Jonah Street, BSc Bakery and Patisserie Student at University College Birmingham and a Dawn Foods’ Student Ambassador, looks at some of Birmingham’s bakery history and the emergence of ‘bally-fillers’ for the working classes.
Birmingham has long been known as one of the commercial capitals of the UK, creating some of the UK’s most recognised business empires from Cadbury’s, Bird’s Custard and Typhoo Tea, to Lloyds Bank! Due to Birmingham’s busy environment its history in the bakery industry is unlike any other.
Baking in the UK has a fairly short history, with home baking not becoming popular until about 150 years ago and most professionally made breads and cakes only being available to the wealthy upper class. These products were out of reach of ordinary working class folk due to the majority of the products being yeast or ale based and full of expensive spices like saffron from the British Empire. During the 17th century, when the bakery industry really began to take off in the UK, Birmingham had its focus on industrialisation.
Being one of the first and biggest industrialised cities in the UK, many residents living in Birmingham and the surrounding areas found themselves getting jobs with lower incomes due to an increase in positions needed to be filled in bigger companies. This, however, left most people in the Midlands on a working-class wage and unable to afford the fancy cakes and breads that were so loved by the upper classes. This isn’t to say that baked products weren’t popular, they just weren’t as high class in appearance as other products made across the country.
Some popular Birmingham and the Black Country bakery products include, bread pudding, lardy cake, rice pudding cake, caraway seed cake and rock cake. Although none of these products specifically come from Birmingham or the area around it, they were extremely popular in bakeries and amongst home bakers due to them being cheap to make and creating uses for food that would otherwise be thrown away, like stale bread and lard.
Many families in Birmingham in the 1800s would have to work incredibly hard for long periods of time to earn a living, so to keep everyone going all day food had to be nourishing and filling, which often gave them the nicknames “rib stickers” or “bally-fillers”. Of the different bakes, bread pudding was one of the most common “bally-filler” due to its effectiveness at stopping people from going hungry all day; it was also very simple to make, which made it even more appealing. People simply soaked any leftover bread in water (or milk for better off families), until it was soft enough to be torn up, and then once the liquid was drained off, they added in suet, sugar, mixed spice and dried fruit before also adding in a bit of egg, then baking for a few hours. Bread pudding is served cold and variations can still be found today in bakeries across Birmingham and the Black Country.
Lardy cake too is a Birmingham favourite as lardy cake was filling, sweet and affordable. Lard was generally cheap due to it being a bi-product from butchers. Even though lard is not as commonly used today, it was vital back around the 1800-1900s as every last piece of food that could be consumed was being utilised. The lard used in lardy cake helped to give it a buttery texture and give the illusion of being a fancier product, if the bakers added in additional ingredients like different spices that would be rarely seen in the area. Lardy cake was made by rolling out bread dough and then covering it with softened lard before sprinkling on dried fruit (usually raisins or currents) and sugar. It would then be folded up in thirds to create layers of lard between dough and then baked. Although many southern areas of the UK claim to have the original recipe and be the true owners of lardy cake, the only thing we can be sure of is that it was loved in Birmingham! These days, lardy cake can still be found in a lot of traditional bakeries around Birmingham just like bread pudding.
Despite many cakes and bakes being popular in Birmingham during its industrialisation all the way up to today, there is no baked product that can be classed as quintessentially Brummy or even traced back to Birmingham. The main reason for this is that bakers simply didn’t have the money or the time to think about creating something new when none of their customers would be interested or even be able to afford what they created.
As a multi-cultural city and with the city fast becoming a ‘foodie destination’, it won’t be long before other sweet bakery items are added to the bread pudding and lardy cake favourites.