‘Full up to the neck with bunloaf’ is a quote from Ned Maddrell of Rushen, Isle of Man recalling when he was a young man and what he did for the Manx New Year’s custom of the Quaaltagh. The Quaaltagh is the first person to step over the threshold in the new year, ideally on the Isle of Man a dark haired man. As Ned said he was ‘full up to the neck with bunloaf’….. bunloaf was the common fare offered to the Quaaltagh and most people would have had some made for the Christmas and New Year. Tradtionally people would stay up all night to welcome their Quaaltagh into their home with a drink and a bite to eat.
As it is New Year’s eve I thought I would share a Manx recipe for bunloaf. I usually make up a batch of bunloaf for the relatives and close friends as presents and to have some in to offer any guests or my Quaaltagh. I prefer bunloaf to Christmas cake, no icing required and fairly simple to make. As far as I can tell baking bunloaf at around Christmas seems to be a Manx tradition. I have also found references to bunloaf being baked at Christmas in Liverpool and in the towns and villagers on the Cumberland coast. Interestingly bunloaf gets a mention in Swallows and Amazons…..as a favourite food of the Swallows. The Swallows on their many adventures ate ‘the usual bunloaf and marmalade’. Interestingly in a 2008 Daily Mail article suggested bunloaf was ‘a recipe that dates back to the time when these places were the haunts of smugglers who brought in spices and spirits’. Not sure where the source of the information was originally from but an interesting idea nevertheless. I did a little reading and contacted a known expert on British smuggling history to see if, indeed there could be any foundation in this suggestion? Frances Wilkins said that within the goods regularly brought into the Isle of Man in the 1750s and 1760s there were spices, mace, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger; plus dried fruit (currants, raisins) and sugar. When and where the recipe originates from I do not know but it is feasible that there could have been a connection with some of the exotic goods brought into the Island in the 18th century. Most of the other ingredients were more easily and available and already used such as buttermilk, butter, flour and bicarbonate of soda.
According to the Isle of Man Newspapers bunloaf seems to have been well a established Christmas fare by 1873, the bakers A & G Moore of Prospect Hill and George’s Street Douglas advertised as suppliers, large bunloaves also included in 10 shilling Christmas Hampers made up by H.W. Corrin. In December 1885 the orphans and destitute children of the Isle of Man Industrail Home received over 120 lbs in weight of bunloaves as donations…..possibly seen as good food with a bit of body in it for the needy children.
Every year I have a family tradition of making the bunloaves for Christmas. I intend to pass on the bunloaf tradition on to my grandchildren…..so they can keep it going for the future.
Bunloaf (Bwilleen Breck)
1 lb 8 oz Manx plain flour 2lb dried bag of mixed fruit 2lb own mix of currants, sultanas, raisins, candied peel
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 10 oz Manx whey butter
1 pint of Manx buttermilk
2 teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda
8 oz of sugar 1 tablespoon of golden syrup
1/ Pre-heat oven on to a moderate heat
2/ Grease and line with greaseproof paper 2 x 2lb loaf tins
3/ Sieve all the dry ingedients together (flour and spices)
4/ Rub in butter into flour till looking like breadcrumbs
5/ Add sugar, dried fruit and mix well
6/ Put bicarbonate of soda in jug or basin with buttermilk and mix till smooth
7/ Make a well in centre and pour buttermilk mixture into dry ingredients add syrup and mix well till all ingredients combined.
8/ Put in loaf tins and bake for about two hours, test with skewer if cooked throughly
9/ Cool for about 10 minutes in tins and cool on wire rack
I buy a few Christmas cake decorations, wrap in greaseproof, tie with ribbon and Christmas stickers and give out as presents. Enjoy…..and they are nice any time of year with a cup of tea. Bunloaf can also be eaten with cheese or buttered
If you have any further information about bunloaves please add your information in the comments.
I have not written for a quite a while and my original plan was to write a regular blog on Manx recipes and food history. I intend to cook something up and write about any relevant stories, points of interest to that particular recipe or ingredients at least once a month over this coming year and will try and make it as seasonal as possible. The intention where possible will be to use Isle of Man sourced ingredients.
Source of 2008 Daily Mail article: