Welcome the third instalment in a loose trilogy of long-read articles about the history of a fine old Norfolk apple and the slow-baked, pressed apple dessert that it was traditionally made into.
In post one, back in January 2020, I bought a pair of ‘Norfolk Beefing’ apples (see photo above) from our local deli. I then encountered ‘The Norfolk Beefing / Biffin Dilemma‘ as I wondered whether I could justify leaving the oven on all night to try to bake them into a dried and pressed apple dessert called a “Norfolk Biffin”, that I’d read about in a few apple reference books.
In post two earlier this year, a chance glance at a Tweet led to a deep-dive into the pomological history books as I set out ‘On the Trail of the Hereford Beefing‘. My aim was to investigate whether this other ‘Beefing’ apple was in any way related to, or perhaps even synonymous with, the better-known ‘Norfolk Beefing’.
Here’s what I’ll be talking about in post three, which I’ve split into two parts:
Part I – on the ‘Norfolk Biffin’ Dessert
— Where to Start?
The Modern-Day Biffin
— Biffins Online
— Biffins in Print
The Historical Biffin
— Charles Dickens’ Biffins
— Eliza Acton’s Biffins
— The Ancestors of the Biffin
— Maria Eliza Rundell and the Biffin Boom
— Industrial Biffins
— Mrs Beeton and Decline of The Biffin
Bringing Back Biffins
Summary and Conclusions to Part One
Appendix I – The Amazing Miss Biffin
Appendix II – An Assortment of Biffins
Part II – on the ‘Norfolk Biffin’ Apple (to follow)
As I wrote my Hereford(shire) Beefing piece it quickly became clear that the ‘Norfolk’ apple, with its wide array of synonyms, actually had much longer history and more storied background. My curiosity was aroused and a couple of questions, which lay outside the remit of that Hereford(shire)-themed piece, kept popping into my head:
- Which came first, the ‘Norfolk Biffin’ / ‘Norfolk Beefing’ (etc.) apple, or the ‘Norfolk Biffin’ dried fruit dessert?
- What should we really call the apple? Was it originally a ‘Norfolk Biffin’, a ‘Norfolk Beefing’, or… something else?
I rather thought that attempting to answer these questions might result in a few intriguing stories to tell; stories about how history, tradition, fashion and even politics can shape the way we think about even simple, everyday things like apples. And, of course, stories about the people who are involved with growing apples and cooking them (I’ll save cider-making for another time). So I went back into the online historical archives, to see what stories I could find.
The result is a pair of very long-read blog posts: this one and the second part, which I’ll be working on over the next few weeks and hopefully posting before too long. (I’ll provide links to it all over this post when I do.)
Part one rambles from the twenty-first century all the way back to the seventeenth, to put together a potted history of baked apple desserts, named “biffin” or otherwise. Part two will do the same for the apple variety; exploring the twists and turns of its nomenclature through the years.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to read all the way through part one, then please feel free to skip ahead to the summary and conclusions section for an overview of my findings and speculations.
If, on the other hand, you have an hour or so to spare, a big mug of tea and a slab of cake (or even a biffin!) to hand, then I hope you enjoy my latest attempt at amateur sleuthing. And if, after reading this post, you have any questions, corrections, suggestions, additions or general feedback for me, please feel free to leave them in the comments, right at the end, or you can email me directly.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Where to Start..?
Thanks to the research I’d carried our for my previous article, I already had a lot of information about the ‘Norfolk Biffin’ apple and its numerous synonyms. Whilst I was left with the feeling that there was still plenty more to discover, I decided to focus at first on the other half of the equation: the Norfolk biffin pressed apple dessert.
I started by checking to see what was said about the Norfolk biffin on that condensed fount of all online public knowledge…
There is indeed an entry for ‘Norfolk Biffin‘ on the site. I won’t quote it in its entirety, but if you’d like to cross-reference anything, I did download a pdf copy of the page as it stood in mid-March 2021 in case some enterprising person decides to radically update the entry at some point.
Here are a few apparent facts about the ‘Norfolk Biffin’ and Norfolk biffins, as presented by Wikipedia and paraphrased by yours truly:
- The ‘Norfolk Biffin’ (a.k.a. ‘Norfolk Beefing’) is a Norfolk apple cultivar, with several synonyms.
- ‘Norfolk Biffins’ dried in the oven were known as “biffins”.
- ‘Norfolk Biffins’ were popular with Norwich bakers for making biffins to sell to the London fruiterers as a delicacy, and were also used for cider making (quoting from the Chris Bowers website, which doesn’t in turn give a source).
- In a separate paragraph: in Victorian London, biffins were sold in fruiterers’ shops at Christmas. They were supplied by Norwich bakers, who cooked apples in their bread-ovens, “weighed down with an iron plate to exclude air” (citing a 2003 RHS Fruit Group Newsletter).
- An 1882 recipe suggests baking them wrapped in straw in a slow oven for four or five hours before pressing them gently, then baking them for another hour, pressing again, and when cold, rubbing them over with clarified sugar (another one from the RHS Fruit Group Newsletter).
- The ‘Norfolk Biffin’ has been grown for some 300 years and, with keeping, turns a deeper brown or maroon colour with harder, more solid flesh (this section slightly mis-quotes a Monty Don article from 2001; Monty wrote about harvesting apples called ‘Norfolk Beefing’, not ‘Norfolk Biffin’ – which might sound picky, but the distinction will become relevant in part two of this post – and it’s clear that the colour change was due to leaving them to ripen on the tree until mid-December rather than storing or keeping them… but the “300 years” bit is definitely his).
- Either “biffin” is a corruption of “beefing” or vice-versa.
- Robert Walpole used to have Norfolk Biffins (it’s unclear whether the dessert or the apple) sent to his house in London from his estate at Mannington, Norfolk.
- Norfolk biffins were mentioned by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son and Boots at the Holly-tree Inn.
- In 1845, Victorian food writer Eliza Acton recommended using the apple for baking ‘Black Caps par Excellence’ in her book Modern Cookery in All its Branches.
As we’re going to discover, and as I’ll recap in an overall conclusion, at the end of part two, some of the above is factually correct, some is slightly mis-quoted or at least of questionable accuracy, and some of it is just downright wrong. But it did provide me with a few additional jumping-off points and directions for investigation: Charles Dickens, Eliza Acton, Victorian fruiterers’ shops and Robert Walpole’s Norfolk Estate (more on this thread in part two).
The RHS Fruit Group
I also got in touch with the RHS Fruit Group and Alan Mansfield very kindly sent me a copy of the relevant section of the 2003 newsletter mentioned above. The cited article in question is entitled ‘Beefings, Biffins, Beefans’ and was adapted from an earlier piece by Martin Skipper of the East of England Apples and Orchards Project. It’s the cited source for a couple of the Wikipedia paragraphs, and provided some additional directions for further investigation:
- The Norfolk country parson and diarist, James Woodforde made frequent references to apples called “Beefans”, in The Diary of a Country Parson 1758-81.
- Pre-baked Beefing apples were widely sold as “Norfolk Biffin Cakes or simply Biffins.”
- Biffins cakes declined in popularity from the early years of the 20th century “despite the efforts of Gaymer’s, the Norfolk based Cyder-makers, to find a new market for them with Lyons of London”.
- The last Biffins were sold at the renowned permanent Norwich Market beside the ancient Guildhall, in the 1950s.
I’ll come back to all of the above in due course, as well.
Both the Wikipedia entry and the Fruit Group Newsletter article made it abundantly clear that the story of the apple variety and that of the dessert were so closely intertwined that it was going to be difficult to separate them. Nevertheless, I think I’ve managed to tease the narrative strands far enough apart to present coherently distinct histories of the baked dessert and the apple variety. As we’ll see, they intersect and merge at numerous points in the timeline, but I think there’s enough separation to focus on each in turn.
In this post I’ll be starting with the final course…
The Norfolk Biffin Dessert
All I really knew about the Norfolk biffin when I started researching was that it was a dried, pressed apple dish, local to and by all accounts hugely popular in Norfolk. I’d found references to the dessert alongside the ‘Norfolk Biffin’ (or ‘Norfolk Beefing’, ‘Norfolk Beaufin’, etc.) apple variety in a number of the sources that I’d come across in my research, but clearly I was going to have to look beyond the specialist pomological literature in order to paint a more detailed and accurate picture.
In my first blog post on the subject – The Norfolk Beefing / Biffin Dilemma – I’d already come across one or two modern day mentions of biffins that in turn referenced historical works that I could try to track down.
Let’s take a look at those modern sources first, as they’ll give us a good idea of what the Norfolk biffin dessert is all about.
The Modern-Day Biffin
Norfolk Biffins no longer seem to be produced on a commercial scale, at least as far as I can tell, although it wouldn’t surprise me if an artisan bakery in Norwich or London had revived them at some point. If you’re keen to try one  then you’re probably going to have to find a way to make your own. The good news is: there are several published recipes (or rather, methods, as you don’t really need a recipe per se for a dish with a single ingredient) for making dried Norfolk biffins, available both online and in print.
That invaluable resource for all things English food-related, Glyn Hughes’ The Foods of England Project, includes a page on Dried Norfolk Biffins. Whilst that page doesn’t provide a detailed biffin-making method, it does include photos of a pair of modern day biffins prepared by Alex Bray, who said they were “like caramelised apple purée in a dried apple skin” and who very kindly gave permission for me to reproduce their photos here:
I have to say, those biffins look rather delicious to me. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to try them.
Another example of a modern biffin was provided by archaeologist (of Flag Fen fame), author and TV presenter (of ‘Time Team‘ fame) Francis Pryor, who wrote about Norfolk biffins on his blog in November 2014. Francis said they were “[i]ncredibly complex with a wonderful lingering, aromatic aftertaste.” I haven’t been able to find any contact details so I haven’t been able to seek Francis’s permission to reproduce his photos, but it’s worth visiting that page to have a look at his finished biffins, as they’re quite different in appearance to Alex’s. Perhaps these two cooks applied slightly different baking methods, or left the apples in for different lengths of time, or the apples they used were at different stages of ripeness to begin with. It would be great to compare their notes.
I also found an old thread, dating from 2005, on the eGullet forum in which a couple of contributors discuss making biffins in a modern oven. One contributor has posted photos of the results of their endeavours; their biffins are a little closer to Alex Bray’s than Francis Pryor’s by the look of them. The contributor says they baked the apple (it’s not clear which variety they used) for 12 hours at 90°C and the finished product was “rich, creamy and delicious, tasting a little of cinnamon and cloves, slightly sharp. Unique.” Again, they sound delicious.
Biffins in Print
There are a few modern-era cookery books in which older biffin preparation methods has been adapted to make them work in modern ovens. The most recent is in the 2020 edition of Orchard Recipes from Eastern England by Monica Askay and Tom Williamsson (Amazon, £11.95), in which they suggest baking ‘Norfolk Beefing’ apples for a few hours in a very low oven, on a wire rack and a bed of straw, before being hand-flattened and then returned to the oven with a weighted baking sheet on top.
The accompanying photo in the book is of the pre-cooked fruit rather than the finished product, so it would be really interesting to see how theirs turned out. There are also some photos accompanying an article by Monica Askay on VillagePeople.info in which she talks about biffins and “black caps” (more on those later), but although the second pic is captioned “biffins”, the apple dish pictured is defintely one of black caps.
