The Selkirk Bannock
The Selkirk bannock is one of Scotland’s more famous baked goods and has a surprisingly rich history. The Selkirk bannock is different to a traditional bannock for it is a rich and buttery leavened tea bread, a far cry from the bere bannocks you find in Orkney.
The fame of Selkirk bannock is often attributed to Queen Victoria, who according to John Hope-Scott, tasted it in 1867 when visiting Abbotsford house (home of Sir Walter Scott). Considering she doesn’t mention it once in her diaries, apart from a brief note of taking tea, I would like to think the fame of the Selkirk bannock is down to the dedication and skill of the bakers who have made this bread for generations.
It is still made in the borders by many bakeries, most famously by Alex Dalgetty & Sons, who pride themselves on the quality of their Selkirk bannock. It is the slow fermentation of the dough that gives their bannock its rich flavour and it turns out to be quite a sophisticated process. The bannock is started with a ‘sponge dough’ (like a sourdough bread starter) and over the course of approximately twenty hours they add other ingredients such as butter. It then goes through another two fermentation stages prior to baking. Alex Dalgetty (great great Grandfather of the current owner) worked for Robert Douglas in the late nineteenth century, who is said to have invented the Selkirk bannock. Robert Douglas was the first to make it on a commercial scale at any rate.
It seems the Selkirk bannock has long been admired. The first time we find the Selkirk bannock in print is in the Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott (1819), in amongst the petticoat-tail shortbread and sweet scones is the Selkirk bannock, ‘delicacies little known to the present generation’. Robert Chambers, a Scottish publisher, took the trouble to note in The Picture of Scotland (1827):
‘Before quitting Selkirk, it ought to be mentioned that it is famous for the manufacture of a peculiarly light and agreeable species of bread, called “Selkirk Bannocks”. The loaves were originally made of barley-meal, but are now composed of the finest flour.’
Selkirk bannock is the ideal thing to make when the weather is getting colder and the nights are closing in. It is a shame the Selkirk bannock is not more appreciated when things like the Italian pannetonne are everywhere at Christmas time. What chance could the shy Selkirk bannock have against all that big and bright packaging the Italians are so good at. The Selkirk bannock is every bit as good and it is this we should enjoy as a teatime treat, toasted or un-toasted, spread lavishly with salted butter.
Many recipes that resemble the Selkirk bannock can be found in old Scottish cookery books under the guise of a bun loaf. For instance the The Practice of Cookery, Pastry, and Confectionary by a Mrs. Frazer (1820) offers a recipe called a ‘rich half-peck Bun’. You can buy the Selkirk bannock online, however, if you would like to try making it yourself then the recipe below produces something very similar. This recipe has been adapted from F. Marian McNeill’s book Recipes from Scotland (1947). In this quicker recipe below the butter is added right at the beginning, which is not traditional. At any rate it still makes a rich and soft tea bread.
500g strong white bread flour
300g whole milk
50g unsalted butter
50g lard (you could replace this with 50g butter)
7g fast action yeast (or 15g fresh yeast rubbed into the flour)
Mix the flour, sugar, salt, yeast and sultanas in a large bowl. Melt the butter and lard over a gentle heat in a small saucepan, take off the heat and whisk in the milk. Pour this over the dry ingredients and combine. Knead gently for three to five minutes. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to prove for 1 hour or until 1.5 times its original volume. Alternatively you can add the raisins after this proving time when you shape the dough.
Shape the dough to make it round, and transfer to a greased baking sheet. Leave to rise for 30 minutes to 1 hour. When doubled in size bake in the centre shelf of a preheated oven (180˚C) for 30 minutes.