Please wait, the site is loading...

From afternoon tea to Chelsea buns, London is heaven for lovers of sweet treats. Food director Leah Hyslop, author of a new book on the city's food, traces the sugary history of the capital.

On Saturday mornings, I often walk to Borough Market. The oldest market in the capital, Borough is a pilgrimage destination for food lovers: a place where you can buy everything from creamy English cheese to handmade pasta. But it’s the tempting array of sweet treats that I come to worship. Fluffy doughnuts from the Bread Ahead stall; melt-in-the-mouth truffles from Artisan du Chocolat; exquisite biscuits from Cinnamon Tree Bakery. New York is famous for doughnuts and Paris for macarons, but in London, you can buy every sweet treat imaginable – and many more you’d never dream up in your wildest fantasies (rainbow-coloured bagel, anyone?) It might not be good for our waistlines, but when it comes to delicious things to nibble with a cup of tea, Britain’s capital is unrivalled.

Londoners have long had a taste for the sweeter things in life. In the medieval period, the sweetener of choice was native fruit or honey, but as London grew into the busiest port in the world, exotic new treats came sailing down the Thames. It was Arab traders who introduced us to a precious commodity called sugar. These gleaming white crystals were so expensive that at first they were sprinkled on food as a finishing touch, like salt, but it wasn’t long before London’s richest citizens were using the white stuff to show off their wealth in more dramatic ways. At the court of Elizabeth I (who famously loved sweets so much, her teeth were black), vast edible sculptures were created for banquets. Made from a forerunner of marzipan know as marchpane, they were intricately moulded to represent everything from towers (complete with tiny men and artillery) to St Paul’s church. Confectioners became celebrities. King Henry VIII even gifted a house to one ‘Mistress Corne-wallies, widow, and her heirs... in reward of fine puddings’. If only your boss liked the cakes you brought into the office that much.

As demand for sweet treats spiked, boats laden with vast quantities of sugar, mostly from the Caribbean, crowded the Thames. Huge warehouses were built to store it and factories constructed to process it (Tate & Lyle, today a household name, was founded as an East End sugar refiner). In many ways, London as we know it was built on the sugar trade – but our passion had a dark side. It was slaves who picked the sugar cane, and until slavery was abolished in 1833, it was they who fed our addiction.

Other sweet obsessions came hot on the heels of sugar. In the 16th century, the very first cocoa beans arrived from the New World, and dedicated ‘chocolate houses’ where people could sample this thick, delicious liquid sprang up all over the city (to this day, Londoners still consume more chocolate on a daily basis than people in other cities in Britain). In 2013, workers at Hampton Court Palace stumbled across a hidden room. Behind the locked door was a forgotten ‘chocolate kitchen’, where King George I’s personal chocolatier, Thomas Tosier, would craft treats for the monarch.

The British have always been skilled bakers, and London has a magnetic pull on the most talented. Small wonder then, that so many famous British treats were invented in the capital. Chelsea buns, those pillowy, fruit-studded swirls, originated in the 1700s and were so popular that queues at The Chelsea Bun House snaked round the block (think of it as a predecessor to the cupcake craze). Tottenham cake, a simple vanilla sponge with bright pink icing now found in Greggs throughout the country, was invented by the Quaker community in North London as a treat for local children. For centuries, one of the most popular cakes was gingerbread, which was traditionally sold at fairs and carnivals, like the magical ‘frost fairs’ held on a frozen-over Thames in winter. ‘Gin and gingerbread’ was a particularly popular offering at these fairs; modern food markets could surely make a killing if they brought back that tempting combination.

Afternoon tea, an icon of genteel Britishness, was born in London. The legend goes that Lady Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, decided to serve cake and tea in that peckish period between lunch and dinner. The hungry duchess’s afternoon soirées became the talk of the town and, before long, every London socialite with a teapot was imitating her.