In Food With the Famous (1979, out of print, second-hand via Amazon), Jane Grigson refers to Parson James Woodforde’s country diaries and Mary Norwak’s East Anglian Recipes (see below) when she recommends baking biffins in a “solid-fuel or oil-fired stove – Aga, Esse, Rayburn are ideal – but be careful to check that the temperature is between 55° and 60° (130° and 140F°) and no higher” for five hours, before pressing them and returning them to the oven for another hour. Grigson also says: “Aim for a juicy dryness rather than a leather texture” and points out (via Norwak) that if ‘Norfolk Beefing’ apples aren’t available, you can use ‘Blenheim Orange’ instead.
In East Anglian Recipes (1978, reprinted 2009, out of print, second-hand via Amazon) Mary Norwak provides a general description of biffins, in the chapter on ‘East Anglian Specialities’: “These dried apples are best prepared in a kitchen range such as an Age or Esse… Blenheims or Biffins are the only apples (Biffin is a Norfolk derivation of Beaufin) to use, and they used to be prepared in ovens cooling down from the baking of bread and confectionery, and were sold commercially in Norwich. They went into the ovens at 6 p.m. and stayed in all night.“
Norwak provides us with two biffin-making methods. The first she calls ‘Cottage Biffins’: baking the apples, wrapped in straw and placed on a wire-rack, in a very low oven for 4-5 hours, then hand-pressing them before returning them to the oven, finally glazing them with melted sugar once they’re done and cooled. This method has a long historical precedent, as we’ll discover.
The second method is called ‘Commercial Biffins’: packing a straw-covered tray with apples and then placing another tray on top of the fruit with a 10lb weight on it, and leaving the apples in the oven for 40-48 hours. This method, too, has a historical precedent, although it’s more recent than the first and I’ll be discussing possible reasons for that later on.
It’s worth noting that the terms ‘cottage biffins’ and ‘commercial biffins’ don’t seem to be explicitly used anywhere else in the cookery or pomology literature that I have access to, so I think Mary Norwak must have coined them herself.
Well, I’d say that’s the modern biffin well provided for. Time to move on to historical versions of the biffin. What’s the biffin’s back-story? How far back are we able to trace its origins? Let’s explore further.
The Historical Biffin
As we’ve seen via Wikipedia and one of that articles’ main sources, the RHS Fruit Group Newsletter, the Norfolk biffin has a long pedigree and a story that involves a cast of fascinating characters. We’ll start our exploration of that story with arguably the best-known character of them all:
Charles Dickens’ Biffins
One figure who looms large in the history of the Norfolk biffin is that most famous of Victorian-era authors, Charles Dickens.
Four of Dickens’ major works are usually quoted in connection with the biffin, Norfolk or otherwise, although the term ‘biffin’ appears in at least five of his books or stories, those being: Nicholas Nickleby (serialised 1838-39), Martin Chuzzlewit (serialised 1842-44), A Christmas Carol (December 1843), Dombey and Son (serialised 1846-48) and ‘The Holly Tree Inn' (first published in the Household Words Extra Christmas Number, 1855).
Dickens’ first ‘biffin’ mention isn’t directly connected with the apple, fresh or dried. In Nicholas Nickleby, Mrs Nickleby ramblingly recalls a “Miss Biffin”, who, it turns out, was a genuine (as in: not invented by Dickens) mouth-artist, born without arms or legs, who overcame her physical limitations to become a talented miniature portraitist. See Appendix I – The Amazing Miss Biffin for the story of this remarkable and talented artist.
In Martin Chuzzlewit there are two biffin references: the first in chapter 9 (issued April 1843), wherein “pudding-plates” are described as being filled with “Quarts of almonds; dozens of oranges; pounds of raisins; stacks of biffins; soup-plates full of nuts.” Although it isn’t explicit, the fact that Dickens mentions a ‘stack’ of biffins rather suggests a pile of the flattened, pressed dessert apples, rather than fresh apples, although the fruit could also have been stacked, of course. Note: Dickens says “biffins“, not “Norfolk biffins“, but I suspect this is mainly to preserve the rhythm and flow of the descriptive line (try reading it our loud, with and without the word “Norfolk” in the appropriate place, and you’ll see what I mean). The second reference is in chapter 28 (issued November 1843) in which Pip recounts an encounter with ‘The Viscount’ which includes a second mention of the artist “Miss Biffin”.
The biffins in A Christmas Carol (December 1843) are probably the best-known, and the most often quoted. In stave three, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Ebeneezer Scrooge on a tour of the seasonal sights of London, including the festive produce on offer in the fruiterers’ shops, “radiant in their glory.” Here’s what Scrooge sees:
“There were pears and apples clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags, and eaten after dinner.“
Again, it’s not one hundred percent clear whether Dickens is referring to fresh or dried biffins, but I think we can infer the latter. There’s the earlier mention of fresh apples by way of a contrast and, tellingly, the phrases “squab and swarthy” (meaning cushion-like and dark) and “the great compactness of their juicy persons“, both of which suggest the dried and pressed, rather than the fresh form.
In Dombey and Son the biffin is employed, as Christopher Stocks points out when he mentions the scene in Forgotten Fruits (2008), as an amusing simile, and one that clearly refers to the biffin dessert. In describing the despair felt by the parents of a young Mr Briggs at the state of their son’s education, Dickens says the lad’s “… learning, like ill-arranged luggage, was so tightly packed that he couldn’t get at anything he wanted” and as a result “[t]he fruit laboriously gathered from the tree of knowledge by this … young gentleman, in fact, had been subjected to so much pressure, that it had become a kind of intellectual Norfolk Biffin, and had nothing of its original form or flavour remaining.“
Finally, there’s ‘The Holly Tree Inn’, a Christmas short story or novelette published in an extra ‘number’ of Dickens’ own Household Words magazine. The story’s narrator, a traveller staying at the eponymous Inn in Yorkshire, is told a tale by a fellow named Cobbs, the ‘Boots’ (presumably the inn’s resident boot-cleaner, or general manservant), about his younger days as a retainer to a family of the gentry. In Cobbs’s story, two very young children decide to elope from the boy’s grandmother’s house in York so that they can get married at Gretna Green. They arrive by coach at “this identical Holly-Tree Inn“, where Cobbs was then working having left the family’s employ to seek his fortune. The kindly Cobbs then keeps an eye on the children and looks after them until the boy’s parents can arrive to fetch them home.
The relevant biffin scene occurs in the evening, when the girl (Norah, aged seven) is tired and teary and the boy (Harry, aged eight) says:
“‘Cobbs, do you think you could bring a biffin, please?’
‘I ask ask your pardon sir,’ says Cobbs. “What was it you ?—-‘
‘I think a Norfolk biffin would rouse her, Cobbs. She is very fond of them.’
Boots withdrew in search of the required restorative, and, when he brought it in, the gentleman handed it to the lady, and fed her with a spoon, and took a little himself.”
This time it seems very clear that the Norfolk biffin in question is the dessert, if only because it’s highly unlikely that the raw apple would be eaten with a spoon. It’s worth considering Dickens’ implication that Norfolk biffins would be readily available at a country inn in Yorkshire. This could either suggest that their popularity had spread far beyond their home county by whatever year the story was set in, or that Dickens was just using a bit of poetic license. Even so, he must have been confident that his audience would be familiar enough with the Norfolk biffin – if only from his other works – to appreciate the reference, especially as it seems he regularly read this piece on stage during his theatre tours and speaking performances.
Five mentions across an entire body of work doesn’t make Dickens a biffin fanatic, but they must have made an impression on him at some point, unless he just liked the sound of the word “biffin”. According to Lynne Mortimer, writing for the Eastern Daily Press in 2017, Dickens visited East Anglia “on many occasions” including those when “he reported an election in Ipswich and (apocryphally) a hanging at Norwich Castle“, presumably during his early career as a journalist in the 1830s. So it’s not impossible that he might have tasted and enjoyed a Norfolk biffin on one of his visits. Or he might have sampled them via one of the fruiterers’ or confectioners’ shops in London, as described in A Christmas Carol.
It’s quite difficult, from our modern perspective, to appreciate just how great an influence Dickens and his works had on the Victorian imagination; his novels, stories and magazines were all enormously popular and hugely influential. It seems to me quite plausible that one small side-effect of Dickens’ great influence was the popularisation and familiarisation of the humble Norfolk biffin. One piece of evidence for this hypothesis is that the word biffin was, according to searches on Google Books, employed as a similie, metaphor, character or place name, much more frequently from the 1850s through to the early twentieth century (see Appendix II for a few choice examples) than it was in the previous fifty years.
Dickens was not, however, the first to employ the biffin in a literary work. In 1839, Cornelius Webbe used the term to describe a scrunched-up hat in his story ‘A Further Account of Chumpy’ in Metropolitan Magazine vol 25: “…doubling up the cap he had brought with him into about the size of a biffin, such as you see at the confectioners’ shops“. Around the same time, in George Payne Rainsford James‘s novel The Gipsy, A Tale (1835) the opening paragraph uses a rather cumbersome extended metaphor to set the story at a time when pocket watches “in their decline from the fat comeliness of the turnip to the scanty meagerness of the half-crown, had arrived at the intermediate form of a biffin“.
Earlier still, in 1819, an epic poem by an anonymous author was published in The Literary Panorama and National Register. The poem was an ode to ‘The Dessert’ and in one rhyming couplet the poet praised “Pellucid plum and apricot opaque / The Norfolk biffin and the Savoy cake.” This second pairing seems to aim for maximum visual contrast; the fantastical form of the Savoy cake is about as far from the “squab and swarthy” biffin as you’re likely to get.
Assorted literary works, Dickensian or otherwise, obviously aren’t the only source of information on the biffin. We can find it, or ancestral versions of it, in a number of historical cookery books and manuals of household management. Let’s take a look at one of the more famous examples first; another of Wikipedia’s quoted sources.
Eliza Acton’s Biffins
After Dickens, some of the most frequently quoted (and, as it turns out, often slightly mis-quoted) sources for the ‘Norfolk biffin’ are the various editions of Eliza Acton’s best-selling cookery book Modern Cookery. The title of this work was Modern Cookery in All it Branches from its first (1845) to fourteenth (1854) editions and then Modern Cookery for Private Families from the “newly revised and much enlarged” fifteenth (1855) edition onwards. 
In the first through fourteen editions of the book there are three mentions of either ‘Norfolk Biffins’ (the apple) or Norfolk biffins (the dried dessert). The most-frequently cited is in Acton’s recipe for a baked apple dish called ‘Black Caps Par Excellence’, which begins with the instruction “Cut a dozen fine Norfolk biffins in two without paring them” and proceeds with coring, stuffing the apples with lemon or orange peel, pressing the halves together, packing several apples into a dish pouring over a mixture of brown and white sugar and sweet wine, and then baking them in the oven until the tops of the apples blacken slightly. Acton finishes with a further recommendation as to the best apples to use for this recipe: “The Norfolk biffin answers for this dish far better than any other kind of apple, but the winter queening, and some few firm sorts beside, can be used for it with fair success.”
