Buy My Wares – The Great British Bake Off Week Eight

Posted on: 24/09/2014 with tags: An Appetite for Violets, author blog, baking, cakes, historical fiction, history, Martine Bailey, The Great British Bake Off, The Penny Heart

The fruited breads and doughnut challenges on this week’s episode of The Great British Bake Off recall the great British tradition of street food. For centuries fruited bready buns were the staple of street hawkers, crying their wares or singing early advertising jingles like the ‘Sally Lunn bun’ song of Bath: ‘No more I heed the muffin zest, The Yorkshire cake or bun,  Sweet Muse of Pastry teach me how,To make a Sally Lunn.’

Doughnuts too, have a history of being outdoor food long before Krispy Kreme kiosks lined the High Street. Their speedy production and aroma of hot sugar made them a traditional attraction at fairgrounds.  Originally Dutch oliekoek or ‘oil cakes’, the contestants will be competing with a wealth of whacky flavours, from Bacon and Maple to Foie gras.


American donuts.

Since the fifteenth century, hawkers’ cries have been recorded in verse, beginning with ‘London Lackpenny’, the tale of a poor country traveller taunted by the tempting cries: ‘Hot peascodes!’ one began to cry; ‘Strawberries ripe!’ and ‘Cherries in the rise!’ 

Thanks to popular prints of the ‘Cries of London’ we find plenty of illustrations of hawkers, laden with baskets and trays carried on their arms or heads. Like today’s fast food, the emphasis was on cheap instant food, many striving to keep their wares hot beneath cloths or later, in mobile ovens.


Hot dumpling seller in a chapbook.

By the eighteenth century some streets must have been reminiscent of an Asian market or bazaar. Men, women and children guarded their pitches, importuning passers-by, marking the seasons and time of day with their cries. The Muffin Man famously rang his bell, and on traditional feast days like Good Friday, the cries of ‘One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot cross buns,’ must have reached a cacophony. Illustrators reveal a mixture of pride and pity for their subjects, who enlivened way fares with vibrant performances of song and patter. In the next print, we learn the friendly barrowman is selling: ‘hot spiced gingerbread, sold in oblong flat cakes of one halfpenny each, very well made, well baked, kept extremely hot, … a very pleasant regale to the pedestrians of London in cold and gloomy evenings.’


Hot spiced gingerbread, 1804.

By the nineteenth century Mayhew’s London Poor offers an encyclopaedic account of life on the streets of London. Common food items were fried fish, hot eels, pickled whelks, sheep’s trotters, ham sandwiches, peas’-soup, hot green peas, penny pies, plum ‘duff,’ meat-puddings, baked potatoes, spice-cakes, muffins and crumpets. These were the foods of the poor without means to cook for themselves, sold for a halfpenny and bought at all hours.

Behind the cheery patter lay some desperate cost-cutting methods. Sugar was adulterated with plaster of Paris and sweet-makers bought the scum from refiners to bolster their goods: alum, charcoal, bullock’s blood and lead.


Congregating crowds and opportunities for crime…

For these and other reasons linked to their vagabonding ways, street hawking was often perceived as morally ambivalent. A potential accomplice to pickpockets, prostitutes and street urchins, the vendor was generally seen as sharpster who could speedily vanish should trouble arise. For this reason, my next novel The Penny Heart has as its anti-heroine an apparently sweet-natured purveyor of Sassafras Tea, a once universal cheap alternative to tea or coffee. Taking advantage of the drink’s mild intoxicating effect, she carries out a common and clever money-exchange swindle – with murderous consequences for those involved.

Sassafras Tea

Take a large spoonful of root of sassafras ground to a powder and put into a pint of boiling water, keep stirring till it is like a fine jelly; then put wine and sugar to it and lemon, if it will agree.  A most refreshing drink sold liberally about the streets and said to lift the spirit and ease the mind of suspicion, all for a halfpenny piece.

Extracted from THE PENNY HEART by Martine Bailey, to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2015.

Martine Bailey’s debut historical novel, AN APPETITE FOR VIOLETS, is available now in trade paperback and as an eBook from Hodder & Stoughton. Find out more on the Hodder website here, by visiting Martine Bailey’s website and by following her on Twitter.

Amy Dolman

Post author: Amy Dolman

Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient; Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave; Upcoming book i'm most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

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