baths

The spa at Bath has attracted people for millennia – there is archaeological evidence of human settlement going back 10 000 years. The city of Bath itself was founded in 863BC by a chap called Bladud. Suffering from leprosy, he had been ostracised from society and found that bathing in the warm, muddy springs, after seeing pigs doing the same, cured him. It must have put him in fine fettle because he later went on to become the ninth King of the Britons and to father King Lear.

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Of course it was the Romans that really transformed the place, creating Aqua Sulis with the baths that are still there today in fine working order.

From the point of view of food, however, Bath really came into its own in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when it was deluged by the middle classes that wanted to get away. The Roman Baths and Pump Room were restored to their former glories after centuries of neglect, making Bath the best of all the spa towns. This wasn’t just because of its locality to London, or that it was in a lovely part of England; it was because Bath simply had the best of everything. Bath was a trade epicentre: excellent salt marsh lamb from Wales, a seemingly endless supply of fruit and vegetables from Tewkesbury, cider from Glastonbury, apricots, cherries and plums from the Cotswolds, cream and junkets from Devon and Somerset, excellent freshwater fish – especially elvers – from the Severn Valley as well as sea fish from the ports of Cornwall, all came to one place. And that was just British produce! I haven’t mentioned the French brandy, the Spanish wine or the exotic spices from further afield.

All this has made Bath what it is today. Its food heritage, however, seems to have been boiled down into two things: Bath buns and Sally Lunns

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I’ve never seen either Bath buns or Sally Lunns anywhere other than Bath itself, which just goes to show that we still have regional cooking in an age with a seemingly swirling and mixing population. I like that you don’t see them everywhere; it makes eating one a rare treat to be relished. There are, of course, stories attached to the invention of these enriched breads which should be taken with a huge pinch of salt.

Bath Buns

A bath bun is a large fruit bun, made with dough similar to that of a Chelsea bun or hot cross bun. The bread dough is enriched with eggs, sugar and currants. At the bottom of each bun is a lump of sugar and the freshly-baked bun is finished with a sticky wash, extra currants and crushed loaf sugar or sugar nibs.

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Anatomy of a Bath bun

The Bath bun is said to have been invented by a doctor called William Oliver in the 18th century. After his patients visited the Roman baths he would give them a nourishing Bath bun. It was soon apparent that his plan was not working as he expected when he realised
his patients were getting somewhat portly. He withdrew the buns and replaced them with hard, dry water biscuits.

I must say that I would have become a hypochondriac if I was one of Oliver’s patients! I would have used any excuse to get my hands on one. They are so delicious – sweet and sticky and very bad for you. I can’t put the attractiveness of the Bath bun better than W Chambers, writing in his Edinburgh Journal of 1855:

The Bath-bun is a sturdy and gorgeous usurper – a new potentiate, whose blandishments have won away a great many children, we regret to say, from their lawful allegiance to the plum-bun. The Bath-bun is not only a toothsome dainty, but showy and alluring withal. It was easier for ancient mariners to resist the temptations of the Sirens, than it is for a modern child to turn away from a Bath-bun…Large, solid, and imposing, it challenges attention, and fascinates its little purchasers.

We can see from this quote that the Bath bun was popular, not just in Bath, but England and Scotland, so what happened to it? Enriched breads are still pretty popular in Britain, even with the advent of comparatively modern chemically-aerated sponge cakes. Strange.

The Sally Lunn

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Oh no she didn’t!

A Sally Lunn is a large, round enriched bread, much plainer than a Bath bun, rather like French brioche. The story of its invention goes something like this:

A young French immigrant lands in Bath during the 17th century and gets herself a job in a bakery where she shows off some of her recipes and one in particular becomes very popular indeed. Her name? Solange Luyan.

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The recipe went missing in the 1800s, but was apparently found during the 1930s when it was discovered in a ‘secret cupboard’ in her original home. The owner of the house then decided to open up the original Sally Lunn Tea Room.

This is, of course, all complete nonsense. The most likely explanation is that Sally Lunn is a corruption of the French solielune, or sun and moon cake.

I visited the tea rooms and ate a delicious lightly-toasted Sally Lunn spread with sweet cinnamon butter and it was delicious. Like the Bath bun, its popularity had faded in the rest of the country.

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Preparing, Sourcing & Cooking Eel

The last of a trilogy of posts on the subject of eels. This time a recipe for an eel stew and some help with preparing them.

Sourcing Eel

The first time I cooked with eel I used wild ones – something I won’t be doing from now on; the sustainable cook as we have learnt buys only farmed eels. Ask your fishmonger if he can get them for you. If he can’t then you have four options: (1) go to a fishery that supplies eels where you are most likely to have to buy in bulk; (2) if you live in or near London, go to an eel, pie & mash house and pick some up there; (3) order some frozen ones already cleaned from the very good people at The Fish Society; (4) catch some yourself in an eel trap. If you live outside of the UK, eels are much easier to find.
I remember getting my eel order from Dave Yarwood from Out of the Blue in Chorlton. He had driven all the way to Sandbach at some god-awful time in the morning only to get there to find no one around, though he found a note on the door of the suppliers saying the eels were in a bag in a stream round the back! I arrived at his shop and there they were – three freshwater eels swimming around in a polystyrene box. I got a taxi back home with three eels sloshing about in their tank – quite a surreal experience, I can tell you.

eels

Preparing Eel

There’s a good chance that if you are going to have to do away with them yourself, this is because eels begin to break down very quickly after death. There is a lot of advice out there on what is the best way to do this. If you look in English Food by Jane Grigson says to ask your fishmonger to do the dirty work. It used to be thought that eels had to be skinned whilst still alive, but this is not the case. Larousse Gastronomique gives you these instructions on how to prepare an eel:

To kill an eel, seize it with a cloth and bang its head violently against a hard surface. To skin it, put a noose around the base and hang it up. Slit the skin in a circle just beneath the noose. Pull away a small portion of the skin, turn it back, take hold of it with a cloth and pull it down hard.