A few decades ago, London’s reputation as the world’s sweetest city was in danger. The growth of mass-manufacturing meant independent bakeries were closing almost as fast as the pubs, and locals were far more likely to scoff an additive-filled doughnut made hundreds of miles away in Europe than a fresh, locally-made treat. But in the past few years, there has been a renaissance. Gorgeous bakeries perch on every corner, luring people in with the scent of freshly baked muffins, while chefs become evermore inventive with their treats. London has always been a city of immigrants, and international influences now dance with traditional recipes in surprising and delightful ways. At the Ottolenghi bakeries in London, you can order a dense, gooey brownie flavoured with Middle Eastern rose water and walnuts.

It goes with saying that sweet treats should be consumed responsibly, or you’ll end up as wide as Henry VIII. But there can surely be no pleasure more quintessentially British than sitting in a smart London hotel, enjoying a scone and a cup of Earl Grey, while watching the world go by.

Don't miss Leah's Made In London recipes:

Tottenham cake

Bourbon biscuits

Maids of honour tarts

 

About the author

Leah Hyslop
Leah is our lovely food director. You'll most likely find her scoffing cake in our test kitchen...

We value your privacy

We use cookies to help give you the best experience on our site and to allow us and third parties to customise the marketing content you see across websites and social media. For more information see our cookie policy.

Cookie Preference Centre

Learn more about what each cookie category does and choose your settings (toggle right to opt in or left to opt out). Cookie policy


Strictly Necessary

These technologies are needed to enable our websites and apps to run and to keep it secure.

Sainsbury's Magazine

These technologies tell us how customers use our sites and apps and provide information to help us improve the website, apps and your browsing experience.

Cookie name Duration
PHPSESSID Until the browsing session ends
device_view 1 month
recentlyViewedRecipes 1 year
subscription-{popup-version-date}-PopupClosed 12 days

Vimeo

Enables Vimeo videos on the site

Cookie name Duration
_derived_epik 1 year

Constant Commerce

Enables shopping tools for recipe ingredients

Cookie name Duration
cc_a_h 10 years
cc_a_s Until the browsing session ends

DoubleClick

DoubleClick Digital Marketing (DDM) is an integrated ad-technology platform that enables us to more effectively create, manage and grow high-impact digital marketing campaigns.

Cookie name Duration
DSID 10 days
IDE 1 year
RUL 11 months

Performance/Analytics

These technologies tell us how customers use our sites and apps and provide information to help us improve the website, apps and your browsing experience.

Google

Google Analytics tell us how customers use our sites and apps and provide information to help us improve the website, apps and your browsing experience.

Cookie name Duration
__gads 13 months
_ga 28 months
_gat 1 minute
_gid 1 day
1P_JAR 1 month
ANID 10 days
CONSENT 18 years
NID 6 months
__Secure-3PAPISID 2 years
__Secure-3PSID 2 years
__Secure-3PSIDCC 1 year

Marketing/Targeting

These technologies help us decide which products, services and offers may be relevant for you. We use this data to customise the marketing content you see on websites, apps and social media. They also help us understand the performance of our marketing activities. These cookies are set by us or our carefully-selected third parties.

Pinterest

Pinterest conversion tracking gathers conversion insights and builds audiences to target based on actions our visitors have taken on the site.

Cookie name Duration
_pinterest_ct_rt 1 year
_pinterest_ct_ua 1 year
_pin_unauth 1 year

Outbrain

These technologies tell us how customers use our sites and apps and provide information to help us improve the website, apps and your browsing experience.

Cookie name Duration
outbrain_cid_fetch 5 minutes
adrl 5 weeks
apnxs 6 weeks
criteo 2 months
obuid 6 months

Twitter

Twitter conversion tracking enables us to measure our return on ad spend by tracking the actions people take after viewing or engaging with our ads on Twitter.

Cookie name Duration
personalization_id 2 years
muc 2 years
ads_prefs 5 years
auth_token 5 years
dnt 5 years
guest_id 2 years
twid 5 years