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Bath Buns, Bath Olivers and Wassail

by Dawn Copeman

In the 18th century, Bath in Somerset was the place for London socialites and notables to go for a cure, and Dr. William Oliver was one of the many physicians who treated them. He founded the Bath General Hospital with the architect John Wood and the famous dandy, Richard Beau Nash, but more importantly for us, he developed two new foods: Bath Buns and Bath Oliver biscuits.

Bath Buns are large, round, sweet, very rich buns that were originally topped with crushed caraway seed comfits. Comfits were made by repeatedly dipping the caraway seeds in boiling sugar. Nowadays, a crushed sugar topping is used. The best ones I've ever tasted are sold in the Pump Room, where they are accompanied, like every item on the menu, with a glass of the lukewarm spa water.

(Now, I'll admit that the water is an acquired taste: it smells and tastes like rotten eggs. But when I was on holiday in Bath nearly four years ago, I had my morning coffee in the Pump Room every day, where I ate a Bath Bun and also drank the spa water. I don't know whether it was the buns, the spa water or something else, but after years of being told I could not have children, a few weeks later I was pregnant!)

Spurious medical claims aside, however, Bath Buns were so delicious and so tempting that Dr. Oliver found that his patients, whom he was treating for rheumatism, were getting fatter, not fitter! So he altered his recipe to produce the plainer, and therefore kinder to the waistline, Bath Oliver biscuits. When Dr. Oliver died he left some money, a sack of flour and the recipe for Bath Oliver biscuits to his coachman Atkins, who set up a biscuit-making business and became rich! In 1952 over 80,000 biscuits a day were being made in Bath, but, sadly, they are no longer produced here. They are, however, still made and can be bought online at $3.99 for 0.60lb at Igourmet.com (http://www.igourmet.com).

The Sally Lunn yeast-based teacake, which can be eaten with sweet or savoury toppings, has already been mentioned in The Beauty of Bath, by Michele Deppe, who also provides a link to a recipe for them. Sally Lunn's teashop may look Regency, but was actually built in 1620, at which time it faced an orchard. And orchards have always played an important part in the economy of Somerset. Indeed when most people think of Somerset they think of the main produce of those orchards -- cider.

A cider press was first officially listed as a source of income in 1230AD, when one was listed in a Royal Charter given to the Bishop of Bath. As early as 1584, Taunton was being advertised as cider country and for centuries cider production was a key factor in the economy. In 1894 over 24,000 acres of land were being used as orchards.

So important was cider that at the start of every year, usually on the twelfth night after Christmas, a wassailing ceremony would be carried out in the orchards. Wassail comes from the Old English, or Saxon 'waes hael' which means 'be well'. In the fifteenth century people would wassail the apple trees to ensure they produced a good crop the following spring. This was very important as often part of the labourers' wages would be paid in cider.

Wassailing is now being revived in orchards, farms and pubs across Somerset. A typical Wassailing ceremony involves storytelling, singing and dancing and finally a toast to the apple tree. The Wassail toast is a hot punch made with ale and spices

In its heyday Somerset produced a wide variety of ciders, such as Cider Royal (flavoured with wormwood and coriander), Cyser (made with honey), Perry (made from pears) and Cider Brandy. Cider Brandy, first recorded in 1638, is still manufactured today. The Somerset Cider Brandy Co (http://www.ciderbrandy.co.uk) welcomes visitors to its orchards, where they can follow the orchard trail, learn about different apple varieties and view the copper stills in the distillery. If you'd like to try some Cider Brandy at home you can buy it online at http://www.distinctlybritish.com.

Cheddar Cheese has been made in Somerset for over eight hundred years and takes its name, so some say, from the impressive Cheddar Gorge. King Henry II officially declared Cheddar Cheese to be the best in the land and in 1724 Daniel Defoe who visited in 1724 wrote in his A Tour of the Whole of Great Britain (Vol. 1), "The goodness of the cheese is preferred without all dispute, it is the best cheese that England affords, if not that the whole world affords."

