Sally Lunn – the mysterious baker of Bath

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Afternoon tea is a british institution and it is served with sandwiches, scones, tea bread, buns or – Sally Lunns. These are a specialty of Bath, in former times an elegant spa of the upper class, and they have a very interesting history.

The story of Sally Lunn

Legend has ist that Sally Lunn was a french Huguenot who was born as Solange Luyon; she had to leave her country about 1685 because of the savage prosecution of her religious group in France. She came to Bath where she worked at a baker’s shop in the Lilliput Alley. There she introduced a traditional french tea bread which became very popular und was named after her. Because the english people can’t spell Solange Luyon they changed her name into Sally Lunn.

This is the story how it is told by the museum of Bath which is located at the eldest house in Bath, right there in the Liliput Alley, where once Sally Lunn … But there’s a hitch somewhere: No document was ever found to proof the existence of a woman named Solange Luyon or something alike at Bath. She isn’t mentioned either in contemporary literature although the town at the Avon was a well known spa since the 16th century; in 1702 even the queen spent some time here. But it was not before the end of the 18th century that „Sally Lunn buns“ are mentioned. In 1796 the newspaper Bath Chronicle printed the verses of a song dedicated to her, which were attributed to the baker William Dalmer who allegedly had bought the original recipe from her. One of eleven verses goes like this: „No more I heed the muffin’s zest, the yeast cake or the bun. Sweet muse of pastry teach me how to make a Sally Lunn.“

“Soleil et Lune”

There’s another popular explanation: French refugees called a pastry „Soleil et Lune“ what means „Sun and Moon“ because ist was light underneath and golden on the surface. The calls of the english street sellers sounded like „Sally Lunn“. But the french chef Marie-Antoine Carême published a recipe for „Solilemme“ in 1815 which seems strange because if there was something called „Soleil et Lune“ in France he should have known the correct name and spelling. Some historians are quite sure that there was a bun with this name at the Alsace region – but no one there remembers such a pastry. The english food historian Alan Davidson couldn’t find any trace of it either although he did some extensive research.

Sally Lunn (1910)

Bath buns

To make the case even more complicated: There is also a pastry called Bath buns which made her appearance also during the 18th century, just a little bit earlier, and so some believe both buns are nearly the same. If you compare both buns it seems that they are right but some time ago they looked quite different than today. Bath buns were smaller and were originally covered with sugared caraway seeds. When Jane Austen who lived from 1801 till 1806 in Bath complained in a letter, she had spoiled her stomach with „Bath bunns“, she spoke of this pastry. The Sally Lunns, allegedly already well known at her time, are not mentioned at all in her correspondence. Charles Dickens wrote about them in a short story but that was decades later.

Anyway there seem to be a direct relation to France because the Sally Lunn look very much like the french Brioche. Both pastries are light and fluffy and are eaten warm, often with butter. The scottish cookbook author Meg Dod wrote in 1820 as a matter of course that „Bath Buns“ and „Bath Cakes“ were made nearly in the same way as the „Brioche Cake“ which was very popular in Paris.

Brioche (1763)

A song for Sally Lunn

Let’s have a look at the facts. The author of a kitchen guidebook titled Hone’s Every Day Book explains in 1826: „The bun … called the Sally Lunn, originated with a young woman of that name in Bath, about 30 years ago. She first cried them … Dalmer, a respectable baker and musician, noticed her, bought a business, and made a song in behalf of Sally Lunn. This composition became the street favourite … and to this day the Sally Lunn cake, not unlike the hotcross bun in flavour, claims preeminence in all the cities in England.“ „Thirty years ago“ are maybe not the exact date of the introduction but it seems impossible that the author missed the date for hundred years. And if the Sally Lunns did not exist before the end of the 18th century they have nothing to do with the Huguenots.

Probably we will never know who Sally Lunn really was – but she was not french. Lunn is a traditional english name and can be found very often in old church records, also the name „Sarah Lunn“. And if you know that Sally was a very popular nickname for Sarah than you know that there were a lot of Sally Lunns in England. So maybe the museum in Bath should think again about the story of the huguenot baker …

About Petra Foede

Ich bin Kulturhistorikerin und freie Journalistin. In diesem Blog schreibe ich über die Geschichte von Gerichten, über berühmte Cafés und Restaurants sowie über dies & das aus der kulinarischen Vergangenheit.
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2 Responses to Sally Lunn – the mysterious baker of Bath

  1. Louise says:

    I love when you do a post in English, Petra especially when you spend so much time researching mysterious bakers such as Sally Lunn. I’ve often wondered about her and Bath Buns but haven’t really had the time to explore it.

    I think it is all so fascinating. Your display of text and pictures are just wonderful too!!! Thank you so much for sharing. I see you now have a label for “Blogposts in English!!! Hurray!!!

  2. Petra Foede says:

    @Louise: I introduced the new category especially for you, Louise :)