The joy of Oven Bottom Muffins
Muffin, barm, barmcake, roll, nudger, teacake and pikelet – I know for sure they are generically known as bread rolls, but they are more than just alternative names. Though we may ask for a chip barm in Blackley, a chicken bap in Bristol, or a ham salad roll in Tankerton, it is churlish to suggest that a barm is the same as a roll. There is differences in texture, baking style, and thickness.
A bap or barmcake can be up to two inches thick. A traditional Oven Bottom Muffin, up to an inch thick at least. However, many a superstore bought pack of oven bottom muffins can be a thick as baps or barmcakes. No wonder we’re confused.
American Muffins versus Lancashire Oven Bottom Muffins
When I worked for an internet company in central Manchester from 2003 to 2009, one of my usual haunts en route was the Tesco Metro store on Brown Street. The first muffins you saw on entry were the American types. Yes, the chocolate or blueberry variety which yours truly has enjoyed many a time as well as the Lancastrian ones. Supposing I met up with a New Yorker by the name of Eddie in The Moon Under The Water pub nearby…
Eddie: There’s one thing I don’t get. Why on Earth would you want a cheese muffin? They are gross! (Our American friend assumes I ate a Cheshire cheese sandwich using a chocolate chip muffin)
S.V.: Well, what it is, is our sort of muffins are like bread rolls. There is no chocolate chips nor blueberries.
Eddie: Right… but having lived in Manchester for three years, why is it that every time I ask for a cheese muffin in Greggs they point me towards the fridge or the counter next to the Belgian Buns?
S.V.: The reasons are twofold: one, their pre-packed sandwiches are kept in a fridge. Secondly, Greggs do rolls rather than muffins, or barms if you’re ordering a bacon sandwich.
Eddie: So they call them “barms” in central Manchester?
S.V.: Indeed they do. Yet, if you get a train or tram into Ashton-under-Lyne, or a bus or tram to Oldham, it is different again.
Eddie: It all seems, but there’s one more thing I’m confused about: why does Tesco sell oven bottom muffins that are – technically speaking – barms, and English muffins? Are they similar?
Strictly speaking, the English muffins in terms of texture are closer to the Lancashire Oven Bottom. Without the obvious ‘O’ which separates them from many of the bread rolls we see. Another difference is the English Muffins are usually placed next to Crumpets and Potato Cakes in a typical supermarket. Oven Bottom Muffins, like baps, barmcakes and rolls, tend to be placed in the bread aisles.
Why is this so? Well, the English Muffins (usually smaller and more expensive than the common and garden Oven Bottoms) are usually sold as a breakfast product. In other words, just the thing for Eggs Benedict, or as part of an Egg McMuffin.
The Oven Bottom Muffin is an all-singing and all-dancing bread product ideal for countless other things besides breakfast. As well as world class bacon, sausage and egg muffins, they are faultless when toasted and fit in the toaster better (though much better grilled). Compared with a thicker bap or barm, they make better sandwiches. Especially with Best Ham off the Bone and ox tongue. Or with Lancashire cheese and salad. The ‘O’ is created halfway through the baking process.
As seen in this dialogue, there is a similar level of confusion in Greater Manchester, let alone New York. Hence from my travels within the area:
- [Oven Bottom] Muffin: Bury, Rochdale, Oldham, Ashton-under-Lyne, Stalybridge, Glossop, Droylsden, Gorton;
- Barm or Barmcake: Manchester city centre, Blackley, Salford, Bolton, Wythenshawe, Wigan;
- Roll: Altrincham, Sale, Stockport.
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What makes the ideal Oven Bottom Muffin:
Apart from the ‘O’ of the oven bottom, its distinctive blackened ring:
- Depth: 1″ thick. Anything thicker, dangerously close to bap territory;
- Texture: definable crust, smooth on the palate. Fairly firm though not too fluffy like a barmcake;
- Indentations: a dent, roughly half an inch in diameter, like a navel. Desirable though not essential;
- Dusting: a light dusting of flour always adds flavour in my book.
Oven Bottom Heaven
Supposing Eddie and I catch the 83 or the 216 from Manchester city centre, the area around Oldham and Ashton-under-Lyne is pretty good for oven bottoms. One of Britain’s biggest manufacturers started out in Ashton before moving to Higher Openshaw. Their muffins are more barmcakes. In other words, what muffins are to connoisseurs in the same way Skiing in the Snow is to Northern Soul purists.
