Tolerance, Cakes, and Buns: The Legacy of Bewley’s in Dublin

My journey this summer has been one of surprises and delights because more often than not, I’m learning about Breton, and now Irish, food culture as I go along. This most certainly is the case with Bewley’s. While I knew that I needed to pay a visit to this Dublin institution, I was not sure of its history, only that it is regarded for its longevity and its coffee, tea, and buns.

I was duly impressed by the cafe's gorgeous interiors, especially Harry Clarke’s 1927-28 stained glass windows. Bewley’s had recently undergone a two-year-long renovation where these windows and many other features had been lovingly restored. The sparkling counter display cases were loaded with buns, cakes, pastries, and sandwiches, and the spacious cafe was bustling, although it did not feel crowded or rushed.

Just days before my first visit, I had happened across a reference to Bewley’s Mary Cake, and when I opened my menu, I read the following description: “A Bewley’s classic since 1945. A much loved chocolate delight for many.” I was curious enough to forego a proper lunch and instead expend my calorie intake on the Mary Cake, along with a double espresso.

Before long, a small but exquisite tower of confection was set before me on a gold metallic square disk. It was covered in glossy chocolate and crowned with a golden square of marzipan that reflected the gold disk on which it sat. When I gingerly broke into the tower, I discovered a sturdy chocolate mousse, inside of which was a liberal filling of apricot sauce that began to ooze out. All of this sat on ⅓ inch almond-hazelnut sponge.

Two bites in, I felt as if the Viennese Sachertorte had arrived at Bewley’s in an altered state, one where the chocolate sponge cake had been replaced by a more decadent chocolate mousse, and where instead of a miserly smidgen of apricot glaze between the cake and the icing, the apricot jam was now allowed to equal the chocolate in importance. The addition of the almond and hazelnut sponge with the accent of the marzipan cap created something on par with the Hungarian Quartet’s performance of Borodin’s Quartet No. 2 in D Major: Chocolate mousse and apricot jam as first and second violins, the marzipan and almond-hazelnut sponge as viola and cello.

Bewley’s setting, with its wait-staff dressed in formal black attire with white aprons, the Art Deco features, the tiled floor, towering stained glass panels, people enjoying cake and coffee over conversations and print newspapers--it did indeed transport me back to the days of Austro-Hungarian coffee house culture, and suddenly, I was on a quest to find the Mary Cake's origins. Its resemblance to viennoiserie and patisserie could not be ignored.

I thought my search would be straight-forward and recipes would be all over the Internet. Wrong. A full afternoon of searching left me with no recipe, and the only mention of “Mary Cake” was from a novel where a couple are sitting in Bewley’s back in the day biting into it. The name, “Bewley’s” came up frequently, however. A sociologist argued that Bewley’s over time came to signify Dublin itself (see “Coffee Aromas” by Michel Peillon in Uncertain Ireland: A Sociological Chronicle, 2003-2004). A cultural historian wrote about what Bewley’s meant to ordinary people in 1907, 1932, and 1963 (See Tony Farmar’s highly engaging Ordinary Lives: Three Generations of Irish Middle Class Experience). After a lot more research, I came across only one piece of information on the Mary Cake that served as a lead. Writing in Totally Dublin, Aoife McElwain explained that it was created by Hungarian refugees employed by the Bewley family during World War Two. McElwain explained that the Bewley family came to Ireland from England as Quakers fleeing religious intolerance back in the 1700s. Their values, particularly to promote peace and tolerance, infused their business practices as well as how they treated their employees. Michel Peillon wrote that a later heir of the business, Victor Bewley, was closely associated with Traveller’s rights in Ireland. Intrigued, I returned to Bewley’s to see if the story about the Hungarian refugees was verifiable.

This visit I ordered only a pot of tea (expertly brewed, nice and strong), and I asked my waitress if I might speak to someone about the history of the Mary Cake. Without hesitation, she scurried off to find another waitress who explained to me that there were as many stories about the Mary Cake as there were fans, and to the best of her knowledge, none of them were verifiable. She had never heard the story of Hungarian refugees, she confessed. I sighed and returned to my tea, but shortly afterwards, the waitress returned to my table and told me that the owner of Bewley’s, Patrick Campbell, might be able to help me with my question.

Patrick Campbell, owner of Bewley's

What hospitality, I thought. That the owner himself was willing to talk to me? I was led upstairs to Mr. Campbell’s office and after a fast introduction, I asked my question. The Mary Cake was indeed created by Hungarian refugees, Mr. Campbell told me, and its recipe, as well as the recipes for Bewley’s iconic buns and scones, were likewise all in existence, hand-written and preserved documents. Would I like to meet the pastry chef? Mr. Campbell graciously asked me. It was late afternoon, but if I could return the next morning, I could see the kitchen in action. Of course I took Mr. Campbell up on this kind offer.

Pastry Chef Clare at work

Mr. Campbell, who calls himself and his wife, Veronica, the “custodians” of Bewley’s, was there to meet me at 8:00 the next morning. He told me that he and his wife had purchased the foundering Bewley’s in the 1980s and had gone through a series of growing pains with their new business. They finally decided that the best way to treat this last remaining Bewley’s Cafe was to return it to its original purpose: to serve as an inviting place where people could “take a load off their feet” by having a coffee or tea and a bun or cake or light snack.

The kitchen was spotless and spacious, and the pastry chef, Clare, confidently makes not only Mary Cakes, but other gorgeous pastries that Mr. Campbell confessed were a new addition to the Bewley’s lineup, because that’s what many people crave nowadays. Nonetheless, Mr. Campbell did confirm that as one of the only places in Dublin to make such old-fashioned staples as cherry buns, Bewley’s attracted a large number of native Dubliners who seek it out precisely for those staples. I took home a cherry bun and a sticky bun to my family and we, too, gloried in the yeasty, subtly sweet buns that went perfectly with a cup of Irish breakfast tea. My mission was accomplished.


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