#419 Cobb’s Bath Buns

The Roman Baths

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.

The famous spa at Bath has attracted people for millennia – there is archaeological evidence of human settlement going back 10,000 years. Bath 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.

Of course it was the Romans that really transformed the place, creating the town Aqua Sulis with the baths that are 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 holidaying  middle classes. The Roman Baths and Pump Room were restored to their former glories after centuries of neglect, making Bath the best and most popular 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. It 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.

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 of a swirling 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.

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.

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.

Here’s the recipe that appears in English food. It contains no currants, which I think are as essential as the sugar lumps:

First of all make the ferment – sometimes called a sponge – a yeasty batter that gets the microbial metabolism underway quick smart. Mash together 1 ½ ounces of fresh yeast with the same weight of granulated sugar in a little water taken from ½ pint of blood-heat water. Add the remainder of the water and leave until the mixture has begun to foam, around 20 minutes. As you wait, weigh out 15 ounces of eggs in their shells and crack them into a bowl. Beat in 5 ounces of strong white bread flour and then add the yeast mixture once foaming. Cover with cling film or a damp tea towel so that it can rise for around an hour.

To make the dough, mix into the ferment the following: 30 ounces of strong white bread flour, 12 ounces of softened butter, 3 ounces of granulated sugar, 12 ounces of broken sugar lumps, a good pinch each of mixed spice and salt and a few drops of lemon juice.

Jane says for us to knead this dough together; good luck with that, the mixture is more a batter than a dough. I did this impossible task in my Kitchen Aid. Cover and leave to prove again until its double the size, which could take 90 minutes or longer with such an enriched dough weighed down with so many goodies.

Knock back the dough (the best part of the bread-making process) and ‘shape the dough into pieces the size of a small Cox’s orange pippin’. Good luck with that, too.
Somehow place the pieces of dough on baking sheets lined with greaseproof paper, cover with plastic bags and allow to rise again.

Bake at 200⁰C for around 20 minutes, swapping trays half way though to achieve an even bake.

When almost baked, make the bun wash by boiling together 2 ounces of sugarwith 5 tablespoons of water. As soon as the buns come out of the oven, place on racks and brush with the syrupy mixture. Lastly, crumble over more broken sugar lumps.
#419 Cobb’s Bath Buns. As with many of Jane’s recipes from theBread section of the book I didn’t get on very well with this recipe. The dough was tricky to handle and I couldn’t achieve the proud, round shape I expect from a Bath bun. They also seemed to stale almost immediately. Bit of a damp squib for the last recipe in this section. 3.5/10.

#313 Jellied Eel Mousse with Watercress Sauce

This is one of the recipes that when I started this project, really made me shudder. However, as I have cooked a couple of eel recipes, I have discovered that I quite like the slippery critter and it no longer seemed such a challenge. Plus all of the weird recipes thus far have turned out pretty good and I have lost all squeamishness; I have a philosophy that in rich countries people eat things because they taste good, not because they need to simply survive.

This recipe is an update of the famous London dish – jellied eels. I have never tried them before and thought it rather a shame that the classic recipe isn’t in the book. Jellied eel is particularly associated with the East End of London though it was eaten throughout the city and appeared sometime in the eighteenth century. At that time, the Thames was crawling with eels and therefore many, many recipes were created. When eel consumption reached a peak during the Victorian era, the Thames had become pretty disgusting with pollution and there were not many eels around, so they had be imported from Ireland. These days, most Irish eels are exported to Holland.

If you wanted to buy jellied eels in London, you would have had to go to an Eel Pie and Mash House. There not many around – they declined in number from over a hundred after the Second World War to just a handful today. The most famous – and London’s oldest – extant Eel and Pie House is Manze’s in Peckham. I have never been to one of these places, but I shall try my best to frequent Manze’s next time I pop down to London. I doubt if they will ever regain popularity, even though eels have now returned to the River Thames.

Inside Menzie’s (photo from The Guardian)

This is an ‘updated’ recipe from chef Guy Mouilleron, who apparently thought of an eel slithering through a bank of watercress and thought the two might might together. The recipe is outdated; fish mousses are certainly a thing of the 1970s and 1980s; when English Food was first published.