The other two mentions confirm that Acton was also aware of the dried, pressed version of the biffin. In the next-but-one recipe in the collection, for ‘Stewed Pruneaux de Tours, or Tours Dried Plums’ we’re told that: “These plums, which resemble in form small dried Norfolk biffins, make a delicious compote : they are also excellent served dry.” And in a slightly harder-to-find passage in the introduction to the chapter on soups, Acton says: “Onions, freed from the outer skin, dried gradually to a deep brown, in a slow oven, and flattened like Norfolk biffins, will keep for almost any length of time, and are extremely useful for heightening the colour and flavour of broths and gravies.“
Note that whilst Acton was clearly aware of the Norfolk biffin dessert – which she might perhaps have encountered whilst living in Tonbridge, Kent, around 1827 – she didn’t see fit to include an actual Norfolk biffin recipe in the first fourteen editions of her book. This changed with the “newly enlarged and revised” edition of 1855. In this fifteenth edition, and later ones, we find repeats of the earlier Norfolk biffin references in connection with onions and ‘Stewed Pruneaux’, but the ‘Black Caps Par Excellence’ recipe (with the same wording) has been moved to a chapter of “sweet dishes and entremets” and in its place in the chapter on “dessert dishes”, we now find ‘Dried Norfolk Biffins’:
“The Norfolk biffin is a hard and very red apple, the flesh of the true kind being partially red as well as the skin. It is most excellent when carefully dried ; and much finer we should say when left more juicy and but partly flattened, than it is when prepared for sale. Wipe the apples, arrange them an inch or two apart, and place them in a very gentle oven until they become so much softened as to yield easily to sufficient pressure to give them the form of small cakes of less than an inch thick. They must be set several times into the oven to produce this effect, as they must be gradually flattened, and must not be allowed to burst : a cool brick oven is best suited to them.“
Here, Acton refers to the apple variety as the ‘Norfolk Biffin’, and therefore the dish as “Dried Norfolk Biffins”; suggesting that this recipe is specific to this one apple variety, rather than suggesting it as a more general method for drying apples. She also thinks they’re better left “more juicy and but partly flattened” rather than fully dried, as they are “when prepared for sale“. A drier, flatter end product makes sense if you’re going to be packing up your biffins in boxes in Norwich before sending them out to London’s fruiterers’ shops, but a juicier apple will most likely taste better than one that’s been left to dehydrate for longer.
What reason might Acton have had for omitting a recipe for dried Norfolk biffins from the first fourteen editions of Modern Cookery, when she was clearly aware of their existence? I think it’s probably because she considered the preparation of a dried apple to be so simple and basic a thing to prepare as to not require a recipe. Which then begs the question: what happened between the 1845 and 1855 editions to persuade Eliza Acton (or her publisher) to include a recipe for a dish that Acton had previously decided to omit?
I think Dickens happened. Or rather, it the massive popularity and influence of A Christmas Carol in the wake of its 1843 publication. Dickens is often credited with revitalising the celebration of Christmas and defining a great many Victorian seasonal traditions. If Norfolk biffins gradually became a part of that tradition over the decade or so following the story’s publication, that might have made the inclusion of a recipe for the newly-famous Norfolk biffin a potential selling-point for the new edition of Acton’s book..
Acton’s Modern Cookery was a hugely popular and influential volume, as its many editions over fifty years attest, and as Wikipedia demonstrates her recipe is still a reference point for modern writers on the biffin. But was Acton the first cookery writer to write about the ‘Norfolk biffin’, or were there earlier examples? Let’s see.
The Ancestors of the Biffin
The dried apple has a long history in cookery books and recipe lists; the earliest I’ve found online dates from 1617. In Sir Hugh Plat (or Platt)’s Delights for Ladies he says that the best way to dry apples is simply to slice them, put them on a platter and leave them to dry in the sun, covered by a fine cloth. It’s easy to imagine this basic method, or a variant of it, being employed for as long as people have harvested surplus fruit and wanted to store some for later use.
The earliest method that I’ve found for drying apples by baking them is in The Queen’s Closet Opened (1662), which also includes A Queen’s Delight, Or The Art of Preserving, Conserving and Candying (which was then published separately, or perhaps just re-titled, in 1671). Here ‘W.M.’ provides two methods for oven-drying apples or pears, either with or without added sugar. Both call for the cook to part-cook the fruit and then gently oven-dry them: “lay them upon on a paper and dry them on them bottom of a sieve” once the oven has cooled down to a low “drying heat“.
The same volume includes a separate method: “To Candy Pippins, Pears, Apricocks or Plums“. This involves peeling them, scattering them with sugar, putting them in an oven “as hot as for Manchet” (fine white bread), then pouring off the juices before turning them, adding more sugar and rosewater and repeating the process “three or four times, till they be almost dry” then laying them on a “lettice wire” (a wire lattice or rack, like a modern cooling tray?) or on the bottom of a sieve (which I assume would have been a flat, fine wire-mesh sheet, rather than a modern bowl-shaped sieve), in a warm oven “after the bread is drawn out, till they be full dry; so you may keep them all the year.”
The 1671 edition of A Queen’s Delight, Or The Art of Preserving, Conserving and Candying, author anonymous, suggests an alternate method “To dry Pippins, or Pears without Sugar“: “Take Pippins or Pears and prick them full of holes with a bodkin, & lay them in sweet wort three or four dayes, then lay them on a sieves bottom, till they be dry in an Oven, but a drying heat. This you may do to any tender Plum.” Pricking the pippins or pears over with a large, blunt-headed needle would allow the sweet wort (which I’m assuming would be the same wort obtained by boiling malted barley for brewing) to soak into the fruit, in an alternative to scattering sugar or drying them in their own juices.
A slightly different method was given in The Queene-Like Closet (1672) by Hannah Wooley. Here “old pippins” are peeled, cut in half and cored then boiled in sugar until “clear, and Syrup thick“, then taken out of the syrup and dried in the oven overnight before being turned and dried again. Wooley finishes by saying: “if you please to glister some of them, put them into your Candy-pot but one night, and lay them to dry the next day, and they will look like Crystal“. The end result sounds like an apple version of crystallised ginger, rather than a biffin, either with or without added glister.
Copies of, or variations on, these recipes (or ‘receipts’ as they were originally called) continue in a number of cookery books dating to the early eighteenth century. In The Whole Duty of a Woman, Or, An Infallible Guide to the Female Sex, third edition (1701) the cook is told that in order “To dry Pippins, an Amber Clearness“, they should peel and core Yellow Pippins and put them in a “bason of water“, before clarifying the same weight in sugar and boiling it “almost to a Candy height“, before drying the pippins with a clean cloth and putting them into the hot sugar to boil. Finally the pippins need to be laid in a broad dish and placed “in a warm Oven or Stove, turn them often, and at three days end they will be dry and Transparent.” Again, this seems likely to result in some form of crystallised apple rather than anything resembling a biffin, but three days in a warm oven is getting closer to what we might call the classic biffin method.
England’s Newest Way in All Sorts of Cookery second edition (1708) by Henry Howard contains the earliest specific recipe for ‘Black Caps’ (as included in Acton’s Modern Cookery 138 years later) that I’ve come across: pippins baked in wine and sugar until the tops scorch slightly and turn black. Howard also says: “[t]o dry Plumbs, Pears, Apples Grapes or the like: You must first preserve them;” which, according to an earlier recipe for preserving pears, means to boil them in a light sugar syrup. Then it’s a case of slowly drying them on a tin-plate over a stove, or in an oven if you don’t have a stove free, “observing ever to let them have their Stalks on“. Presumably this is to make them easier to take out of the sugar syrup during the preserving stage.
John Nott’s The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary, Or the Accomplish’d Housewives Companion second edition (1724) has several entries under ‘apple’, one of which is “To dry Apples : First, preserve them with their Stalks on, then wash or wipe them; lay them on Tin-plates and set them over a Stove, or in a gentle Oven, and turn them as you see occasion.” Which is essentially the same method provided by Howard.
Then, under a separate entry entitled ‘To dry Pippins’, Nott says: “Lay your Pippins in a Dish, set them in an Oven after Household Bread is drawn, let them stand four or five Hours, then take them out and lay them on Tin Plates one by one, and flat them with your Hand; do this twice a day, setting them in a warm Oven every Time until they are fully dry’d, then lay them up for Use.“
This, then, is the earliest example that I’ve so far encountered of the essential biffin method: slow-baking the apples and, crucially, flattening them by hand, then repeating the process twice a day until they are fully dried and can be stored for later use. Nothing seems to be known about the author, John Nott, except that in the introduction to the book he claims to have worked for a number of aristocratic families, so it’s impossible to say whether he might have been a native of Norfolk. But here’s the biffin, in all-but name, in print for what seems to the first time; definitely in Nott’s second edition of 1724 and quite possibly also the first, of 1723, unless of course it was one of the ‘additions’ mentioned in the frontispiece.
The next biffin-esque recipe comes from The Compleat Housewife: Or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion third edition (1729) by Eliza Smith. As well as the familiar sugar-preservation method, Smith provides instructions for drying pears or pippins without sugar. They are essentially the same as Nott’s, albeit with one or two distinct differences. For one, she says to “take a bodkin and run it in at the Head and out at the Stalk” and then bake them “but not too much” in an earthen pot, with “a quart of strong new Ale to half a peck of pears“; a ‘quart’ being a quarter gallon, or two liquid pints, and a ‘peck’ being two dry pints. The cook is also told to “tye white Papers over the Pot, that they” the pears “may not be scorched in baking“. Finally, “when they are baked let them stand to be cold, and take them out to drain, squeeze the pears flat, and the Apples the Eye to the Stalk, and lay them on Sieves with wide holes to dry, either in a Stove or an oven that is not too hot.” In the previous, sugar-laden recipe, Smith adds: “when they are quite dry, put them in Boxes with Papers between” and surely the same storage method was intended for the sugarless version.
Smith’s anti-scorch “white papers” were replaced with much cheaper clean straw in later recipes, and as we’ve seen straw is still recommended for use in most modern biffin-making methods. As for the strong new ale, that seems to be another version of the “sweet wort” used in A Queen’s Delight, although here it’s used as part of the baking process rather than as a pre-bake marinade. Perhaps it was also intended to prevent the apples or pears from scorching, as well as partially steam-cooking or simmering the fruit.
For the following eighty years, recipes for ‘Black Caps’ and methods for oven-drying pears, apples or pippins are repeated in various sources, often copied verbatim from whichever was the most popular cookery book of the day with very little innovation. One small variation comes in the form of “Green Caps”, made with under-ripe codlin apples, as an alternative to the more familiar Black Caps. In The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) Elizabeth Raffald, who served as head cook at Arley Hall in Cheshire before moving to Manchester later in life, recommends serving both Black Caps and Green Caps with “thick cream custard” which I think sounds like an excellent idea.
Another minor change in method appears in The Complete Confectioner or Housekeeper’s Guide, by Hannah Glasse, edited by Maria Wilson (1800) in which the cook is advised to dry apples by first boiling them in new ale wort (as seen before) on a slow fire for a quarter of an hour (which suggests simmering rather than boiling) and then press them flat before oven-drying them (which would increase the risk of splitting the skins, surely?) and, finally, they’re told to: “put them up in papers, in a box, and they will keep all the year.”
The next stage in the biffin’s development came courtesy of another hugely influential and most widely popular cookery books of its day, one that may well have only been eclipsed once Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery was published.
Maria Eliza Rundell and the Biffin Boom
In 1806, Maria Eliza Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery was published – originally under the anonymous authorship of “A Lady” – with the following bunch of baked fruit recipes, including one for “Dried Apples, or Pears”:
“Put them in a cool oven six or seven times, and flatten them by degrees, and gently, when soft enough to bear it. If the over be too hot they will waste ; and at first it should be very cool. The Biffin, the Minshul crab, or any tart apples, are the sorts for drying.“
Although the basic method is nothing we haven’t seen before, this seems to be the first time that the ‘Biffin' apple was specifically recommended for drying. Earlier baked or dried apple recipes had called for pippins, or codlins, or similarly non-specific types of apple, but here we have not one but two named varieties, alongside the fall-back of “any tart apples”.
