Like other festival breads, Sally Lunn buns have a distinctive texture with many small holes rather that fewer, larger holes. (This is because of the carbon dioxide that forms as the yeast dough rises.) Sally Lunns are light and brioche-like. Their dough is made with butter, eggs, milk and cream, lending them a rich flavor, and they are glazed after they are baked. Some variations on the traditional Sally Lunn recipe include lemon peel, saffron or other spices, though these are unnecessary given the naturally rich flavor of the bread.
Like the so-called "Bath bun," Sally Lunn buns are a type of manchet -- a high quality wheat yeast bread, usually in a small, round loaf form. Manchets are typically small enough to be held in the hand; fittingly, another name for manchet is "manchette," which is a type of glove worn by fencers. Manchets are an old style of bread with little contemporary production, and the best-known types of manchets are the Bath bun and Sally Lunn bun. Since both are from Bath, England, this occasionally leads to some confusion between the two! However, the legacy of manchets lives on in the form of French rolls, which are a modernized form of the bread.
The term "Sally Lunn" may also refer to a "Boston bun" -- a large, spiced bun with plenty of coconut icing. This New Zealander / Australian "Sally Lunn" is very different from the British bun after which it is named, but it is also commonly enjoyed with tea.
Traditional Sally Lunns are available in Bath, England, where they are considered to be an important traditional British food, and in the Southeastern United States, where the recipe (or a variation on it) has spread. They are commonly eaten as part of a breakfast or an afternoon tea meal. Like scones, they are often spread with clotted cream, but they are typically split horizontally and toasted first. Sometimes, they are served with savory toppings instead of cream or jam.
There are many legends about the origins of the Sally Lunn bun. Some say that it was created in 1680 in Bath by a Huguenot immigrant named Solange (Sollie) Luyon, while others claim that the recipe came from France and the name came from its celestial shape, after the French words "soleil lune" (sun-moon) or "sol et lune" (sun and moon). Still others say that the name was simply a rhyme with the word "bun" that stuck.
Today, the medieval building known as Sally Lunn's house still stands in Bath, England. The house serves meals throughout the day and is noted for its afternoon tea. There is a museum in the basement documenting the making of Sally Lunn buns and showcasing Roman archaeological finds far pre-dating the invention of the Sally Lunn.