Unlike many other regional cheeses, the production of Cheddar has always been a collaborative effort, with farmers pooling their milk each day to make the cheese. The aim was to make a large cheese that would take awhile to mature, thus enabling farmers to make the best use of the excess of milk produced by their herds in summer and then later either eat or sell the cheese. The result was a hard cheese that kept longer than any other regional cheese and was, therefore, able to travel further than other cheeses, which enabled it to be sold all over the country. The weight of the cheese produced in the early days depended upon the amount of milk from the various herds that was available. Hundred-pound cheeses were regularly made, which took up to two years to mature, but the largest ever cheese was made in 1839 when a half ton cheddar with a circumference of nine feet was made for Queen Victoria. No one says how long that took to mature!!

At the start of the twentieth century there were still over 3,500 traditional farmhouse Cheddar cheese makers. Today there are only twenty, of which the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company is one. You can purchase their cheese online at http://www.cheddargorgecheeseco.co.uk.

So make yourself a Sally Lunn, grab some Cheddar and some cider and enjoy the taste of Somerset, the taste of Bath!


The Pump Room (at the Roman Baths)
For morning coffee, lunch & afternoon tea

Woods Restaurant 9 -14 Alfred Street, Bath
Lunch $14 for 2 courses, dinner $16 -$30 for two courses. Tel: 00 44 1225 314812

The Bathwick Boatman Restaurant,
On the River Avon, a ten minute walk from Pulteney Bridge.
Lunch $16.00 for 2 courses, Dinner approx $40 per head for 3 courses. Tel: 00 44 1225 428844

The Moody Goose, 7a Kingsmead Square
Modern, Michelin-recognised, English cuisine, reservations for dinner essential. Tel: 00 44 1225 466688. http://www.moody-goose.com

Sally Lunn's, 4 North Parade Passage

The Recipes

Bath Buns (makes 12 16)

1lb all purpose flour
0.5 teaspoon salt
1 stick butter
1 oz fresh yeast or 2 teaspoons dried yeast
0.5 cup sugar
4 eggs
0.5 cup warm milk
Grated rind of one lemon
1/3 cup sultanas
1/3 cup candied peel or chopped glace cherries
0.5 cup sugar cubes - roughly crushed

  1. Sift flour and salt together. Rub in butter. Cream yeast with 1 teaspoon of sugar.
  2. Beat 3 of the eggs and add yeast mixture to it, gradually add the warm milk.
  3. Add flour to egg mixture and beat well.
  4. Leave the dough to rise in a warm place for about one and a half hours, or until the dough has doubled in size.
  5. Knead mixture well and add the sultanas, lemon rind and candied peel.
  6. Shape into 12 or 16 buns and place on a greased baking tray. Leave for another twenty minutes.
  7. Make the glaze by mixing the remaining egg, crushed sugar cubes and a little water and then brush this over the buns.
  8. Bake in the oven at 400°F, 200°C or Gas Mark 6 for 15 - 20 minutes.
  9. Allow to cool on wire racks, then enjoy!!!


4 eating apples
2 pints beer
0.5 pint Cider Brandy or Dry Sherry, or Cider
One quarter cup of brown sugar
Strips of peel from one lemon
A quarter teaspoon each of dried mixed spice, dried ground nutmeg and dried ground cinnamon. (if using fresh herbs, use a half a teaspoon).

  1. Score a line through the skin at the centre of each of the freshly washed apples and place in a dish or pan that can be used on the hob as well as in the oven.
  2. Add the sugar and a quarter of a pint of beer. Put a lid on the pot and cook it in the oven for 30 minutes at 350°F, 180°C or Gas Mark 4.
  3. Check apples are tender and remove them to one side. Add the remaining ingredients to the pot.
  4. Place the pot on the hob and bring to the boil, let it simmer for five minutes.
  5. Chop the apples and add to the pot.
  6. Serve immediately.

Further Information:




Related Articles

For more great recipes, see the rest of Dawn Copeman's Taste of Britain series.

The Beauty of Bath, by Michele Deppe

The Roman Baths, by Moira Allen

Bath Timeline, by Darcy Lewis

Dawn Copeman is a freelance writer and commercial writer who has had more than 100 articles published on travel, history, cookery, health and writing. She currently lives in Lincolnshire, where she is working on her first fiction book. She started her career as a freelance writer in 2004 and has been a contributing editor for several publications, including TimeTravel-Britain.com and Writing-World.com .
Article © 2005 Dawn Copeman


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