According to Maria Elzia Ketelby Rundell’s biography she was raised in Ludlow, Shropshire; married a London silversmith; and was living in Swansea when she put together her book, which was first published in 1806. It seems plausible that Rundell could have encountered ‘Biffin’ apples that had been grown in Norfolk and sold by London’s fruiterers and grocers. And ‘Minshul Crab’ is an old Cheshire variety, so it’s entirely possible it could have made its way as far south-west as the orchards of Shropshire and the food markets of Ludlow, a mere sixty miles away. Perhaps Rundell was fondly remembering and recommending a childhood favourite, alongside a more easily available London-sold apple? Or of course, grafted trees of both varieties could simply have been growing at or near her home in Swansea.
Wikipedia informs us that Mrs Rundell’s A New System of Modern Cookery was the most popular cookery book of the first half of the nineteenth century: “Sales in Britain were over 245,000; worldwide, over 500,000; the book stayed in print until the 1880s.” Other writers certainly copied Rundell’s apple-drying method in their own works, including Elizabeth Hammond in her Modern Domestic Cookery, and Useful Receipt Book (1819), and M. Radcliffe in A Modern System of Domestic Cookery (1822).
Given the huge popularity of the book, I think it’s plausible that by specifically linking the ‘Biffin’ apple to the pressed apple dessert, regularly included in cookery books for the previous 80-plus years, Rundell could well have caused something of a boom in oven-baked, pressed ‘biffins’ in the one county of England in which the ‘Biffin’ apple was abundantly grown: Norfolk.
Is there any evidence for a boom or upsurge in sales around this time? Potentially so: by 1820 there must have been a healthy enough trade in biffins from Norfolk to London for a Norwich-based producer to decide it would be profitable to advertise their wares in the London Morning Post, as shown in an advert-clipping posted on the Dried Norfolk Biffins page of the Foods of England Project, which I’ve taken the liberty of borrowing:
“Norfolk Biffins – families may be accommodated with real DRIED NORFOLK BIFFINS, from 1s to 1s6d per dozen: in boxes, from fifteen to twenty dozen, carriage paid to London: those at one shilling per dozen are of an excellent flavour. Inclose a one pound note, and the change may be returned in the box. Nonpareils, from 12s to 18s per bushel: may be accompanied with half bushels. Address, James Gidney, St Stephen’s, Norwich.“
Note that James Gidney uses the phrase ‘real Dried Norfolk Biffins’, which suggests that other biffins were available which weren’t of Norfolk origin. Maybe these false biffins were made in London from ‘Biffin’ apples shipped in from Norfolk. Or, given the propensity of certain types of traders to cut corners in pursuit of a quick profit, maybe they were imitation ‘pseduo-biffins’ or ‘quick biffins’, made from any old apple, cooked in a fraction of the time. Whilst attractive enough to tempt the unwary fruiterers’ customers, they would have offered but a pale imitation of the flavour, texture and density provided by the genuine article, surely? Far better to buy the authentic Norfolk version from Norwich’s own James Gidney.
The ‘quick biffin’ hypothesis is supported by another method for drying apples that was published in the U.S. shortly afterwards, in the second edition of William Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle (1823):
“Take Biffins, or Orange or Lemon Pippins – the former are the best ; choose the clearest rinds, and without any blemishes ; lay them on clean straw, on a baking wire, – cover them will with more straw, set them into a slow oven, – let them remain for four or five hours, – draw them out, and rub them in your hand, and press them very gently, otherwise you will burst the skins; return them into the oven for about an hour, press them again, – when cold, if they look dry, rub them over with a little clarified Sugar.
Obs. by being put into the oven four or five times, pressing them between each time, they may be brought as flat, and eat as well, as the dried Biffins from Norfolk.“
Kitchiner’s method is the earliest I’ve found that recommends using straw whilst cooking the apples, presumably to protect them from scorching; much cheaper than using Eliza Smith’s ‘white papers’. As we can see, Kitchiner provided two cooking methods. In the first, rather than leaving the apples in a cooling oven overnight, the cooking time is much reduced to only a few hours in total and then these ‘quick biffins’ are glazed with sugar to give it a shine. In the second, a longer, more traditional ‘slow biffin’ method is suggested (although only as an observation); putting them into the oven (he doesn’t say how long for, but we can assume it’s the same four or five hours each time) “four or five times, pressing them between each time” which he says will result in baked apples that are as good as “the dried Biffins from Norfolk.” Perhaps Kitchiner’s ‘quick biffin’ method was the one used by the bakers of the lesser-quality biffins that James Gidney was implying his customers should avoid by buying his “real” ones?
[EDIT: 28.12.21] – I’ve just come across another reference to quick-biffin style dried apples in The New London Cookery and Complete Domestic Guide by ‘A Lady’ (who turns out to be Esther Copley, according to Google Books), published in 1827. Under ‘Dried Apples’ there’s a mashup of Rundell’s method, almost word for word, with the addition of Kitchiner’s detail of using clean straw during baking. Then, there’s a short addition at the end of the entry:
The biffin, the minshul crab, or any tart apples, are the sorts for drying, and the large baking pear. Most fancy-bread-bakers take in fruit to do, at three half-pence or two-pence per dozen, which answers better than doing them at home.
Which is an interesting suggestion that the quick-biffin method was pretty much common, at least amongst bakers of “fancy” bread. [End Edit]
Returning to the possibility of a biffin boom, there’s more potential evidence in Norfolk nurseryman George Lindley’s A Guide to the Orchard and Kitchen Garden (1831). Lindley describes the ‘Beaufin’ apple which, as we’ll see in part two (and have already seen in my Hereford(shire) Beefing post), is one of the many synonyms for the ‘Biffin’ fruit. After describing the apple, he tells us that:
“The Beaufin … [i]ndependently of its general use in the kitchen … furnishes a luxury at the table as a sweetmeat throughout the winter. Many thousands of these apples are dried by the bakers in Norwich, annually, and sent in boxes as presents to all parts of the kingdom, where they are universally admired.”
There’s no specific name given to the “sweetmeat” in question, but Lindley is clearly referring to biffins, and the use of the present tense suggests that production was still going strong, to the tune of “many thousands” in the early 1830s. Note that Lindley, a Norwich man through and through, didn’t call either the dessert or the apple a “Norfolk biffin” (although see part two for my theory on Lindley’s naming of the apple), but perhaps that was because the name hadn’t yet become a ‘brand’ per se even in Norfolk; James Gidney’s 1820 advertisement aside.
Esther Copley’s The Housekeeper’s Guide (1838) recommends drying apples or “large baking pears” using the same essential method suggested by Kitchiner:
As for suitable apple varieties, Copley provides us with a few suggestions: “Norfolk biffins” – this is the first time a cookery writer has specifically used the ‘Norfolk’ prefix for the name of the apple – “are the best, next to them the Suffolk biffins, Minshull crab , lemon or orange pippins ; or the large pearmain or Blenheim orange will be found excellent for the purpose“.
Copley also emphasises that, if the drying is to be done properly, the process isn’t a single-bake affair, concluding her recipe by saying:
“If this process is repeated three or four times, they will become as flat and as dry as those which are sold at a high price in the pastry-cook’s shop. To do them properly, requires two or three days. If the oven is at all too hot, they will be quite spoiled. The fancy bread baker’s generally undertake to do them at three-halfpence or two-pence a dozen. N.B. A baker’s dozen is always fourteen.”.
It’s worth noting that none of the authors in this section have given the name “Norfolk biffin” to their recipe. Instead they all recommend using ‘Biffin’ (Rundell, Kitchiner), ‘Norfolk Biffin’ (Copley) or ‘Beaufin’ (Lindley) apples to make some form of ‘Dried Apples’. There is an implication that the finest dried apples to be had are the “dried Biffins from Norfolk” (via Kitchiner) and these are the “real DRIED NORFOLK BIFFINS” (capitalisation as per the original) that James Gidney is selling, but only Gidney uses the actual phrase “Norfolk Biffins” to refer to the dessert. And of course there was that anonymously-penned epic poem of 1819, in which Norfolk biffins are contrasted with Savoy cake.
Based on the evidence available, I would suggest that the ‘Dessert’ poem and the advertisement are highly likely to be the first instances of the Norfolk Biffin ‘brand’, (and in Gidney’s case an attempt to establish an early form of the sort of local association that today is legally protected by PDO or PGI) status. The latter is likely to have been by far the more influential, so I think it’s fair to award James Gidney, (probably) Fruiterer of Norwich as the originator of the term ‘Norfolk Biffin’ as a by-word for high quality “dried Biffins from Norfolk”. It was this Norfolk Biffin brand that Charles Dickens and Eliza Acton then went on to incidentally popularise through their own writing.
That great champion of the ‘Beefing' apple, Dr. Robert Hogg, was also aware of the Norfolk biffin dessert and mentioned it by that name in several of his books. In the introduction to British Pomology (1851), in a section on the many wonderful foodstuffs made from apples he says: “Norfolk Beefings are that variety of apple baked in ovens, after the bread is drawn, and flattened to the form in which they are sold in the Shops of the confectioners and fruiterers.” Later in the book, Hogg describes the ‘Norfolk Beefing’ apple in more detail, saying: “It is extensively cultivated in Norfolk, where, besides being applied to general culinary purposes, the apples are baked in ovens, and from the dried fruits met with among confectioners and fruiterers, called ‘Norfolk Biffins’.“
An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy (1852) by Thomas Webster and Mrs William Parkes, included a list of “fruits and vegetables preserved, chiefly for the dessert [which] may be had in the shops in London“, where we find “Norfolk biffins and biffin paste”, which suggests that they were a regular feature of fruiterers’ and/or confectioners’ stock. The listing also suggests that the ‘brand’ was by now firmly established, with “Norfolk Biffins” used as the name for the product.
Of course, when a brand becomes popular, that’s when the knock-off imitators start to appear.
It’s almost inevitable that, as a delicacy or luxury foodstuff grows in popularity, somebody will work out a way to make it as quickly, as cheaply and therefore as inauthentically as possible, in order to gouge the most profit they can from unsuspecting purchasers. In the case of the biffin, we find what seems to be the first reference to the use of a weighted sheet placed on top of the apples – something that’s recommended quite often in modern sources, and is the basis for Mary Norwak’s ‘Commercial Biffin’ method in East Anglian Recipes (1978) – in The Frugal Cook by E. Carter, published in 1851:
“Dried Apples, or Norfolk Biffins. Put your apples head down (Russeting, Ribstone Pippin, or Pearmain) on an iron baking plate, cover them with another, placing on top of it two or three pound weights, put them into a very slack oven over night, letting them remain till morning ; repeat this three or four times, increasing the weight each time ; when carefully done, they will become quite flat without cracking the skin.“
This method, published eight years after A Christmas Carol and so well into a hypothetical Dickensian popularisation of the Norfolk biffin, could explain how the bakers of Norwich were able to produce so many thousands of biffins for sale every year. In what would have been quite a short window of opportunity, between the apples becoming available from orchards in November and the Christmas market, pressing many apples at once under a weighted iron sheet whilst they cooked, rather than doing each by hand every day between oven session, would have made definite economic sense.
