The Alban bun – the original hot cross bun?
I would love to travel back in time to the 14th century to ask St Albans monk Brother Thomas Rocliffe, once and for all, whether he invented the hot cross bun.
Evidence seems to say that he did, back in 1381, as reported in Ye Booke of Saint Albans: “In the year of Our Lord 1381 Thomas Rocliffe, a monk attached to the refectory at St Albans Monastery, caused a quantity of small sweet spiced cakes, marked with a cross, to be made; then he directed them to be given away to persons who applied at the door of the refectory on Good Friday. Various were the attempts to imitate the cakes of Father Rocliffe all over the country, but the recipe of which was kept within the walls of the Abbey”. We are not aware of anywhere with a stronger claim, so when you are enjoying a bun in the stunning Cathedral restaurant, enjoy your taste of history!
Every year since then, Alban buns have been available at the Cathedral during Easter to remind us of Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s a real St Albans tradition, and if you haven’t tried one yet, you can buy them in The Abbot’s Kitchen until Easter Monday (21st April). Last year, Steven Mansbridge, the master baker at Redbournbury Mill baked over 5000 buns, each shaped by hand and with a hand-cut cross (rather than a piped cross). It is a huge task, but one Steven enjoys each year.
The recipe is a closely-guarded secret but a source told me that the buns are spicier than most commercial buns as they include cardamom and grains of paradise (a type of pepper). I tried one and found it to be denser and far spicier than ones baked in local bakeries; absolutely delicious, and I think best eaten warmed rather than toasted. One would make a substantial breakfast, unlike some commercial varieties, which seem to be made mostly from air. If you want to eat an Alban bun in The Abbot’s Kitchen, they are priced at £1.55. If they have enough, you can buy 4 to take home for £3.25.
And with Spring in the air, there is a fresh approach in The Abbot’s Kitchen. New manager Adam Msetfi has introduced more seasonal and locally-sourced options for the menu, which is fantastic for visitors to the area to experience. As well as Childwickbury Goats Cheese in a couple of dishes, look out for the Slow-Roasted Feather Blade of Beef which really does (sorry for the cliché) melt in the mouth. Proper water-crust pies will be made daily, and you can still get the fab classic British cakes, sandwiches and afternoon teas that they are so well-known for. I’m really delighted to see they are working with so many local suppliers, including Butlers and Sparshotts. I’m sure parents will be pleased with the thoughtful children’s menu too: you can get most items with a smaller portion and price, as well as chicken with veggies and potatoes; no deep-fried freezer food here. Adam told me: “Our aim is to create a great experience for every individual that walks through our doors. Our suppliers, like us, are conscious of making sure we get the best produce but do so ethically – we’ve also reduced our food miles, continue to source FairTrade products and are committed to encouraging healthy eating for our younger guests. St Albans has a superb food scene and it will be great for Abbot’s Kitchen to be in the thick of it!”
The Abbot’s Kitchen has changed from counter service to table service, so it is a very relaxing experience. It is open for breakfasts and coffees at 10, until end of afternoon tea at 4.30. Sundays it is open 12.30-4.30.
And something for busy commuters: The Pudding Stop shop and pudmobile will be selling Alban Buns until Easter too. As the recipe is a secret they might not be exactly the same; you will have to try both to see!