The elegant city of Bath is a terrific place to visit with excellent bars and restaurants, and a strong foody heritage as Anna Hyman discovered.
Turn the clock back to Georgian and Regency days when Bath was making a foody name for itself thanks to its popular Sally Lunn buns, Bath Buns and even Bath Oliver biscuits. But which came first a Sally Lunn or a Bath Bun? The answer seems to have become somewhat obscured by time and depends on which account you read.
Bath Buns and Sally Lunn
Sally Lunn Buns
Of one fact there appears to be no dispute. The creator of the Sally Lunn was one Soli (Solange) Luyon a French Huguenot refugee who had fled to England and arrived in Bath in 1680. She found employment with a baker and introduced him to the brioche type bread of her native France. The delicate, light-as-a-summer-breeze, 'semi-sweet breads' rapidly gained popularity and were served at the public breakfasts and afternoon teas.
In the 1930s the recipe was rediscovered in a secret cupboard in the old bakery, today one of the oldest surviving buildings in Bath. The recipe is a closely guarded secret and whilst the buns are no longer made on the premises, partly to make room for an additional tea room, it is possible to sample these treats in the original building.
Toasted, buttered and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar they are a popular choice. Preferring savouries I chose a toasted ham and cheese option, and loved it. Be prepared to wait for a table, even with restaurants on all three floors there is usually a long queue.
The basement has now been converted into a small shop and museum which shows not only the original wood burning faggot oven but also a number of pieces of pottery and glass found on the site, some dating back to Roman and Saxon times.
Sally Lunn's, 4 North Parade Passage, Bath 01225 461634. www.sallylunns.co.uk
Whether the 18th century physician Dr Oliver really did invent Bath Buns or whether perhaps he adapted an existing recipe is open to conjecture. Whichever; the enriched buns filled with dried fruit plus a sugar lump and topped with sugar nibbs were highly popular. So much so that the visitors to Bath ate too many of them and were risking their health with the weight gain, so the good doctor came up with, and gave his name to, the less fattening plain biscuit – a Bath Oliver.
The Bath Buns were so popular they even sold in vast quantities in London's Great Exhibition where they were known as London Bath Buns.
Places where today's visitors to Bath can sample the buns include the Pump Room restaurant or at the nearby Bath Bun Tea Shop in Abbey Green. www.thebathbun.com
We are indebted to author Amanda Overeynder for giving us permission to reproduce her family's favourite Bath Bun recipe from her delightful book Four Bath Buns - which we review in our Book Reviews column
Today's Foody Scene
Having sampled the iconic buns of Bath I turned my attention to other foody experiences.
Bath offers an enormous choice of food and kitchenware shops from high street multiples to specialist independent. I was there in October for a couple of nights when the month long food festival (The Great Bath Feast) was in full swing. However I quickly realised that a couple of days to explore Bath and its vast foody scene were not enough.
Close to the Sally Lunn cafe and The Bath Bun tea room I discovered Charlotte Brunswick: a shop of elegance and delicious delights for chocoholics and lovers of stories.
It was the large round table in the middle of the shop set with plate upon plate of exquisite chocolates that caught my eye. It was impossible to walk past.
Pick up a plate and choose your selection of the fine hand-crafted chocolates. Or if you prefer pick up a bar or two of delicious flavoured chocolate from the shop's shelves. And whilst you are choosing linger long enough to read the stories on the Charlotte Brunswick cards; a cleverly woven combination of facts about life in Georgian Bath along with reminiscences of their fictitious, eponymous heroine .
Most of the goodies are from small artisan UK chocolatiers who use fair trade cocoa and support the 'Quality Cocoa for a Better Life' accreditation. The shop sells chocolates suitable for vegans, vegetarians, diabetics, diary free and gluten free diets.
Charlotte Brunswick, 3 Church St, Bath BA1 1NL. www.charlottebrunswick.com
The bread produced by Bertinet Bakery is superb. I know this, because the Abbey Hotel, where I stayed, served it each morning at breakfast.
Richard Bertinet learnt how to make bread in his native Brittany before moving to the UK and setting up his bakery and the Bertinet Kitchen cookery school in Bath. Somehow he has also found time to write several award winning books on baking and act as a consultant to restaurants and artisan bakeries as well as major food producers.
The shops offer an almost overwhelming selection of breads, pastries and savouries alongside goodies like jams and rillettes.
No nasties are included in the breads, and the hand-crafted bread is made using traditional methods. Consequently of course it doesn't keep as fresh as the loaves pumped full of additives and preservatives but the superior taste and texture and the treat of seeing the range of breads on the shelves makes shopping at the bakery's shops an absolute joy. www.bertinet.com
The Tasting Room
The Tasting Room in Green Street was another revelation. The shelves on the ground floor groan under the weight of wine bottles – and just about every type of spirit ever produced.
On the first floor a delightful café/bar opens out onto a secluded terrace – perfect for summer dining. The café/bar is open all day for coffee, tea and cakes as well as lunch and dinner. And needless to say diners have an excellent choice of wines to accompany their meal. The Tasting Room also offers a range of cocktails plus a long list of unusual Malt whiskies.
Their aim is to offer wines that people will enjoy but will also work with the food served. I liked the idea that people could pop in and eat any time of the day be it one plate or a full meal.
And it lives up to its name by holding regular tasting sessions of the wines and whiskies. www.tastingroom.co.uk
A cookery lesson
I also had a cookery lesson. Just a few yards away from the Abbey Hotel where I was staying is Demuths Vegetarian Cookery School run by Rachel Demuth, one of the UK's leading vegetarian chefs. I have to confess I am not vegetarian but I do love vegetarian food as did a couple of other students who also wished to increase their repertoire.
I loved it. It was both fun and incredibly informative, no need to take notes – recipes are provided. The classes are held in a large, light and airy purpose built kitchen and given by Rachel and members of her team of experienced tutors. Helen was on duty with Rachel that morning and the two women seamlessly took turns to teach the various dishes. It was 'Flavours of the Middle East' that day. It got better and better – we ate what we had cooked for lunch! www.vegetariancookeryschool.com
The Abbey Hotel...
By the time I had nibbled my way round Bath and had had afternoon tea in the elegant Pump Room under the glittering chandeliers I was definitely not hungry that last evening.
I was staying in the very comfortable and centrally located Abbey Hotel so decided to take myself downstairs and have one of the rather nice cocktails that Andrew Fisher the hotel's ArtBar manager creates. Half way through the cocktail I began to realise that whilst not hungry I was in need of a little something so wandered through to the Allium Brasserie and asked one of the lovely staff to recommend something nice and light. She did – she recommended the pan fried fillet of mackerel. I'm not overly keen on mackerel but she gave it such high praise that I took her advice.
Chef Chris Staines is a genius. Served with salt and pepper prawns, Asian pickles and a satay sauce the mackerel was delicious and so long as Chris cooks it for me I'll happily eat mackerel any time. www.abbeyhotelbath.co.uk; www.alliumbrasserie.co.uk; www.artbarbath.co.uk
...and an evening with Prue Leith
The night before Chris and his team had been stretched to their limits producing a fine dining experience for a full house of diners who had come to hear Prue Leith, doyen of British cuisine, deliver one of her entertaining after-dinner talks.
I have to confess I had heard parts of the talk before, as I had met Prue earlier that evening, when she told me about her fascinating life and career. To read more about an evening with Prue Leith click here.
Oh yes, as I trundled my goodie-filled suitcase up to the station for my train home I can confirm that Bath, as in days gone by, is a seriously worthwhile foody destination.