It’s also interesting to note that E. Carter recommends using “Russeting, Ribstone Pippin, or Pearmain” apples, but doesn’t mention the actual ‘Norfolk Biffin’. Does this suggest that the author gathered their information from a mass-producer of ‘quick biffins’, who was happy to use whatever apples were suitable, rather than the authentic Norfolk variety?
Mrs Beeton and Decline of The Biffin
As times changed in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Norfolk biffin seemed to fall out of favour and fashion, despite Dickens’ final reference to them in ‘The Holly-Tree Inn’ in 1855. Around this time – in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and with the ongoing drive towards mass-production and standardisation in all walks of life – many new, colourful, conveniently packaged sweet treats were developed, mass-produced and marketed (to those who could afford them) and many new food concepts and types of produce were being brought back from Britain’s colonies. By comparison, the confectioner’s customers probably found the prospect of a dried, squashed apple for dessert rather old-fashioned and dull.
As well as sweet treats and confectionery, commercially produced cooking ingredients and time-saving, pre-made food products were making their way into kitchen store-cupboards. It seems likely that the prospect of spending four or five days laboriously oven-drying a tray of apples would have been distinctly unappealing to the ever-busy housekeeper, unless of course the master or mistress of the house demanded them.
Evidence of the biffin’s loss of popularity can be found in a very famous source: there’s no mention of the biffin, either dessert or fresh, in Mr’s Isabella Beeton‘s hugely popular and influential Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which was published in 1861, which became the best-selling cookery book of the era, and beyond.
Mrs Beeton did recommend a method for preserving apples, or any other sort of fruit, but it called for boiling them in copious amounts of sugar syrup, or scattering the fruit with loaf sugar whilst baking, rather than letting them cook in their own juices.
Beeton’s Book of Household Management does include one fruit- drying method: “fruits that have been preserved in syrup may be converted into dry preserves, by first draining them from the syrup, and then drying them in a stove or very moderate oven … on a sieve, and turned every six or eight hours, fresh powdered sugar being sifted over them every time they are turned.”
It seems that in Mrs Beeton’s opinion fruit could be oven-dried, but not without preserving them in plenty of sugar-syrup first, and then sprinkling them with more sugar when turning them, which if you recall is a method that goes all the way back to the likes of Hannah Wooley’s The Queene-Like Closet in 1672. Mrs Beeton’s separately-listed method for preserving pears also included a stint in the oven to dry them at the end of the cooking process, but once again it’s the simmering in syrup that’s the star of the show. ‘Jargonelle’ pears are recommended for preserving, but no particular apples varieties are suggested.
There are still a few mentions of the biffin to be found that date to the second half of the nineteenth century, but fewer inclusions in cookery manuals or recipe books, the market for which seems to have been largely dominated by Mrs Beeton. In How to Cook Apples: Shown in a Hundred Different Ways of Dressing that Fruit (1865), Georgina Hill says to bake “beaufin apples” in the by-now familiar manner: a cool oven, a covering of straw, hand-pressing and then glazing with syrup, and the same author repeats this method in How to Cook Potatoes, Apples, Eggs and Fish (1869).
There’s also a mention of biffins in an 1866 travel guide: Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, a Handbook for Visitors and Residents, by John Greaves Nall. Under ‘dialect and provincialisms’ we find: “BIFFIN. An apple peculiar to Norfolk, also called beau-fin. Its name is popularly said to be beefin, from its resemblance to a piece of raw beef.” As we’ll see in part two, it’s likely that Nall had read one of Robert Hogg’s books to pick up on the raw beef reference. It’s also noticeable that there’s no mention of the dried Norfolk biffin. Is this more evidence that the dessert had fallen out of favour by this time? Or that biffins were mainly a Norwich-based product, and the good people of Great Yarmouth weren’t as interested? It’s only one source, so it’s not conclusive.
Edit: 06.01.21 – I’ve come across another late C19th source that’s worthy of mention: Cassell’s Household Guide to Every Department of Practical Life (1873). In an entry under ‘Cookery’, the writer of the piece offers enough detail to suggest that they have at least a passing familiarity with the biffin: “Dried Apples (not Normandy Pippins) – The kind most in use for this preparation (for which Norwich has long been celebrated) is the Norfolk biffin (beau fin), a very late, hard-fleshed apple. Drying apples in this way is a work of patience, and is a speciality with certain confectioners. The apples, by pressure between weighted boards and the slow but long-continued application of heat, become perfectly circular cakes of dark brown flesh, enclosed in an unbroken skin.“
There are two mentions of biffins in Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (1883). The first: “Biffins – These apples are prepared by exposure to a very gentle heat, and the process is long. They require to be put into a cool oven many times, perhaps seven or eight, and to be pressed after each baking. If the oven be too hot at first, the biffins will waste, and the pressing must be slowly and gently done. The Red Biffin or Minshul Crab are the sorts selected for drying. They should be stewed either in milk or wine.” This entry clearly references Rundell, and there’s another, separate biffin entry, later in the volume:
“Norfolk Biffins, Dried – The Norfolk beefing, or biffin, is the name given to a hard, sweet apple well known in Norfolk, which is remarkable for being rosy coloured both inside and out, and which is prepared by being baked gently in the oven, flattened into the form of a round cake, and so preserved. Biffins may afterward be stewed, like Normandy pippins, or made into pies. They may be purchased ready dried, but if prepared at home should be baked very gently, taken out every now and then to cool, slightly flattened, and then put into the oven again. If great care is not taken they will burst, and so be spoilt. Probable cost, uncooked, 2s per pound.”
Perhaps two different Cassell’s editors worked on the two ‘biffin’ entries and didn’t swap notes, because in one entry the ‘Red Biffin’ is recommended and in the other the ‘Norfolk beefing, or biffin’. Or maybe a single editor just forgot to cross-reference their own notes, which I’m sure was easily done. It’s also interesting that the ‘Norfolk Beefing’ is described as a large, sweet apple, whereas most other sources seem to suggest that it’s only sweet enough for culinary use if stored until will into the new year.
There’s a brief entry on ‘Biffin’ in The Imperial Dictionary vol 1, John Ogilvie ed. Charles Annandale (1882) where, alongside a description of the apple variety, we find “2. A baked apple crushed down into a flat round cake; a dried apple.” Considering the apple description mentions the “Norfolk Biffin, Beaufin, Beefin or Beefing” but the second definition just has “a baked apple” this could suggest that by 1882 the authenticity of the original Norfolk biffin had all-but lost its meaning and now any old apple, if baked and flattened, was considered good enough to be called a biffin.
We also find the biffin referred to as a kitchen store-cupboard commodity in Garrett’s Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery (1890): “Dried Apples are to be found in the market under the name of Norfolk ‘Beau-fines’ (corrupted to ‘Biffins’) and Normandy Pippins; they are dried whole under heavy weights … In this state they can be kept in stock, and are very serviceable, seeing how readily they absorb moisture“. There’s irony here: this is actually the first mention that I’ve come across anywhere for the spelling “Beau-fines” (although I have seen the almost-identical ‘Beau-fin’ or ‘Beau-fins’) so clearly this is the corruption of the more traditional ‘Biffins’, rather than the other way around. And it seems the “commercial” method of making biffins was the better known.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, The Century Dictionary (1895) edited by Benjamin Eli Smith and William Dwight Whitney gives this appropriately condensed definition: “biffin (bif’in) n. [Also spelled beefin, beefen (and, by a false etym., beaufin, as if < F. beau, beautiful + fin, fine); a dial. corruption of beefing, < beef + -ing; so called from the red color of the apple.] 1. An excellent cooking apple cultivated in England, especially in the county of Norfolk. It is often sold in a dried and flattened condition. Hence – 2. A baked apple crushed into a flat round cake.”
However, as if to drive a nail into the biffin’s coffin, in 1884 a denial of the authenticity, even the very existence, of the Norfolk biffin was published in ‘All the Year Round‘. This popular magazine was originally launched and edited by Charles Dickens and then, after his death in 1870, by his son Charles Dickens jnr. Aside from Dickens’ own serialised novels, and those by a few other authors, the vast majority of the magazine’s content was published anonymously and so it is most likely impossible to say who penned the following passage, in a piece describing “A Cruise in the Norfolk Broads”:
“The thing I was most disappointed about in the matter of food, however, was ‘Biffins’. For many years I had seen ‘Norfolk Biffins’ in Covent Garden and wondered at them. ‘Now’, I thought ‘I shall see them in their native country, hear how they are made, and see who eats them.’ On my first enquiry for them I though I must be speaking to an idiot. Gradually, however, the dreadful truth dawned on me. Nobody even knew what they were. Nobody I asked, from whatever part of the county they came, had ever heard of ‘Norfolk Biffins’. They are evidently a brilliant invention of the Covent Garden people for disposing of their rotten apples. I know this must be so, for I tasted a ‘Norfolk Dumpling’, and no people could have invented both the biffins and the dumplings – there isn’t enough room for them in one county.”
Charles Dickens (snr.) is known to have written other pieces for the magazine besides the two novels he serialised in its pages, and several of his pieces were collected in a volume titled The Uncommercial Traveller after his death, so there’s a very, very slender possibility that he might have written the above. It does seem rather unlikely though, as it wasn’t published until 14 years after his death, unless perhaps it was something that he wrote as a younger man, in his journalistic days, or during one of his many literary reading tours, that had languished in a ‘pending’ file all that time.
Whoever did write it, you have to wonder at their motivation. Was it a genuine expression of surprise that the apparently popular and still-available (at least in Covent Garden market) Norfolk biffin had been so thoroughly forgotten in its home county? Or was it just a fictional prelude to the punchline: a dig at London’s market traders, who had maybe sold the author a duff biffin one time too many (as per my earlier speculation on cheaply-made pseudo-biffins)? Or could it have been a case of the Norfolk locals having a bit of fun at the expense of the London gentleman or gentlewoman who had gone up-country for the weekend? We’ll probably never know.
The county in which the biffin wasn’t entirely forgotten was Herefordshire. As we’ve seen, Robert Hogg and Henry Bull were doing their best to keep the ‘Biffin or ‘Beefing’ apple types in the public eye via the Herefordshire Pomona and Hogg’s other published works. And in 1886 The Garden magazine published a letter from W. Coleman, the head gardener at Eastnor Castle in Ledbury, Herefordshire, in which he talks about “neglected apples”, including the three ‘Beefing’, or as Coleman prefers ‘Beaufin’, types. He opens this section by saying “[o]ur county having become famous for ‘Biffins’, by the rediscovery of the handsome Herefordshire Beaufin, I must say a few words in their favour…” and goes on to say that the ‘Norfolk Beefing’ grows well in Herefordshire and that “[t]his is the variety which produces the dried fruits sold by confectioners as Norfolk Biffins.” Coleman’s use of the present tense could suggest that biffins were still a current stock item in the Hereforshire confectioners’ shops at least, even if they might have been falling out of favour elsewhere. Either that or he was just copying the sentence from Hogg’s various works.
After that, reprints of Dickens’ novels aside and apart from a few mentions of “biffin” as either a character or a place-name in various late nineteenth and early twentieth century novels (see Appendix II) the dessert biffin all-but disappears from view. It certainly doesn’t get much of a mention for most of the twentieth century, at least, not according to varying searches of Google Books and Archive.org.
