Thursday, 7 July 2016

Chelsea buns

Some famous London food inventions are shy about their origins: Scotch eggs come not from Scotland but from Fortnum & Mason, and more controversially, the Cornish pasty may also be the capital's creation. It's almost surprising, then, to know that Chelsea buns come from ... Chelsea. 

The buns are made of an egg-enriched yeast dough, spiced and spread with currants, sugar and spice before being rolled into a spiral. Careful placement of the buns on their baking tray, so that their sides touch as they expand in the oven, ensures their distinctive square shape. A final brush with sugar glaze while they're still hot makes them characteristically sticky. 

They were invented at the Chelsea Bun House, owned by the Hand family, at the start of the eighteenth century. Customers flocked to buy them - perhaps also attracted by the colonnaded Bun House's collection of clocks and curiosities - and even royalty are claimed to have been among the Bun House's clients. The treats were something of a Good Friday tradition, along with hot cross buns, with tens of thousand of customers apparently turning up on the day. Despite numerous local imitators, business thrived; it was boosted further by the opening of neighbouring Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens in the 1740s. After the Gardens closed in 1804, custom fell but the bakery continued in business. 

The Hands appear to have been an eccentric lot. The best-known, Richard, was in the third generation of bun-selling Hands; he called himself 'Captain Bun' and liked to wear a fez and dressing-gown. His 1718 trade card was engraved by one William Hogarth. Richard's wife Margaret ran the bakery with him and took it over after his death. When she in turn died in 1798, her younger son Gideon succeeded her. He also had a reputation for eccentricity, and was both baker and butter-seller. Every day, Gideon delivered butter from a basket carried on his head, sharing local anecdotes with customers as he went. In 1821, he too passed away and his elder brother Richard - an ex-soldier in his sixties - took on the business. He continued it until he died at the age of 84, leaving no relatives. The Bun House, and its curious collection, reverted to the state and were auctioned off. (Bunhouse Place probably marks its site.) 

The popularity of these buns, though, grew and they remain a popular bakery staple today. You'll even see variations, replacing the currants with other dried fruit, chocolate, marmalade, or nuts. They're delicious, and fun, to eat: it's almost impossible to resist uncoiling the spiral as you go.

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