Eels are quite difficult to get hold of, but the massive Asian supermarket in St Louis has farmed live ones – luckily I didn’t have to do away with them as I had to for the first time I cooked an eel dish. There is one more eel dish to do in the book, so I suppose I shall be trying that one soon.

To make the mousse, you need to prepare your eels. You’ll need around 2 ½ pounds of eel altogether. If you can get the fishmonger to skin and fillet them for you, all’s the better. I didn’t have such a luxury, but found it quite easy now that I have had certain amount of experience with eel preparation. First of all, give them a wash and wipe away any slime that may remain on the skin. To skin an eel, you first need to cut through the skin all around its neck, behind the gills. Next, either nail the head to a wooden chopping board or grasp the head with a tea-towel. Now you need to pull on the cut skin and peel the skin off like a stocking. It is quite difficult to get a purchase, so sprinkle the neck liberally with salt to create some much-needed friction. Once skinned, it is pretty easy going after that; gut it, cutting from the head-end to an inch or so past the vent so that the kidneys as well as the other internal organs can be removed. Filleting was a bit tricky – but really it was just like filleting any fish really. Use a sharp knife and cut from the head end to the tail end, pressing down on the fish with your other hand, which creates pressure and makes the cut much easier to make.

Cut away about a third of the messy parts and use trimmings to make the mousse itself.
To do this, you need to liquidise them in a blender along with three egg whites. You will produce a rather bad-looking blob of grey matter.
Place it in a bowl that is sitting in iced water. Whip ¾ of a pint of double cream until it is thick, but not stiff, and fold it into the eel mixture slowly. Season the purée and the neat eel pieces with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
All is prepared now for the construction of the mousse: you need to use a terrine for this, or failing that, a small loaf tin. If you want to turn out the mousse onto a serving dish, it is best to line it with cling film (don’t worry, it won’t melt). Now spread a third of the mixture over the bottom of the terrine and then add half of the eel fillets, then more mixture and so on, until all is used up.

Cover the terrine or tin with a double-layer of foil and then steam it for 1 ¼ hours. I used a fish kettle for this, but if you don’t have something appropriate, you can pop it in a roasting tin containing boiling water and bake it at 160-180C (325-350F). When cold, put it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, make the sauce. You need a good-sized bunch of watercress. From the bunch, pick and reserve enough leaves to make around a tablespoon when chopped. The rest, liquidise in the blender, using the smallest amount of water possible. Pass the watercress slurry through a sieve and add ¼ pint of double cream and whisk it until it thickens. Season and stir through the reserved, chopped leaves. Serve a slice of the mousse with a generous spoonful of the sauce.

#313 Jellied Eel Mousse with Watercress Sauce. My God, what a sight that one was! It looked like a massive chunk of cat food and the sauce was so garish. The taste of the mousse wasn’t too bad, but the texture seemed so wrong. If it had been eaten warm as a creamy stew, it probably would have been delicious. The mild fish and the grassy watercress did not go together in my opinion. A big shame because was waiting to be surprised by its loveliness. I think I would have been happier with some proper jellied eels. Keep the fish mousse where it belongs: in the past! 2/10

#274 Saffron Cake from Cornwall

A man who is stingy with saffron is capable of seducing his own grandmother.” Norman Douglas, 1848-1952
It goes without saying that saffron is a wee bit pricey. Only three tiny stigmas are plucked from each autumn crocus which means that a pound of saffron strands requires up to 75 000 flowers and can cost up to £2500 per pound in the UK and $5000 per pound in the USA. Lucky for us it is very pungent and is only needed in very small amounts. I bought a small packet for about $10 which I have used in a few dishes already like the Fifteenth Century Apple Fritters and the Coronation Doucet. In days of yore, if you wanted to impress your guests and flash your cash a bit, you couldn’t go far wrong by sprinkling some saffron your pottage or whatever. The long-distance trade in saffron goes all the way back to the second millennium BC at least and there has even been a war over it. It was also thought to cure the black plague. For this recipe it takes centre stage, and so it should, I love the stuff though it wouldn’t necessarily lead me to fisticuffs…