There are various reports of biffins being sold in the markets of Norwich up until the 1950s, including the mention in the RHS Fruit Group newsletter that we looked at in the introduction, which I have no reason to doubt, but no verifiable source to cite as evidence. Even assuming these reports are accurate, it seems that by the middle of the twentieth century the biffin was all-but gone.
All though, is not lost. Thanks to a few intrepid bloggers and earlier authors of traditional cookery books and recipe collections, as well as the ongoing drive to digitise old, out of print and out of copyright volumes and make them available before they’re completely lost to posterity, the biffin has not been entirely forgotten.
I think it may even be ripe and ready for a revival.
Bringing Back Biffins?
Today, the likes of the discerning members and supporters of the Slow Food Movement – which encourages awareness of and interest in exploring and restoring traditional cooking methods, recipes and foodstuffs – could very well be the saving of the oven-baked, dried Norfolk biffin. Coupled with online content sharing by food-bloggers and social media mavens, I think there’s great potential for renewed interest in this fine old winter delicacy. Hopefully some influencer-level gastronomes will seek out, sample, recommend, Instargram the hell out of, and thereby increase demand for, Norfolk biffins and we’ll see more modern biffin baking methods and photos posted online. By all accounts they’re something of a taste sensation, so they’re likely to be well worth both the seeking and the making.
The main drawback is, of course, the very definite and unavoidable environmental issues surrounding the energy cost of small-scale batch-production of biffins. As I talked about in my very first post on the subject of biffins, it’s very difficult to justify leaving a electric oven on all night, maybe even for four or five nights in a row, just to slowly bake a one or two, or even a few apples.
Other alternative methods might present themselves – someone recently suggested I could use a slow cooker set to very low (which would still mean leaving an electric appliance running all night if not longer) but it seems the best chance for a biffin revival would be if a grower of ‘Norfolk Beefing’ apples were to partner up with an artisan bakery to make larger batches of biffins overnight, or over the course of several nights, once the bread ovens had been switched off for the day. Whether they choose to lovingly hand-press every ‘cottage’ biffin, or opt for the ‘commercial biffin’ weighted-sheet method of pressing the apples is up to them. Just so long as they don’t try to sneak out a six-hour, sugar-glazed ‘quick-biffin’ and claim it as the authentic article…
I have my fingers crossed that someone with the right crop of apples and someone with the right baking equipment will read this post at some point and decide to give biffin production a go. I for one will be first in the queue if they ever go on sale here in Manchester or for mail order anywhere in the country. (Take my money, send me biffins! It’s a win-win situation.)
Summary and Conclusions to Part One
(Please note: I’ll be providing an ‘overall conclusion’, answering the two questions posed in the introduction to this piece, and cross-examining that Wikipedia entry, at the end of part two.)
If you’ve reached this section via the rest of the post, then thank you so much much for reading this extremely long article. I do hope you found it interesting, informative, maybe even inspiring and my prose wasn’t too indigestible.
If, on the other hand, you’ve taken the short-cut to get here, here’s the promised summary of key points from all of the above, along with a general timeline of the story of the Norfolk biffin dessert, as best as I’ve been able to work it out.
Introducing the Norfolk Biffin
A Norfolk biffin is essentially a slow-baked, dried apple, which is gently pressed flat during the cooking process. Pressing the cooked fruit is the essential point of differentiation between a simple baked apple and a biffin. The process has two likely effects: to concentrate the fruit’s flesh and intensify its flavour, and to make the finished, fully-dried product easier to pack up in boxes for storage or delivery.
The (Condensed) Story of the Norfolk Biffin
There’s a long history of baking and drying apples, and other orchard fruits, which I’m sure goes back much further than the earliest in-print mentions I’ve been able to find: the sliced and sun-dried “Apples, Peares, Quinces, Wardens &c.” in Delights for Ladies, by Sir Hugh Plat(t) in 1636 and the dried, candied “Pippins, Pears, Apricocks or Plums” in The Queen’s Closet Opened by ‘W. M.’ in 1662, and a few others of the same era.
Throughout the eighteenth century, two main methods were recommended by cookery books and household management manuals: either preserving apples in sugar syrup – or sometimes ale wort or strong new ale (but never beer, that would have been too sharp and hoppy) – before oven-drying them; or going straight to the oven-drying, without the addition of syrup or sugar. Both methods usually called for the process to be repeated several times, often putting the apples into the bread oven as it cooled and leaving them in overnight, or at least oven-baking them for several hours at a time. And both methods were copied, often verbatim, from one cookery book to the next, with slight variations along the way.
John Nott’s The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary, Or the Accomplish’d Housewives Companion, 2nd edition (1724) was the first work to recommend pressing the apples flat by hand. Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife: Or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion, 3rd edition (1729) was the first to suggest storing the finished product in boxes, separated by papers.
It wasn’t until Maria Eliza Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery was published in 1806 that specific apple varieties were recommended for use: the ‘Biffin’ and the ‘Minshul Crab’, althoiugh she also said “any tart apples” were suitable. Esther Copley’s The Housekeeper’s Guide (1838) expanded the list to include ‘Norfolk Biffins’, ‘Suffolk Biffins’ (likely to be a synonym of the Norfolk variety), ‘Minshull Crab’, ‘lemon or orange pippins‘, and the ‘large pearmain; or ‘Blenheim orange‘.
In the meantime, the phrase ‘Norfolk biffin’ was used for the first time in print (that I’ve been able to find) in an epic poem on the theme of dessert, which was penned by an anonymous poet and published in The Literary Panorama and National Register in 1819. In 1820, “real dried Norfolk Biffins” were advertised for delivery in bulk from Norwich to London by James Gidney. George Lindley wrote about biffins in A Guide to the Orchard and Kitchen Garden in 1831, in which he said that ‘Beaufin’ apples were still being cooked into biffins, in their “many thousands” by the bakers of Norwich and sent in boxes to all parts of the kingdom.
I think this suggests that in the wake of Eliza Rundell’s endorsement of the ‘Biffin’ apple, for use in a baked apple recipe that already had a long pedigree, by the 1820s the term Norfolk Biffin had effectively become a brand name, indicating they had been authentically made in Norwich from the local ‘Biffin’ or ‘Beaufin’ apples.
Norfolk biffins may then have received a further boost to their public profile via the works of Charles Dickens in the 1840s and 1850s, with mentions in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843), A Christmas Carol (1843) and ‘The Holly-Tree Inn’ (1855) all of which linked them to the Christmas festivities.
A Dickensian popularity boost might also have prompted Eliza Acton to include “Dried Norfolk Biffins” as a recipe in its own right in the “new and enlarged” 15th edition of her best-selling Modern Cookery book iun 1855. The first fourteen editions, from 1845, had included ‘Biffin’ apples as a recommended variety to use when making baked, slightly scorched “Black Caps Par Excellence“. The dried version was employed as a similie when discussing dried onions and dried plums, suggesting that Acton was aware of dried biffins, but she may have considered an oven-dried apple to be too simple a thing to prepare as to require an actual recipe of its own.
From the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, biffins seemed to go into a bit of a decline. There are indications that less-authentic biffins, made from a number of different apple varieties, may have been mass-produced via ‘quick biffin’ methods – pressing under weighted baking sheets, or quick-baking then glazing them with sugar to give them an attractive shine – which might have diluted the Norfolk Biffin ‘brand’, maybe leaving biffin buyers with the bad after-taste of having been cheated by inferior imitations. New, attractively-packaged, sugar-rich treats were also being produced by chocolate and sweet makers, and these well-advertised products could have made a “squab and swarthy” baked apple seem rather dull and old-fashioned by comparison.
There was certainly no room for biffins, Norfolk or otherwise, in that most famous of Victorian cookery books, Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which was first published in 1861 and is still in print today. Despite accusations of plagiarism, particularly from Eliza Acton, Beeton’s came to dominate the household management manual market in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and perhaps Mrs Beeton’s lack of interest in the biffin may have contributed to its ongoing descent into obscurity.
There were a few mentions of the biffin here and there during the second half of the nineteenth century – Robert Hogg referenced them in several of his pomological works and they were still popular with at least one head gardener in Herefordshire in the 1880s – but by the early twentieth century they had all-but disappeared from the Great British culinary and cultural landscape, aside from modern-day reports of their continued sale in the markets of Norwich until the mid-1950s.
It seems it wasn’t until Mary Norwak’s East Anglian Recipes (1978), that the Norfolk biffin once more saw the light of day, in print at least and excepting the ever-present works of Charles Dickens. Norwak’s work was in turn a source, along with the 18th century diaries of Parson James Woodforde, for the section on biffins in Jane Grigson’s Food With the Famous (1979). Modern-day biffins have been baked, photographed and sampled; by Francis Pryor, Alex Bray, and perhaps others as well.
Now, perhaps the likes of the Slow Food movement’s interest in traditional, historical and more authentic foods and recipes, plus the legions of food bloggers and Instragrammers, might offer a glimmer of hope for a biffin revival.
There are issues surrounding small-scale biffin production; as I discovered when I encountered my own biffin dilemma last year, it’s difficult to justify leaving an electric oven on all night (especially for several nights in a row) to dry a couple of apples. But ‘Norfolk Beefing’ (the currently accepted name for the apple variety; again, much more detail to follow in part two) trees are available to buy from fruit nurseries and established trees can be found in heritage orchards (such as the one at Gressenhall Farm and Workshouse in Norfolk). And surely somewhere in that county there must be an adventurous artisan baker with a traditional bread oven that they’re happy to load up with apples, needing only to leave them in overnight once the day’s baking is done, for a few nights in a row.
If you have been inspired to try making biffins yourself, you might have to wait until next November or December to get hold of suitable apples to use, unless you’re lucky enough to have any ‘Norfolk Beefing’ or ‘Blenheim Orange’ in store that are still in top condition. But don’t let that stop you if you want to try using another sharp, tart apple before then. But not Bramley’s Seedling, they’re far more likely to collapse into foam than bake properly.
If anyone does decide to kick-start a Norfolk Biffin revival, please do let me know. You can leave a comment at the very end of this post, with links to your webshop or high-street address, or you can email me with all the juicy, biffin-y details and I promise to write up a blog post, just as soon as my first order arrives by post and I finally get to sample one.
Thank you once again for reading this history of the Norfolk biffin dessert – the long version, or the short – and if you do have any questions, comments, suggestions or corrections, the comments (below) are the place to leave them, or, again, you can send me an email if you’d rather mention something in private.
Next up: part two of this long-read piece will look into the history and nomenclature of the ‘Norfolk Biffin’ (or ‘Norfolk Beefing’, ‘Norfolk Beaufin’, etc. etc.) apple, most likely starting with a re-cap of the findings from my ‘Hereford(shire) Beefing‘ post, and then taking a deep-dive into the story of this fine old Norfolk apple.
It will probably take me several weeks to put everything together for that piece, so please do bear with me. I’ll be sure to post a link here when it’s live.
I fully intend to thank several people who have assisted me in the writing of this post, and will be doing so at the end of part two, in order to say a proper thank you to everyone at the same time.
As stated in the article, the photos of baked biffins in the ‘Biffins Online’ section are copyright Alex Bray and have been used here with their kind permission.
All other images and screenshots are, to the best of my knowledge, from public domain sources and/or out of copyright works.
