Bedfordshire’s Answer to the Cornish Pasty Mixes Marmalade with Bacon
The Bedfordshire clanger is a suet pastry with a savoury filling (like bacon and eggs or minced lamb) in one end, and a sweet filling (rhubarb, custard, marmalade) in the other.
The Bedfordshire clanger is a curious beast. Originally a staple dish for the county's many agricultural workers, it is a meal encased in an oblong suet crust: a savoury filling in one end and a sweet in the other. More versatile than the Cornish pasty, the clanger is the humble all-rounder of the pastry world.
Today, the Bedfordshire clanger is no longer widely made. I grew up in the county but didn't actually hear of one until my twenties. Of my immediate family, who have lived here for generations, only my grandparents have ever eaten one. This is all about to change, though, as I visit the one place that still reliably sells them: Gunns Bakery in Sandy.
Gunns has been in this small market town for nearly 90 years. At the helm is David Gunn, grandson of the bakery's founder.
"For as long as I can remember, we've been selling clangers," he says. "Not in the quantities that we do now because I think they lost some popularity."
To see the decline and rise of this local dish, I needn't look far. The clangers my grandparents ate would have been big enough for an entire family.
"We were brought up on them. My dad used to love them and we did really, because we didn't get a lot in those days," my nan says.
But despite baking all manner of pies and cakes all year round, she's never cooked a clanger herself.
The recent resurgence has helped make a name for Gunns and TV appearances with chefs like Rick Stein can't have hurt. The staff are also quite keen.
"It's a bit different, isn't it?" says Helen, who was worked here for eight years. "People come from quite a long distance. David appears on TV and then you get a surge of people coming in to try the clanger."
Their fame is also growing outside the county's borders. Gunn tells me that he once couriered dozens on an EasyJet flight to Northern Ireland for a carol concert.
Business seems to be thriving at home, too. I arrive at Gunns late on a Saturday morning but the queue is out of the door. Once inside, I see that the "Clanger Corner" area of the counter is worryingly empty. Thankfully, there are a few more trays loaded up out back and ready to go.
Although the clanger would have probably faded into obscurity without Gunns, there is a key difference between theirs and those of my grandparents' generation. In the old days, it would be boiled, usually in a muslin cloth ("When you took it off, sometimes it'd stick to the suet," says my nan). Now it is baked. Gunn has adapted the clanger for modern tastes and lifestyles.
"We make some boiled as well as baked, but boiled is obviously a difficult to handle floppy thing, whereas baked is something much easier to eat on the move," he says.
I'm not sure I'd be so keen to try the boiled version he describes. There are purists out there, though. Following an article about the modern version in a local newspaper, several disgruntled readers wrote letters to point out that the "true" clanger is a boiled one.
Schism over casing aside, it is what's inside that counts. Although there is no definitive answer to the most authentic filling—my grandparents remember onions, bacon, and minced beef and jam—Gunns' "traditional" and best-selling option contains gammon chunks and diced potato at the savoury end, and apple at the sweet end. Newer varieties are available: beef and ale with rhubarb and custard, minced lamb with jam, and vegetable curry with mango.
The modern clanger is easier to make and less labour-intensive than the boiled ones. A suet pastry dough is chopped into pieces and then rolled into rectangles. An off-cut of pastry is put two-thirds of the way down as a separator to stop the fillings mixing ("Sometimes people think, 'Oh that's a horrible mixture all together' but you say, 'No, it is actually divided by the pastry!'" says Helen). The fillings go in and the pastry is folded over. Before baking, each end is marked on top to distinguish sweet from savoury—a sprig of rosemary, for example, if beef is the filling.
Finally, I get to eat my first clanger. They've sold out of the full English breakfast variety (marmalade in the sweet end), so I plump for the traditional one.
It's not quite how I expected. The suet pastry is robust and quite hard at its thickest points. Even when served in halves, a side salad seems odd next to something this substantial—it genuinely feels like eating a full meal. Perhaps not a full-blown dinner, but certainly a decent lunch. The main course and dessert combination works well, although it is tempting to speedily gnaw your way through it to get to the dessert.
But what do my family think? There is a generational gap. My nan still has a fondness for the ones of her youth but this one goes down well.
"It's very tasty, this. I would definitely buy that," she says and I successfully convince her to make one for my next visit.
My granddad agrees: "It's lovely. Most of the stuff you buy now, you need a little bit of sauce to flavour it but you don't need it on that."
My parents and brother are less enthusiastic after their first taste.
"Too much pastry," my brother says. My Dad liked it ("6.5 out of 10") and said he wouldn't mind occasionally taking one to work but would prefer it with sauce. And Mum?
"I wasn't that keen on it, really." I'm not entirely sure whether to believe them—every last crumb has been eaten.
Bedfordshire has often seemed to me to be a county lacking in identity. It is neither in East Anglia, the East Midlands, or the Home Counties and its most famous landmark is arguably Luton Airport. Whether boiled or baked, perhaps there is some kind of identity in an unusual sweet-and-savoury dish.
For Gunn, the clanger is more than just something to be eaten. It is crucial to Bedfordshire's heritage: "It was something true to the county and that's great. We're determined to keep it going and never let it die."
All photos by Sarah Campbell.