I do know my muffin man. But he’s not the one who lives on Drury Lane, as mentioned in the 1820s English children’s rhyme, and he doesn’t have to ring a bell to get customers to buy. Mine is the crunchy hipster with his hair in a messy man-bun from Blue Oven Bakery. He sells his hand made English muffins every Sunday at the local farmer’s market with a qeue the entire length of the market, before he’s even open. And, his English muffins come in whole wheat and regular, and are about the size of a good hamburger. They’re not the small, thin, dried-out manufactured versions I grew up on in the form of Thomas’ English muffins. They’re the delicious, hand-hewn, chewy on the inside, crunchy on the outside. They’re the kind that are awaiting a spoonful of delicious jam. My muffin man makes the best English muffins I’ve ever tasted.
The crappy American version , originally called a ‘toaster crumpet’ was invented by a New York British Immigrant, Samuel Bath Thomas, in 1894, from his mother’s tea cake recipe. It may have ‘nooks and crannies’ to trap butter, but it’s manufactured blandness lacks the thickness and chewiness of the original English muffin he was trying to mimic. The nooks for butter are needed for them to taste close to palatable!
The English muffin is not really a muffin at all, but a form of a crumpet. It is said to have originated in the ‘below stairs’ regions of English manor houses. Unlike most breads, they’re not baked, but fried on a hot plate on both sides, giving a perfect golden brown top crust on both sides, and a chewy, inside. Think of Mrs. Padmore and Daisy making these for their fellow workers at Downton Abby. They probably came from even older country traditions, where the kitchen workers came, like the Welsh tradition of cooking small round yeast dough on bakestones.
Making these ‘muffins’ was a frugal way for the kitchen servants to use up left over dough and yeast for their own meals. And, they were so good, that when the upper classes saw their servants making them, and tried them, they became a hit upstairs as well. The lords and ladies began requesting them with their tea, and they became an English institution. It became something classless, a very rare thing in the hierarchical and very structured British society.
In Victorian England, amidst the other street vendors, muffin men could be heard ringing their bells, announcing their walk down the alleys, with their muffins in wooden trays slung around their necks or balancing on their heads. You definitely knew your muffin man then, and the street where he lived. English Parliament outlawed the vendors from ringing their bells in 1840, but the law wasn’t really enforced until much later, and the muffin man gradually faded into bread history.
All this I learned on the second episode of my favorite fall food show on PBS, “The Great British Baking Show.” It’s the best baking competition show on T.V. Kudos again to the BBC for bringing such great programming. They do sort of a quickfire challenge, a technical challenge, and then a showpiece challenge in each episode. It’s like a triathalon for bakers and really tests their technical skills and creativity, both of which a master baker needs. Anyone can mix a Duncan Hines box cake together, but it takes a master craftsman to make a good English sponge or a true Angel Food Cake.
This season, I’m gunning for Kimberly, the self-proclaimed “flavor magpie,”, who I believe was robbed out of winning Master Baker, in last night’s episode for her Peace Bread. Her English muffins were perfect in shape, size, color and flavor, and she was the only baker smart enough to bake a test piece of muffin at the same time as her real muffins to determine when they were done on the inside – the most challenging part of the muffin making process.
So I’ll continue to take my tea with the slightly rustic, more authentic, English muffins of my Sunday morning muffin man, and continue to cheer on Kimberly on Sunday evenings.