British Food

The Story of the Isle of Wight Doughnut

Two hundred years ago, the Isle of Wight Doughnut could’ve been to the Island, what Cornish pasties are to Cornwall or what pork pies are to Melton Mowbray. But somewhere along the way, Isle of Wight Doughnuts completely disappeared and now this tasty local speciality is confined to the history books – although that doesn’t mean it should stay there…

The History

The origins of the Isle of Wight Doughnut are shrouded in mystery and despite sharing a name with the American doughnut, the Isle of Wight version seems to have developed completely independently from their Atlantic cousins, with some claiming they can traced back as far as the 17th century.

Early recipes explain how the dough contains fine brown sugar and is flavoured with allspice, cinnamon, cloves and mace. Some of these ingredients are sourced from Asia, whilst others are grown in the Caribbean. They might seem far flung places for Georgian and Victorian Islanders to get their ingredients from however Cowes was an important shipping port and customs depot in the 18th and early 19th centuries, which may explain how they became so easy to get hold of.

Traditionally the doughnut filling was small, wild plums which also gave rise to the name ‘birds’ nests’ from their appearance when cut in half. In later years, recipes increasingly suggested using currants instead however I think piped plum jam could be a tastier alternative and more in keeping with tradition too.

Isle of Wight Doughnuts – also simply known as ‘nuts‘ – were around the size of a cricket ball, cooked in boiling lard and historically drained on clean straw. They were baked in homes and bakeries across the Island, often given out on Shrove Tuesday and interestingly, there’s no mention of ever covering the outside with sugar. They were made for many hundreds of years but by 1900 references to them become much less frequent until they disappear altogether a few decades later.

How to Make Them

A recipe for Isle of Wight Doughnuts – based on one first published in 1845:

A metal basket containing traditional Isle of Wight Doughnuts

Makes 10


300g strong white bread flour
150 – 175ml whole milk
50g unsalted butter, cubed
50g fine brown sugar or light muscovado, sieved
7g sachet of instant yeast
2 tsp. allspice
1⁄4 tsp. cinnamon
a pinch of ground cloves
a pinch of ground mace
1⁄2 tsp salt
Vegetable oil for deep frying

Filling: whole pitted wild plums, chopped supermarket plums or plum jam piped inside

  1. Sift the flour and spices into a bowl, adding the salt and sugar on one side of the mixture and the yeast on the other. Add the softened butter and 120ml of the milk then combine by hand. Gradually add as much of the remaining milk as you need until the dough is soft and slightly tacky.
  2. Knead the dough on a flour dusted surface until smooth and no longer sticky. Oil the bowl, return the dough to it and cover, leaving it somewhere warm to rise until it has doubled in size.
  3. Line two metal baking trays with baking parchment. Place the dough back on a floured work surface and fold inwards until the air is knocked out and the dough is smooth. Divide into ten pieces and roll into balls.
  4. Make a hole in each ball of dough with the thumb and push a little of the filling inside. Stretch the dough over the hole to close it, pinching and twisting the join to seal it. Once filled, place the balls on the baking trays and cover for 45 minutes to double in size. They should ultimately be about the size of a cricket ball.
  5. Deep fry the balls, a few at a time for around seven minutes, until cooked through and a fine brown in colour. Turn them over half way through to ensure even colouring
  6. Remove the doughnuts from the pan with a slotted spoon, drain on kitchen paper and leave to cool.

To find out more about Isle of Wight Doughnuts and other lost Isle of Wight foods, take a look at my latest book Historic Isle of Wight Food, available from retailers across the Island and online here.

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