Appendix I – The Amazing Miss Biffin
In 1784 in a small village in Somerset, Sarah Biffen was born without arms and with either no legs or ‘vestigial’ legs (descriptions vary, depending on the source). She nevertheless learnt to write, sew and paint with her mouth, which led to her parents “apprenticing” her to a man called Dukes, who then exhibited her at country fairs, where she mouth-painted portraits for paying customers; Dukes, of course, keeping the majority of the money and paying her a miserly annual stipend, in a distinctly Dickensian scenario.
In 1808 at St. Bartholomew’s Fair she painted a portrait for George Douglas, Earl of Morton, who was so impressed with her artistic talents that he decided to sponsor her to receive lessons from Royal Academy of Arts painter William Craig. She left Dukes’ dubious employ, took up residence in London and the development of her career was marked by the was award of a silver medal by the Society of Arts in 1821, as per the Transactions of the Society of Arts, vol 39: “Miss Biffin of the Strand was awarded a large silver medal for an Historical Miniature.“
As he fame grew her patron secured many prestigious commissions for Sarah, including “George III, George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in addition to many aristocratic families” (via lookingbackathistory.com), but when the Earl of Morton died
From then on her career and life seems to have undergone mixed fortunes. She remained, or was remembered as, enough of a celebrity to be indirectly mentioned in two Dickens novels. In The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (serialised March 1838 – April 1839), in chapter 37 (Feb 1839) Mrs Nickelby says: “‘The Prince Regent was proud of his legs, and so was Daniel Lambert, who was also a fat man; he was proud of his legs. So was Miss Biffin: she was — no,’ added Mrs. Nickleby, correcting, herself, ‘I think she had only toes, but the principle is the same.’“
The second reference to ‘Miss Biffin’ is in Martin Chuzzlewit, Chapter 28 (issued November 1843) when Pip recalls an encounter with a “rather slued” viscount, who ramblingly recounted: “There’s a lot of feet in Shakspeare’s verse, but there an’t any legs worth mentioning in Shakspeare’s plays, are there, Pip? Juliet, Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, and all the rest of ‘em, whatever their names are, might as well have no legs at all, for anything the audience know about it, Pip. Why, in that respect they’re all Miss Biffins to the audience, Pip.“
Both quotes suggest that Dickens thought Miss Biffin would have been well-known enough by his audience for them to appreciate the reference. Around the same time she was also mentioned in Burton’s Comic Songster (1837), in a spoken interlude within the text of lengthy comic song ‘The Humours of a Country Fair’: “Here is the wonderful Miss Biffin, without legs or arms, considered to be the wonder of the world…”
In 1844, in Anecdotes of Actors, With Other Desultory Recollections, by Mrs Mathews (Anne Jackson) there’s a story called ‘Ingleby and Miss Biffin’. In this tale a stage conjurer, Ingleby, takes his friend, Miss Biffin, to the theatre to watch his performance. He seats her in one of the upper boxes and puts a cloak around her shoulders to hide her form from staring eyes, but then performs his own disappearing act at the end of the show and accidentally leaves her in her seat. This of course means that poor Miss Biffin is quite stuck and unable to leave, until a theatre porter discovers her when locking the place up for the night, after an embarrassingly amusing exchange in which he asks her to take his arm so he can escort her out of the building and she’s forced to reveal that she has neither arms for him to take or legs to walk away from her seat.
The story has a happy ending when the absent-minded conjuror finally remembers his charge and rushes back to the theatre to rescue her. And there’s no suggestion that this was a cruel prank played on Miss Biffin, but equally no way of knowing for sure whether the anecdote is a true recollection or an apocryphal one made up for the book.
The author of the tale does however provide a useful description of Sarah’s artistic talents: “…Miss Biffin, who – bearing some affinity to the Biffins of Norfolk – though curtailed without arms and legs, outran the generality of her sex in works of ingenuity, and handled a pair of scissors with as much dexterity as a Parisienne couturiere, ‘cutting out watch-papers and painting pro-files with nothing but her mouth’ and, in short, performing every possible thing in the most impossible way to any body, but Miss Biffin.“
Sarah moved to Liverpool and married a man named Stephen Wright in 1824, although the relationship only lasted around a year (rumours had it that he left her and took her money). When the Earl of Morton dies in 1827 her commissions dried up, and although she continued to paint under the name Mrs Wright she never quite achieved the same fame or success, and in her later life lapsed into poverty, despite a pension granted to her by Queen Victoria. She died in 1850, and an obituary appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine, or Monthly Intelligencer: “Oct 2. At Liverpool, aged 66, Miss Sarah Biffin, who though born without hands or arms attained considerable eminence as a miniature painter“.
In the modern era, Sarah Biffin is recognised as an extraordinary artist of genuine talent, who overcame her limitations to achieve an entirely justified reputation. The miniature self-portrait shown below, painted in the 1820s when Sarah was at the height of her fame, sold for £137,500 at Sotheby’s in December 2019. Sotheby’s own pre-auction estimate had been £1,200 to £1,800.
Art historian Philip Mould explained via a blog post why in his opinion the miniature sold for such a large sum: “The price took everyone by surprise, but I think the portrait represents much of what we admire today – a person with disabilities far more talented than many of her contemporaries, who, on the whole, would have been men. She represents such strength in overcoming not only the prejudice that would undoubtedly have been shown towards a professional female artist but also towards someone who would have been viewed as a circus freak. The odds were stacked against her at birth, but here we are presented with the image she made of herself, the image she wanted to present to the world. Here, she is viewed first and foremost as an artist, surrounded by the tools of her trade, including the brush tucked into her sleeve ready for her paint.“
You can see a gallery of Sarah Biffin’s miniature portraits – or at least, those that have sold at auction in recent years – at artnet.com.
As to her connection with the biffin dessert? The similie employed in that distinctly theatrical recollection of the absent-minded conjuror aside, there’s the intriguing switch of the second vowel in her surname. In the majority of references, she’s called ‘Miss Biffin’ rather than her actual name: ‘Miss Biffen’. I wonder whether ‘Biffin’ was a (rather unkind, possibly even slightly cruel) stage-name given to her by Dukes – or possibly she might even have adopted it herself – due to her compact form and a supposed resemblance to the squashed apples? Or, perhaps she spoke her name to a sign-writer at a fair who mis-heard, or mis-spelled it slightly, and the nickname stuck? Lacking source material it’s impossible to say for sure.
There’s also the intriguing outside possibility that the ‘Norfolk biffin’ dessert was actually named after ‘Miss Biffin’. It’s purely speculative on my part, but suppose an enterprising fruiterer, confectioner or hawker had been selling their pressed apple snacks at a fair at which Sarah was present, noticed the similarities of form between the fruit dessert and the artist, and decided to name the former after her another cruel jest? Or, if the apple-hawker already knew which apples the dessert was made from, might the similarity of their names have sparked the idea?
Again, without source material it’s impossible to say for sure, but to see whether this wild theory might have any substance to it at all, I’ll need to examine the timeline of nomenclature of the apple in more detail, which I’ll be doing in part two. I’ll return to the Sarah Biffen / Biffin connection in the summary of that post.
Appendix II – An Assortment of Biffins
During the course of researching this piece, I searched Google, Google Books and Archive.org for any mention of the terms ‘biffin’, ‘biffins’, ‘Norfolk biffin’ etc. and made note of as many as I could. Not all of them turned out to be relevant to the main body of this post, but I thought I’d share a few of the more interesting or amusing ones here, just to illustrate how the term is used comparatively more frequently post-Dickens than pre-Dickens.
Of course, these are just the examples I found via those online sources, which are always going to be dependent on their algorithm’s text-recognition capabilities, which in turn are dependent on the quality and legibility of both the original print and the scanned digitisation. I’m sure many, many more biffin references must exist online and in archived material elsewhere. If you come across any, please do let me know, via the comments at the bottom of this post, or by email.
1819 – Here’s a slightly longer section from that anonymously-penned epic poem ‘The Dessert’ (The Literary Panorama and National Register vol 9), to give you more of a flavour of the poet’s penchance for rhyming couplets:
“Lo! nodding branches bend with auburn fruit,
That grow all seasons, and all fancies suit:
The citron’s smooth, the pine’s hirsuter coat,
The cherry paste, the strawberry compote:
Pellucid plum and apricot opaque
The Norfolk biffin and the Savoy cake.”
1830 – Biffin was also a surname of the era, occasionally appearing in documentation such as military discharge records, court journals, and in the Proceedings at the Contested Election for the City of Chichester, the polling list gives three Biffins: James, John & Charles, all timber merchants of St Pancrass [sic].
1832 – The Metropolitan Magazine Volume 4 – The full version isn’t available on Google Books for some reason, but the visible excerpt from p. 421 seems to be a description of an old woman, perhaps from a short story or article: “her face was shrivelled up like a Norfolk biffin, her thin hair as white as snow…” Note the use of the Norfolk prefix, pre-Dickens.
1835 – As mentioned in the main body of the post, The Gipsy, A Tale, by George Payne Rainsford James includes the metaphor: “…when watches, in their decline from the fat comeliness of the turnip to the scanty meagerness of the half-crown, had arrived at the intermediate form of a biffin…“
1841 – In The Spectator vol 14 there’s a list of East India Shipping arrivals at Bengal, from London, including “Cassiopeia, Biffin” which presumably is ship called Cassiopeia, captained by somebody Biffin. Or perhaps owned by somebody Biffin.
1842 – Nuces philosophicæ; or, The Philosophy of Things as Developed from the Study of the Philosophy of Words, by Sir Edward Johnson is a philosophical treatise on language and linguistics, that employs the biffin to illustrate a key concept:
“…here lies the difference between general and particular terms … if I have in my mind the idea of a pippin, and I wish to communicate that idea to you, and if I seek to do so using the word apple, I shall be almost sure to fail in my object; since, although for the time being, the word apple means a pippin to me, it may excite in your mind the idea of a biffin; and therefore means a biffin to you, while it means a pippin to me … If a man, who had never seen or heard of any other apple than a biffin, were to ask another man, who had never seen or heard of any other apple than a pippin, what is the meaning of the word apple, the latter would take up a pippin and say, ‘it means this!’ But the other would then take up a biffin and exclaim, ‘no! it means this!” And thereupon those two men would go to loggerheads.”
1843 to 1848 – Charles Dickens publishes Martin Chuzzlewit, A Christmas Carol and Dombey and Son, with their biffin references.
1849 – Lacy’s Acting Edition of Plays, Dramas, Farces and Extravagances includes a play with a character called Mr Biffin or “The Biffin”.
1854 – In the story ‘Aspen Court’ by Shirley Brooks in Graham’s Illustrated Magazine of Literature, Romance, Art and Fashion vol 44
One character discusses a (presumably fictional) play (a farce) that changes its name to suit its local audience, so when played in East Anglia it’s called ‘Where’s my Norfolk Biffin?’
1854 – In an article in The Poultry Chronicle vol 1, the author describes the results of boys throwing stones at a toad: “the unhappy victim had assumed the form of a Normandy pippin or Norfolk biffin“.
1856 – In a story entitled ‘P.N.C.C.’ (President of the Nettleton Cricket Club) in Household Words vol 36, edited by Charles Dickens and therefore with an anonymous author, there’s a character called “Biffin Biffin of the oaks“, which is the first use of the double-Biffin that I’ve come across…
1857 – In The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, a young woman rushes her packing and in doing so “…jammed her best puce silk bonnet into a colossal facsimilie of a Norfolk biffin!“
1858 – In Ask Mamma, or The Richest Commoner in England by Robert Smith Surtees, a child (?) having a tantrum is described as: “…wrinkling his face up like a Norfolk biffin…”
1861 – In ‘The Seven Sons of Mammon’ by George Augustus Sala, published in Temple Bar magazine vol 3, a character is mentioned “…who had a face like an exaggerated Norfolk biffin…“
1865 – In Anthony Trollope’s novel The Bertrams there’s a character called Major Biffin.
