A few weeks back, I was both surprised and delighted to find a supply of a particular variety of heritage apple in our local organic supermarket, Village Greens in Prestwich, Manchester.
VGs stock a regularly-changing roster of modern and heritage organic apples, along with some rather superb single-variety apple juices, from Oakwood Farm in Suffolk. On this particular visit I and when I popped in they happened to have a batch of ‘Norfolk Beefing’ on sale.
The ‘Norfolk Beefing’ (or ‘Norfolk Biffin’) is an apple I’ve read about in various heritage apple guides and have been hugely intrigued by as a result. In Caroline Ball’s superb book Heritage Apples (Bodleian Library, 2019), the author describes it as a “dark-flushed apple with meaty, acidic flesh that mellows to sweetness with a touch of cinnamon by spring”, which is delicious-sounding enough on its own merits. And then, as with so many mentions of the Beefing, the next paragraph describes the Victorian “biffin” dessert:
“[A] type of half-preserved apple sweetmeat … Apples, left whole and sometimes stuffed with citrus peel, would be coated with sugar and baked for hours in a cool oven with a press over them to flatten them as they cooked.”Heritage Apples pp. 152
The original toffee apple, perhaps? Or something else entirely? In any case, it sounds like something I’d want to try to make and cook, just for the sheer fun of re-discovering an old recipe, if nothing else.
First though, I had to get hold of a Norfolk Beefing or two. I honestly thought I’d have to go to Norfolk in the Autumn before I managed to find any. But no, there they were, ripe and ready, and so of course I bought a couple and brought them home.
Further reading on Wikipedia reveals that back in their heyday biffins were baked en-masse in a cooling baker’s bread oven. Modern accounts of biffin-making advise leaving them in a low oven overnight, with one source suggesting that eighteen hours at 90oC gets you a soggy, sort-of biffin as a result. It’s a starting point, certainly.
That’s when I hit my dilemma. I don’t have access to baker’s over, and only two Beefing apples, which leaves me with the oven method. But eighteen hours? That’s difficult. My wife and I are trying really hard to cut down on our power usage as part of our efforts to minimise our environmental impact, so leaving the oven on that long just to dry out a couple of apples is really difficult to justify.
What other cooking methods might there be? Well, the apples are too large to load into our dehydrator without slicing, which would give me dried apple slices, not biffins. Our air-fryer would use less electricity, but even on the lowest setting would probably bake them without drying them – it’s a sealed unit, so the steam wouldn’t escape – and it only has a 30 minute maximum timer, so re-setting it every half hour would be a royal pain. Likewise, a pressure cooker would cook them in a fraction of the time, but by baking or stewing rather than drying.
Which I think leaves me with either baking the Beefings in the usual baked-apple manner, add them to a crumble or stew them down for porridge-topping. Which seems rather contrary to the spirit of the experiment, but at least I get to taste them. I rather suspect I will end up stewing them (actually, one of them seems to be bruised and is starting to go bad, so I’ll have to be quick about it anyhow) and my quest for a biffin will have to go unfulfilled for now.
Perhaps one day I’ll be strolling through a farmer’s market somewhere and there they’ll be; sugar-coated, browned and wrinkled, waiting for me to pounce and devour…
Or perhaps there’s a traditional baker somewhere in Norfolk with a large brick oven, who happens to know an orchard that grows Norfolk Beefing apples, and between them they might be able to bake a btach of biffins and set up a supply run to a certain organic supermarket up in Prestwich.
Hey, you never know, it might just happen.