My newest release, a S&S-based mystery starring Mary Bennet and her friend, investigator Alexander Lyons, takes place in London. I loved writing about London for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it’s a fabulous city and I never have enough time when I’m there. The history, the landmarks, the sights, the culture… (the crowds, the yobs, the rain… okay, it’s not perfect).
And, the food. London was, in many ways, the centre of the world in the early 19th century, and as today, every cosmopolitan city has a wealth of culinary adventures in store. I’ve always been fascinated in the history of food, and I can’t help a smile every time I hear that the first curry recipe in an English cookbook is from 1747. The first appearance of curry on a menu was in 1773, at the Norris Street Coffee House, and in 1810 the amazingly interesting Sake Dean Mahomed (a man worthy of a whole novel) opened the Hindoostane Dinner and Hooka Smoking Club. They delivered. Indian Takeaway had begun!
But I’m not writing about curry today, although Alexander does dream about such a meal. Rather, I’m writing about Chelsea buns. These delightful yeasty treats are similar to cinnamon rolls, but Chelsea buns include bits of dried fruit, and the cinnamon is part of a ensemble cast of flavours, rather than playing the leading role.
Chelsea buns were created by the Chelsea Bun House in the early 18th century, and soon became a local favourite. The royal family were frequent customers (although I suspect they did not wait in queue, like people do outside my local bagel place on Sunday mornings), and their fame spread quickly.
Not everyone was a fan. In 1711, Jonathan Swift wrote in his Journal to Stella,
A fine day, but begins to grow a little warm; and that makes your little fat Presto sweat in the forehead. Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town; was it not Rrrrrrrrrare Chelsea buns? I bought one to-day in my walk; it cost me a penny; it was stale, and I did not like it, as the man said, &c.
But Swift seems to have been an outlier. In 1817, shortly after our story takes place, Sir Richard Philips wrote about the popularity of the buns and the inevitable attempts to copy them.
These [original] buns have afforded a competency, and even wealth; to four generations of the same family; and it is singular, that their delicate flavour, lightness and richness, have never been successfully imitated.
Therefore, it should be no surprise that Mary and Alexander also enjoy these treats as they wander through the streets of London. Alexander lives a few steps away from a bakery, and there are plenty other places baking similar buns in Covent Garden.
But, one cannot write about these things without trying them. Research involves work, after all, and I decided to take one for the team, to sacrifice myself on the altar of authenticity. In other words, I’ve been baking.
There are a huge number of recipes out there, from the bare-bones, which I suspect is closer to the original, to versions with nuts and orange zest and fancy fruits and apricot glaze. I chose to do something in the middle, closer to the simpler version, but with a couple of flourishes, because, well, why not.
This dough recipe seems to be fairly standard. https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/chelsea_buns_01576
I added ¼ cup of sugar to the dough, and in place of his fancy filling, I used the same amount of butter, about 100g of brown sugar, 2 tsp cinnamon and a sprinkle of allspice, and about 200g of raisins. I also rolled the dough into a slightly larger rectangle, to make 12 rounds, rather than the 10 he recommends.
So, what of our intrepid sleuths, as their tummies start to rumble while they’re digging up clues?
Here’s an excerpt from Death in Sensible Circumstances: A Sense and Sensibility Mystery. Mary is out a little too early, and much too unchapereoned!
There was a shuffling sound from within, and then the door opened a crack.
“Good God, Mary! What in blazes are you doing here, and at such an hour? We must get you back home before your aunt learns you are out.”
The door swung open a little and Mary could see him in his shirt sleeves and with his waistcoat unbuttoned. The sight of him so incompletely dressed sent unwelcome—or were they very welcome?—sensations through her limbs. He stepped back and opened the door completely. “You had better come in for now. You cannot be found loitering out there.” He reached for her hand and pulled her into his room.
Mary gazed about the space. She had never been in a man’s private room before, and was not quite certain what to expect. Would there be some secret altar to manhood along one wall, or some mysterious paraphernalia whose purpose she, as a mere woman, never could guess? She had glimpsed her father’s shaving equipment once, which had sent her to her mother with a great many questions, the answers to which were rather uninteresting. What she did see was both intriguing and disappointing.
There were two small rooms; through the open doorway, she could see the bedroom, with a bed, a washstand, and a wardrobe. If there was something else outside of her field of view, she could not discover it. She could not keep her eyes from the bed. From this distance, it looked neatly made and with good linens, all very respectable. But that was where he slept… there he dreamed, pondered late into the night… maybe thought about her! Those sheets had touched his naked flesh… With a physical shake, she pulled her thoughts away from such improper directions and forced herself to take in the front area where she now stood.