The best places for oven bottom muffins remain market stalls and independently owned bakeries. Sadly, a lot of family run bakeries have been usurped by chain stores. One notable victim was Declercq’s bakery in Oldham. Amand Auguste Edouard Declercq’s bakery was noted for its crispy French muffins, popular toasted. In spite of this, there is still a good variety of outlets.
Taylor’s Bakery, 375 Ripponden Road, Watersheddings, Oldham, Lancashire: thin (approximately three-quarters of an inch) with soft to firm texture. Not an easy muffin to cut for the ham-fisted, but great with boiled ham and salad. Also enhanced by light dusting (Buses: 83 and 407)
J.W. Buckley, 89 High Street, Uppermill, West Riding of Yorkshire: with two shops in Uppermill, it is no wonder they are both needed owing to the queues each dinner time. As well as their pristine pastries, their oven bottoms are a bit thicker (1″) with a smooth crust and slightly firm texture. Great with ham or cheese salad. Bakery backs on to shop unit of 89 High Street. (Buses: 184, 350, 353 and 354)
Greenwood’s Craftsman Bakers, 103 – 105 Vulcan Road, Derker, Oldham, Lancashire: as well as their premises in Derker, their stall on Tommyfield Market is considerably easier to get to for most customers. It is possible to try their muffins in sandwich form before you buy a dozen in their café nearest the Henshaw Street entrance. (Buses to Derker: 81, 83, 407, 410, 411)
Ashton Indoor Market, Wellington Road, Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire: for many Ashtonians, the indoor market is a happy hunting ground for oven bottom muffins. Its wealth of stalls include:
- The Pantry (Stall 6): brown ones, white ones, soft ones, almost any type of oven bottom muffin imaginable. Even teacakes. Currant teacakes too. The traditional bakestone oven bottoms are as thin as the Taylor’s Bakery ones, though with a more definable crust. Both white and brown ones include a light dusting of flour. Best experienced toasted with butter under a grill. Great with bacon or sausage, legendary with a chunk of crumbly Lancashire cheese. Best for taking on the road due to their consistency.
- The Oven Bottom Muffin (Stall 3): their brown ones are superior to the white ones. Slight crispy texture, slightly bigger and thicker than The Pantry’s though can be heavy going for some palates. Best muffins for a salad sandwich with Yorkshire ham and a dollop of mayonnaise.
- S. Williams and Sons (Stall 30): though noted for their delicatessen products, and sponsorship of Stalybridge Celtic Football Club, S. Williams and Sons sell a good range of locally made muffins. Besides its prominent position in the indoor market, their muffins always sell fast, especially their homemade style muffins made by…
Mellor’s Bakery, 87 Stocks Lane, Stalybridge, Cheshire: well worth finding. Mellor’s Bakery’s oven bottom muffins are perhaps the ultimate general purpose muffins on the market. They are great toasted, with salad, cooked meats, and with a good soup. No wonder they sell fast in Ashton! (Buses: 236, 237, 348, 387)
Hadfield Bakery, Jacksons Buildings, 13 Victoria Road, Glossop, Derbyshire: with a slightly softer crust than the previous entry and a liberal dusting of flour, they too lie in the Champions League of Oven Bottom Muffins. They are fluffy inside and great with a home made soup. Also good with a generous serving of roast beef, chicken or ham. (Buses: 61, 236, 237, 341, 390).
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The mass market muffins can never hold a candle to the independent stockists’ efforts. Nevertheless, they fulfil an alternative quick option if purchased outside of the local bakeries’ opening hours. Even so, we at East of the M60 are particularly fond of the following efforts in spite of some obvious shortcomings:
- ALDI: probably the best own-brand effort on the market, and among the cheapest;
- Pound Bakery: the best of the chain store bakeries’ efforts I would say – always fresh and good toasted;
- G.H. Sheldon’s Lancashire Oven Bottom Muffins: still independently owned but among the biggest makers, gracing many a superstore aisle. Best with sausages, bacon, or a good burger.
What butters your muffin? Firm, soft or crispy? Wholemeal or white? Buttered or toasted? With a tasty burger or boiled ham? Feel free to comment away. Why not add a few other recommendations. More the merrier, and mine’s a nice toasted one with butter of course.
S.V., 24 March 2015.