What is a Bath Bun?

Alex Tree

The Bath bun is a large and round, sweet yeast bread traditionally made in the historic city of Bath, a hundred miles west of London, Britain. The Bath bun is best known for being decadently sweet, as bakers insert a sugar lump at the center of the bread and top the bun with candied fruit peel and crushed sugar. Apart from butter, flour, and egg, other sweet ingredients added to the Bath bun include currants, raisins, or sultanas. Other versions of the bun also have almonds added as extra topping.

Currants are often an ingredient in a Bath bun.
Currants are often an ingredient in a Bath bun.

The Bath bun is often confused with the Sally Lunn bun, also a Bath delicacy. Sally Lunns are made of a relatively light bread that can be eaten together with either sweet or savory foods. What adds to the confusion is that restaurants and bakeshops tend to sell both buns. Sometimes the buns are also confused with other fruit buns, spicy hot cross buns, or any of the French pastries that are also round in shape. The Bath bun, however, is an English invention and a sweet tooth’s delight.

Bath is famous for its natural hot springs and spas, and these are what led to the invention of the Bath bun. Bath buns were supposedly invented by an 18th-century physician named Dr. William Oliver, who was the founder of Bath General Hospital. The sick were often drawn to the supposed healing properties of the Bath springs, and Dr. Oliver reputedly developed the recipe to feed something nutritious to his patients as they drank a glass of lukewarm Bath spa water.

The original Bath bun recipe called for sweet dough made with wheat flour, sugar, yeast, egg and butter, and a topping of crushed caraway seed comfits; these were caraway seeds repeatedly dipped in boiling sugar. The buns proved to be so delicious and tempting that Dr. Oliver found his patients eating too much of them and gaining weight. This led him to create an alternative, less fattening recipe called the Bath Oliver biscuit.

The popularity of the Bath bun outlived Dr. Oliver. These buns remain one of the most popular products sold by bakeries and tea shops, not just in Bath, but in other parts of Britain and the English-speaking world as well. All variations of these buns are served for tea time, but it is only in the Bath teashops where they are consumed with a glass of the city’s sulfuric hot spring water.

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