Here she saw a small table, where Alexander must take his meals, and two chairs, and another armchair by the fireplace. An overladen bookcase leaned against one wall and a smaller cabinet stacked high with neat piles of paper stood against another. There was little space to move about, but the whole was tidy and not unpleasant.
“‘Tis not what you are accustomed to, I’ll wager. I have no fine furniture or great works of art for my walls. It is basic and suits my needs for now. Are you disappointed?”
“Disappointed? No. I had no idea what to expect, and it is rather smaller than anywhere I have lived or stayed, but no, I am not disappointed. I cannot imagine my sisters’ rooms to have been this tidy, and that is with the assistance of our servants. You are ordered in your belongings as well as in your thoughts.” She paused. “I… I brought breakfast. I had something I wished to discuss with you and hoped to find you before your day began. I need to go back to St. Giles.”
“St. Giles?” He frowned. She sat in the chair he held out for her and placed the small bag of baked treats onto the table. “That is not where I would wish to be at any time of the day. What do you seek there?” He sniffed the air; the scent of the cinnamon-infused buns wafted through the modest room. “I have coffee on the fire. I know you prefer tea.”
Mary now noticed the small cup balanced at the other end of the table beside a book. She had tasted her father’s coffee and found the flavour bitter, but did not wish to disappoint her host. “A small amount, please. I shall endeavour to like it.”
He found a second cup in a squat cupboard beside the fire and put it on the table. “Here, add a spoon of sugar. It is one of my indulgences.” He chipped a good amount of the sweet substance from a block into the cup and then poured in the thick black liquid. “Stir it well and let it sit a moment. Good. It will do nicely with whatever it is I smell in that bag you carried.”from Death in Sensible Circumstances
And here, a while later, they talk to a young witness who lives in Seven Dials.
Alexander merely bowed to Nan. “Of course, let us reclaim those benches. And then, if you wish, you may partake of the buns Miss Bennet has brought with her.”
They walked the short distance. London was awake and noisy, but the churchyard was still peaceful, an island of calm in the ocean of bustle. Once settled in her seat with a sticky bun half eaten in her hands, Cassie relented to speak.
“There were two ladies,” she whispered, “sisters, they were, I thinks, who came with Mr Edward and the church group. One seemed very fond of him.”
Alexander moved to the bench where Cassie was sitting and asked if he might join her. Nan rose and shifted immediately to stand at her daughter’s side. It seemed that even now, here in this public place, she was inordinately protective of her daughter and unwilling to trust Alexander. Mary admired her for this; sometimes she wished her own father was more solicitous of his children’s wellbeing. But his first passion was his library, and now that Lizzy was gone to Derbyshire, little could draw him from his books.
As Nan hovered about them, Alexander asked in the gentlest voice Mary had heard, “Please, Miss Cassie, tell me everything you know. Would you like another bun? I smell something fragrant in the air.”
Cassie’s first bun had disappeared into her mouth and her sticky fingers wiped at the paper wrapper as if hoping for some more of the sweet pastry. The girl nodded, despite Nan’s quick exclamation of refusal.
“Mary,” Alexander reached into a pocket, “there is a bakery just there on the corner. See if you can find us some sweet buns. If they have more like this Chelsea bun we have enjoyed, I should like another as well.” He handed her a coin, and held out two others for Nan and Cassie to take. Cassie took hers; Nan refused.
“Not another word till Miss Mary gets back,” Nan admonished her daughter. “If he wants news, I’ll not have him taking advantage.”
“Very well,” Alexander leaned back and smiled. “We shall wait.”
Mary’s task was accomplished in a moment, and she returned with four sticky Chelsea buns wrapped in paper. She let Nan and Cassie select theirs first, then took one and gave the last to Alexander.
“I shan’t eat my dinner!” he complained, but took a large bite with a smile.from Death in Sensible Circumstances
You can read more about Mary and Alexander’s adventure, and discover what possessed Mary to enter a single man’s private rooms, in Death in Sensible Circumstances, available in eBook and paperback at Amazon, and free to read for a limited time on Kindle Unlimited.
If you’re a baker and have a favourite recipe for sticky buns, feel free to share. And if you try these, let me know how they turn out.