The saffron flower
For some reason saffron isn’t used that often in English cuisine – I only really see it pop up in Asian food and in fishy things like paella. However, it has hung on in the form of this bread from Cornwall. I’d not heard of it myself, but it is interesting in that this recipe predates the invention of raising agents such as baking powder, so to make it light, yeast is used. Because it’s fermented, it appears in the bread section of the book rather than the cake section.
The evening before you want to make the cake (actually cakes, as this recipe makes two) put a generous pinch of saffron strands into a few tablespoons of warm water. It will steep and infuse to make a stunning orange-coloured scented water.
Weigh out two pounds of plain flour and eight ounces of sugar then make the leaven. For the leaven, crumble an ounce of fresh yeast into a small bowl. Pour over a quarter of a pint of warm water along with 2 heaped tablespoons from the flour and a heaped teaspoon from the sugar. Whisk everything together and leave to rise and froth up for around half an hour. Mix the sugar and flour together in a bowl and place it in the warming oven for 10 minutes or so. Remove from the oven and mix in half a teaspoon each of nutmeg and cinnamon and a pinch of salt. Now rub in six ounces each of lard and butter. This is quite easy as the flour is warm.
By now the yeast should be metabolising like a crazy thing, so make a well in the centre of the flour and pour it in alongside the saffron liquid and strands plus half a pint of warmed milk. Using your hands, mix everything together to form a dough. Cover with a damp cloth or cling film and allow to rise and double in bulk. The time this takes depends on the temperature of your kitchen.
Knock-back the dough and mix in 8 ounces of mixed dried fruit and 2 ounces of chopped, candied lemon peel and place in two greased loaf tins. Cover again and allow to prove until they have puffed up. Bake in the oven for 40 minutes at 220°C (425°F). Let them cool for a few minutes before taking them out of the tins and placing them on a wire rack.
Jane doesn’t suggest a way to eat the cake but I ate it with some cream cheese and honey.
#274 Saffron Cake From Cornwall – this was rather unusual. The cake was leavened with yeast (was that a tautology?) rather than baking powder which made it rather dense; more a cross between a tea loaf and a scone than a cake. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but it grew on me rather. The saffron flavour came through and I thought it gave the cake slightly anaesthetic properties. I expect if you ate enough you could have a root canal without wincing no problem. I brought it into work where it seemed to go down quite well, which is always nice. People scored it quite highly, but I’m a right stingy marker – 5.5/10.



#233 Devonshire Squab Pie

Here’s a slightly odd recipe, as a many from Devonshire appear to be. This squab pie contains no squabs (i.e. baby pigeons), but lamb instead. It is a mystery how it got its name – Griggers suggests that the meat has changed over the years, but the name has stuck. That’ll do for me. This is a simple enough pie to make, though the ingredients are odd: lamb, apples, prunes, spices all topped off with a dollop of clotted cream. Hmmm.

This is easy to make; a simple case of layering up ingredients in a deep pie dish. Start off by removing the meat from a whole best end of neck of lamb. If this seems too much of a chore, just buy about 1 ½ pounds of neck fillet from the butcher instead. Now peel, core and slice two pounds of dessert apples – Cox’s pippins are Jane’s suggestion, but russets and braeburns to well in these sorts of things too – slice two medium onions thinly and chop around 16 prunes. Next, mix a level teaspoon of ground allspice and cinnamon along with half a grated nutmeg in a ramekin or small cup. Layer up the meat, onions, apples and prunes, seasoning the layers with the spices and salt and black pepper as you go. Now pour over a quarter of a pint of lamb stock (use the bones from the best end of neck to make it, otherwise a stock cube!). Cover with a nice thick layer of shortcrust pastry, brush with egg and bake for 30 minutes at 200⁰C, and then turn down the oven to 160⁰C and bake for a further 45 minutes. Serve with clotted cream.


#233 Devonshire Squab Pie. This pie did not turn out to be as weird as expected. You could identify each ingredient in it, and they all stood out whilst complimenting each other very well. However, I think the pie would have been much improved had the lamb been coated in flour and browned a little first so that the flavour was more intense and a thick gravy produced. Several of these pies seem to have very runny sauces. Obviously tastes have changed. The big surprise was that the clotted cream went very well. Although it did make me feel like I was eating my main and pudding all at the same time. A good recipe that could be very easily improved. 6/10.