All hail the common bun, the grace of our nation

A few years ago, the Great British Bun was in danger of extinction. Then, like a well-proofed dough, it rose again.

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I’ve recently discovered a new bakery on my morning perambulation with the dog. Well, new to me, anyway: it claims to have been in business since 1948, a lone old-timer in a row of chains and tatty minimarts.

I’m not sure why I didn’t notice it before but I have certainly been making up for lost time – it’s a rare day I pass by without popping in for a little something, with the result that my body can now be said to be beach-ready in much the same way as Moby Dick’s.

It’s not just the keenly priced selection of Jewish loaves, or the pleasant prospect of a little chat with the ladies in their pinnies, that keeps me going back, but the magnificent window display of sticky buns: tightly curled Chelseas, sloppily topped iced fingers, even the odd hot cross number still lurking next to the Tottenham cakes (a brave choice in this part of north London) and cut-price gingerbread men.

Although the place appears pleasingly impervious to passing fads (this is definitely coconut macaroon rather than designer macaron territory), its plump buns caught my attention precisely because they seem to be enjoying a bit of a moment.

A few years ago, the Great British Bun was in danger of extinction, overshadowed by showier, sugarier rivals such as the cupcake and the triple chocolate muffin, but then, like a well-proofed dough, it rose again. The Nordic cinnamon bun, once held up as the buttery, bronzed face of Scandi-chic, got knocked back in favour of our own sweet, yeast-based heritage.

Buns were suddenly big on The Great British Bake Off, where currants and glacé cherries out-twinkled even Paul Hollywood, and also on the menu at such voguish spots as the east London Lily Vanilli Bakery (which makes a mean Hackney bun with stout-soaked fruit) and the much-lauded Middle Eastern café Honey & Co, whose pistachio and sour cherry Fitzrovia version has the critics dribbling.

M&S’s new summer range includes the Whitby lemon and Chelsea varieties, Waitrose boasts the Marlborough and the Cornish saffron, Greggs comes over all Continental with the cherry-topped (and very British) Belgian bun, while at your local bakery those Sally Lunns, Bath and black buns and Devonshire splits probably never went away.

That hot-shot lawyer and closet food blogger, Miriam Clegg, couldn’t have come up with her recipe for plain milk buns at a better time – because there’s something very comforting about a bun. A sticky bun in a paper bag conjures up memories of the Famous Five, sitting down to fresh milk and ginger buns in a farmhouse kitchen after a hard morning down the mine shaft, the Railway Children eating pink sugar buns for tea – and (perhaps most pertinently as far as I’m concerned) Billy Bunter gorging himself on cream buns in the Greyfriars tuck shop.

As Elizabeth David writes, the bun is an “English institution”, popular at least since Tudor times, when bakers were forbidden to sell such decadent richly spiced and fruited creations, “except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas, upon pain of forfeiture of all such spiced bread to the poor”.

Indeed, we feel so very strongly about them that in the late 18th century, when across the Channel France was in the grip of revolution, the people here were rioting over the availability of hot cross buns. And a century and a half later bakers marked victory in Europe by handing them out for free.

Soft and fluffy, sweet and sticky, cheap and very cheerful, they are an excellent symbol of national resilience in the face of adversity. So, at the risk of coming over all Marie Antoinette, cheer up – not everything can be wrong with a country with such great buns.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition