The novelist HE Bates described the Bedfordshire clanger as “Hard as a hog’s back, harder ’n prison bread.” More often this local delicacy has been described as a soggy suet roly-poly, about as appealing as a wet sock. Whatever the truth, there’s one thing all agree on: the clanger was traditionally a suet pudding, with a savoury filling one end and a sweet filling at the other. And in the 19th century, it was a daily staple for workers labouring in the fields.
The name is as intriguing as the food itself. The word clanger, it had been suggested, referred to the mistake of mixing sweet and savoury fillings. But a more likely explanation was that in nearby Northamptonshire dialect, ‘clang’ means to eat voraciously.
But does Bedfordshire’s answer to the Cornish pasty survive? I was hungry to find out so, armed with notebook and appetite, I set off for the town of Sandy, Bedfordshire’s agricultural heart and, so I’ve been told, the home of the contemporary clanger.
Low-key Sandy seems an unlikely place to be trying to unearth a morsel of culinary history. My first stop is the museum, where I meet the smiling town clerk, Sue Foster. She’s from Lancashire, but has lived here for 27 years. Does her museum include the Bedfordshire clanger? “No, I’m afraid not.
We stop at the Romans, and I don’t think they ate clangers,” she laughs. I nip around the corner to the tourist information centre, where a gentleman called Barry admits to knowledge of the clanger: “Of course I’ve heard of it,” he says. “I’ve never tasted it myself though. You should try Gunns Bakery. They make them.”
The home of the clanger
Gunns, with its bright red frontage, is just up the road. I’m encouraged to see it describes itself as the home of the Bedfordshire clanger. Inside, the air is rich with the smell of baking, and I catch sight of a selection of pasty-style pies. Today the clanger comes in all varieties: fat ones nestling in green cardboard pockets, vegetarian clangers, breakfast clangers, and even a Christmas clanger, denoted by a pastry holly leaf on the top.
I tuck into one gingerly, watched by David Gunns, whose grandfather Percy started the bakery 90 years ago. It tastes delicious and wholesome.“Originally the Bedfordshire clanger was made out of the remains of the Sunday joint and would have been boiled, like a suet pudding,” he says. “It was the original fast food. Women kept them in muslin cloths, and warmed them up on a hot stone before eating them as they worked in the fields.”
Although David’s grandfather made them, the clanger fell out of favour and was dropped from the bakery’s repertoire – until about 15 years ago, when David was at the helm. “We were invited to do a stall at the Bedfordshire Festival, so we decided to reintroduce the clanger. We sold them by the hundred. It was amazing, they just took off. Then we started selling them at farmers’ markets, and we now supply the National Trust shop at Dunstable Downs. We’ve even started making clangers for the supermarkets.”
David varied the original method by baking, rather than boiling, the clangers – although the pastry is still made to the original suet-based recipe. “The savoury filling is made with potatoes and gammon, which we get from the local butcher,” says David, escorting me into the kitchen’s inner recess, where Jo the baker is moulding mounds of white dough into rectangles.
The sweet part would traditionally have been jam, but now Gunns uses stewed apples. It’s important the two ends don’t get too friendly, so they’re strictly separated by the pastry equivalent of a dam down the middle. And in case you are wondering how the hungry inhabitants of Bedfordshire know which end of the clanger is which, they have secret symbols to guide them – two holes means meat, three knife slits means pud.
Just across the border in Hertfordshire, chef Paul Bloxham has refashioned the clanger to suit modern tastes at his gastropub, The Tilbury. He serves clangers as a bar snack to enjoy with a pint. “You either love or hate the clanger,” says Paul. “But it’s actually the pastry that blows the customers away; good old-school pastry just as our grandmothers made it.”