Well it’s not quite as simple as Larousse makes it sound; killing an eel is not like killing a regular fish, i.e. one thump to the back of the head and it’s gone, no, they keep on wriggling and writhing for a long time after you’ve ‘killed’ it. The best thing to do is to put the eels in iced water or in the freezer until they become very slow and docile, then hit them hard against a wall, stone or some other sturdy surface. You’ll find that after several hits that it is still moving about; it’s quite distressing, but the eel is dead, though its autonomic nervous system takes a while to shut down, though I’ve no idea how this happens and why it’s so different to other fishes. You can now either try the skinning method described above or behead them and then skin them. Have a look here at my original eel post from Neil Cooks Grigson, scroll down to see a rather gruesome video of some headless eels swimming about in my sink.

To skin them use a pair of pliers and a little salt to help get a purchase on the skin. Once you have got going the skin comes of satisfyingly easy like a long thin sock. Don’t be alarmed if the eels start moving again – this is from the salt triggering their nerves to start firing.

Now gut and clean the fish; make a cut from its anus – you’ll see it, about halfway down – to the neck end and pull away any innards from the rib cage. Give it a rinse and you are done.

Sedgemoor Eel Stew

One thing I have not mentioned is how well eel eats. It really is a delicious fish – its flesh is mild and delicate, don’t be put off by its snake-like form and sliminess. It is similar to salmon, but a little richer and much moister due to its high fat content and they are not in the least bit muddy-tasting. This is the first eel recipe I ever cooked and it is by far the best. It appears in English Food by Jane Grigson. The eel is cooked in a sauce made of cider, stock and cream. Sedgemoor is in Somerset in the south-east of England where most English recipes for eel come from.

eel stew

Ingredients

1 ½ to 2 kg (3 to 4 lb) freshwater eel

dry cider

150ml (¼ pint) double cream

4 tbs chopped parsley

salt and pepper

triangles of fried or toasted bread

Begin by cutting the eel(s) into even-sized portions of around two inches in length. Season them lightly. Make a stock from the eel heads and skin as well as the flat part of the tails: Place the trimmings in a pan and cover them with half-water, half-cider. Bring to a boil and then cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

Arrange the eel pieces in a shallow pan and pour over enough hot stock to just barely cover them. Gently poach the eels for 10-15 minutes depending on the girth of your eels until the eel meat starts to come away from the bones. Don’t let the stock come to a proper boil though – steady poaching is the key. When cooked, remove the eel pieces and arrange them on a serving dish, cover them and keep them warm.

Now make the sauce by boiling down the cooking liquor to a good strong flavour and then add the cream and parsley. Season again if required. Pour the sauce over the eel and serve with the fried bread or toast.

P.S. Delicious as eel maybe, beware if someone offers you raw eel, say as sashimi. Eel blood is toxic before it is cooked, so if you get served a bloody bit, it could be a bad man trying to do away with you.

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Elvers in the Gloucester Style

As promised on the last post on eel conservation, a recipe for a dish that on no accounts must you make unless the elver (glass eel) population has reached at least somewhere close to their population size in days of yore.

elver fisherman

An elverer on the River Severn

This is a recipe that I think I remember Keith Floyd cooking elvers still wriggling as he scooped them straight out of the River Severn in a pillowcase and  tipping them straight into a hot frying pan. I’ve tried to find the clip on the web, but alas it is nowhere to be found. I did find, however a clip of Gordon Ramsay cooking freshly-caught elvers on the banks of the river. I should warn you that elvers are cooked live, so if you are at all squeamish you might not want to see the video:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=07_IkrNy4cU

Elvers in the Gloucester style is essentially scrambled eggs with elvers and it comes from Jane Grigson’s English Food and it is one recipe that I will probably never cook for my other blog Neil Cooks Grigson where I’m trying to cook every single recipe from the book. She points that back in the years of elver plenty, ‘several tons of elvers are caught between Sharpness and Tewkesbury on the Severn’. Also, interestingly, ‘elvers are the only fish fry which may be legally caught as food.’

Well that probably won’t be true for very long.

Jane Grigson

Jane Grigson

Jane’s recipe asks for 500g of elvers so if you are a little evil and know where to get them prepare to pay – they’ll cost you at least £100!

It must have been very exciting going down the banks of the river at night to see a huge dark swathe of elvers migrating upstream safe in the knowledge that there’ll be a delicious dinner in store.

‘For 4

500g (1 lb) elvers

8 rashers fat streaky bacon

A little bacon fat or lard

2 eggs, beaten

Salt, pepper

Wine vinegar

‘When you go to buy elvers, take along an old pillowcase so that the fishmonger can tip them straight into it.

‘At home, add a handful of kitchen salt to the elvers and swish them about, still in the pillowcase, in plenty of water. Squeeze them firmly to extract as much water as possible, then repeat the washing process again with some more salt. This gets rid of the sliminess. You may need to rinse them again and pick out any tiny twigs, leaves and pieces of grass.

‘To cook the dish, fry the bacon until crisp in a little bacon fat or lard. Remove it to a serving dish, and turn the levers into the bacon fat which remains in the pan. Stir them about for a few seconds until they become opaque, then mix in the beaten egg and cook for a few seconds longer. The important thing is not to cook for too long. Taste and add seasoning. Put the elvers on top of the bacon, and sprinkle with a little vinegar. Serve very hot.’

We we’ll just have to take her word for it, I suppose.

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