WHEN young Huguenot refugee Solange Luyon fled France for England towards the end of the 17th century, she escaped with more than her life: she took with her a family recipe for a briochelike bread that later enshrined her place in culinary history.
With her name anglicised to Sally Lunn, she arrived in the West Country and introduced her now famous bun to preGeorgian Bath, which was becoming a fashionable spa town. In 1680 Sally set up a refreshment house at North Parade Passage, in the shadow of medieval Bath Abbey.
Here she baked and served the rich, round buns, which gained such a reputation that they became known as Sally Lunn buns and her premises — built in 1482, the oldest house in Bath — simply as Sally Lunn’s.
More than 300 years and countless buns later, they are still baked here by hand using Sally’s original recipe, and her refreshment house is one of Bath’s most popular attractions, as famous as the city’s glorious Georgian terraces, the Roman baths and the assembly rooms frequented by writer Jane Austen, perhaps Bath’s most celebrated resident.
I’ve walked past Sally Lunn’s — a narrow, four-storey townhouse built in Bath’s famed honey-coloured stone — many times, but never yet tried its signature bun, deterred by the inevitable queue. Today, a weekday, I find a tiny table squeezed into a corner of the tearoom’s ground floor. So distracted am I by the conversation of those at neighbouring tables — a mix of overseas visitors and Bath matrons, all rounded English vowels with much high-volume talk of gardening, golf handicaps and grandchildren — that I barely have time to scan the menu before I ambeing urged to make my choice.
The buns are served with a variety of sweet and savoury toppings, ranging from cinnamon butter to creamy brie with cranberry sauce, and I plump for a regal-sounding Queen Victoria: half a bun served with lemon curd and clotted cream, and a pot of tea for £6.18 ($13.90). It arrives quickly, is placed before me without ceremony and I sense that I amrequired to eat up quickly and vacate my seat for the next, perhaps more lavishspending, customer.
In truth, a Sally Lunn bun is much like a traditional English teacake minus the sultanas, albeit on a much grander scale. It’s the size of a dinner plate, about 25cm across, and I am relieved that a serving consists of only half a bun, toasted to a golden brown and a sturdy platform for the cream and lemon curd I pile upon it. I’m not a great tea-drinker but the house brew is delicious, a blend of Indian, Sri Lankan and African teas.
The bun is tasty, but no one is suggesting a Sally Lunn provides much of a culinary thrill: the pleasure is all in its heritage and history. (Charles Dickens ate here, as did Jane Austen and, these days, Face/Off star Nicolas Cage is a regular.)
And Sally would have no trouble recognising her home, so little has it changed over the centuries. Even her original cooking range remains, one of the exhibits in a small kitchen museum in the basement. As for the recipe, that remains a closely guarded secret, passed with the deeds of the house to each new owner. Sue Milne
Heritage treasure: Sally Lunn’s
Oven fresh: Bath’s famous bun