1890 – In Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: A to Byz, by John Stephen Farmer, William Ernest Henley, they suggest: “BIFFIN, subs. (familiar) – ‘My Biffin!’ i.e. ‘my pal!’ A biffin is properly a dried apple: Norfolk biffins especially are considered great delicacies.”
1890 – In News From Nowhere by William Morris there’s an incidental character called Biffin and /or a place called “Biffin’s”.
1892 – Walks, Talks, Travels and Exploits of Two Schoolboys by John Christopher Atkinson, Harrison Weir describes “… four or five mice … which, from the nature of the trap they had been caught in, bore the same resemblance to field-mice as they usually appear, that the Norfolk biffins of the confectioner’s shop do to the same apple while still ungathered from the tree.“
1892 – In a novel called The Cross Roads, Or, A Choice in Life by Charlotte Mary Yonge, there’s a distinctly Victoria Wood-esque scene, in which the new housemaid meets her colleagues for the first time and receives a warm welcome: “‘Sit down; I’ve got a nice cup of tea for you, and then you shall go to your room, and take off your things, and be ready to see missus when she comes in from Vale Farm, which she is gone to about their Norfolk biffins for baking, being what master relishes most after supper, which, I have heard tell, that is you eat a roast apple the last thing before you goes to bed, you needn’t never call in no doctor.’
‘Apples is very indigestible things, and there’s always a canker in them biffins,’ returned the melancholy cook.“
|⇧1||Not that either of these questions is particularly important, or hugely significant. The National Fruit Collection database – the leading UK authority on apple nomenclature – confirms that the preferred name for the apple is now ‘Norfolk Beefing’. So that’s that. And instructions for preparing ‘Norfolk Biffin’ dried apples still crop up from time to time, both online or in nostalgia-themed recipe books. So nothing I discover is likely to have any great impact. But still, I couldn’t seem to let it go… and so here we are.|
|⇧2||A quick note on differentiating between the biffin dessert and the biffin apple: I’ve done my best to use Norfolk biffin or biffin (no capitalisation, no quote-marks) to indicate the dessert, and ‘Norfolk Biffin’ etc. (capitalisation, single quote marks) when referring to apples. I may have mixed them up at some point; apologies in advance if so, but I hope the context will make it obvious which one I’m talking about.|
|⇧3||Maybe even in the wake of this post? You never know, I might even do it myself (no promises!)|
|⇧4||Or, in my case, having spent this much time researching biffins without ever having had the pleasure of tasting one, really very keen indeed to try one…|
|⇧5||Please see above…|
|⇧6||…And one more time.|
|⇧7||If they went ahead and made any… perhaps, like me, they suffered a biffin dilemma and couldn’t justify the energy cost for baking a few apples.|
|⇧8||Surely a case of the website’s picture editor assuming without checking.|
|⇧9||As mentioned in the introduction in connection with the 2003 RHS Fruit Group Newsletter article on Biffins. This is a source that I haven’t been able to cross-reference in detail. Although the Parson’s diaries were written between 1759 and 1802, so theoretically they should be out of copyright, they weren’t published until the early twentieth century and the originals don’t seem to have been digitised by any of the usual online archive sources. The Parson Woodforde Society sells bound volumes of the diaries, and lists several (single volume, and so presumably abridged) versions published elsewhere, none of which I can really afford to buy and scour for possible references. The Society also provides an index to the diaries, but it only lists people and places, so it wouldn’t be any use for tracking down mentions of a particular apple dessert. I’ll return to the citations from the Parson’s diaries that I do have access to in part two.|
|⇧10||Mary Norwak didn’t directly cite her own sources, beyond talking in the introduction about several family recipe collections that she was able to access when writing her book – some of which had been handed down since the C18th and, as is the way of these things, most likely would have included copies and cuttings from all sorts of books, magazines and oral traditions – so it’s impossible to say whether the ‘cottage’ and ‘commercial’ biffin methods have a clear historical precedent in sources that Norwak had access to that are no longer widely available.|
|⇧11||a.k.a. ‘The Poor Traveller at the Holly-Tree Inn’, which I think comes from Dickens’ own reading performances, and ‘Boots at the Holly-Tree Inn’, from numerous later quotations and inclusions in Christmas etc. anthologies.|
|⇧12||I admit, I don’t have a primary source for this assertation, as I didn’t come across any of Dickens’ set-lists, so it’s more a general impression that I got from reading around the subject.|
|⇧13||Some of them remain so today, particularly A Christmas Carol, which seems to undergo a TV or film adaptation every couple of years (my own favourite is the industrial-gothic nightmare that was the 2019 TV mini-series version; I’m not sure if Guy Pearce got to see any biffins though).|
|⇧14||Although I admit I haven’t found any sources which might suggest they ever became a key part of Christmas dinner, or ever achieved anywhere near the same popularity as mince pies or sugared plums.|
|⇧15||Edit 06.01.21 I’ve since stumbled across a published edition of The Dessert, with the author credited as Hans Busk.|
|⇧16||Actually, the full title of the first edition was: Modern Cookery in All its Branches: Reduced To a System of Easy Practice, for the Use of Private Families, in a Series of Receipts, Which Have Been Strictly Tested, and are Given With the Most Minute Exactness. By the fifteenth, “Newly Revised and much Enlarged Edition” this has morphed to: “Modern Cookery, for Private Families, Reduced to a System of Easy Practice, in a Series of Carefully Tested Receipts, In Which the Principles of Baron Liebig and Other Eminent Writers Have Been As Much As Possible Applied and Explained.” I know what you’re thinking: much snappier.|
|⇧17||Or at least, it did according to the 1859 printing of the enlarged edition, which is the closest that’s available via Google Books or Achive.org|
|⇧18||Or rather, Dickens defined the seasonal traditions of the Victorian middle classes and gentry. The great numbers of the Victorian working poor who were crammed into the slum housing and killing themselves in the factories six days per week just to earn enough to feed their extensive families – the people whose plight Dickens also often wrote about – probably wouldn’t have been able to afford a single box of biffins, never mind a full-scale Dickensian Christmas.|
|⇧19||Admittedly, questions remain, mainly: why did it still take 12 years for a Norfolk biffin recipe to make it into the book when there were plenty of revised editions published during that time? Did Acton resist the inclusion? Was a fully revised edition too great an expense to for the publishers to justify? Or did it just take that long for the revitalisation of interest in Christmas tradition to reach the point at which biffins became a staple of the celebration, thereby justifying a recipe for making them? I haven’t discovered any descriptions of a Victorian Christmas that mention them, so perhaps they never were. Or was added impetus provided by the restorative biffin in Dickens’ story ‘The Holly-Tree Inn’ (December 1855)? It seems likely that the story would have been published after the 1855 fifteenth edition of Modern Cookery, but lacking access to a copy of that particular edition, I can’t conclusively say whether or not it included the ‘Dried Norfolk Biffins’ recipe or if that was added sometime between 1855 and 1859. Although, if the 1855 edition did include the recipe, it might explain why Norfolk biffins were so readily available for the children to enjoy at the Holly-Tree Inn in Yorkshire, in Dickens’ story; if the inn’s cook (in Dicken’s imagination) was in possession of the latest edition of Modern Cookery and had just made up a fresh batch…|
|⇧20||Even if it’s usually the 1845 edition that’s mistakenly given as the source for the biffin recipe, rather than the 1855 newly enlarged edition|
|⇧21||I think this is the first suggestion that dried apples could have a year-long shelf-life, which is quite remarkable in the pre-refrigeration era, if true.|
|⇧22||The ‘Golden Pippin’ is a very old apple variety that crops up numerous times in pomological works from around this time, so seems the most likely candidate.|
|⇧23||In 1710, the ‘Statute of Anne‘ was passed as an Act of Parliament. It granted authors a renewable 14-year copyright on their work, which they could sub-license to a publisher of their choice, with the work then becoming public domain if the renewal was allowed to lapse. However, recipes (or ‘receipts’) were not included within the terms of the Statute, so it wasn’t illegal to include direct copies from earlier cookery books when compiling your own. Plagiarism was therefore rifew with credit to earlier authors very rarely given, if ever.|
|⇧24||I mention this purely because I’m a 30 year resident of Greater Manchester myself, and have visited Arley Hall on a few occasions. The gardens there are absolutely superb, particularly the magnificent long borders in late summer, and I can highly recommend a visit to their twice-yearly plant fairs, once they’re allowed to resume.|
|⇧25||A reprint edition published 50-odd years after Hannah Glasse’s original work The Art of Cookery (c. 1747) and 30 years after Glasse’s death in 1770.|
|⇧26||The term ‘simmering’ doesn’t seem to have been common in historical cookery volumes. Instead, ‘boiling’ was used as standard, with the advised heat of the stove deciding the strength or rapidity of the boil.|
|⇧27||As we’ll see when I start looking at the apple variety itself in part two, there are two potential candidates for the ‘Biffin’ apple at the time, but one of those was definitely the ‘Norfolk-‘ version and the other, the ‘Striped Beaufin (or Beefing)’, was also a Norfolk-raised variety.|
|⇧28||Poor old ‘Minshul Crab’ (elsewhere: ‘Minshull Crab’, ‘Minchall Crab’ or versions thereof), doomed to obscurity as the Biffin’s star rose and rose… Never mind, there’s a rather superb old tree in the Apprentice House orchard at the National Trust’s Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire which is suspected to be a ‘Minshull Crab’, so it quite possibly lives on in magnificent growth, if not in fame.|
|⇧29||I wonder who the James Gidney in question might have been? There was a James Gidney (born in 1768?) who was discharged from the Royal Hospital Chelsea Pensioners in 1814. Perhaps this is the same James Gidney who was discharged from the Norfolk Militia in 1819, aged 50, (according to the National Archives). Did James leave the army and either start up or join a relative’s fruiterer’s or baker’s business? And was this ex-soldier making use of contacts made during his time as a Chelsea Pensioner to sell biffins in bulk to the traders of London’s Covent Market? Or had he just decided to cut out the middle-man by selling direct to families, via mail order? More likely it was ‘James Gidney, Fruiterer’, who was listed alongside ‘John Gidney, Fruiterer’ in Thomas Peck’s Norwich Directory of 1802 who placed the Morning Post ad in 1820. James and John seem to have been living or trading at separate street addresses, so either it was two branches of a family businesses, or they lived apart but worked in the same shop. They were apparently the only two fruiterers in Norwich at the time. Quite likely it was the same John Gidney, Fruiterer who is recorded to have died (or at least, his will was recorded) in 1836.|
|⇧30||Although we’ve got a source for a James Gidney, fruiterer in 1802, by 1820 the same, or another James Gidney could well have been one of those “bakers in Norwich” mentioned by Lindley.|
|⇧31||Monica Askay and Tom Williamson quote from Copley in Orchard Recipes From Eastern England (2020) and quite reasonably suggest that these would have been the ‘warden’ types.|
|⇧32||As covered in my Hereford(shire) Beefing post the ‘Suffolk Biffin’, a.k.a. ‘Suffolk Beaufin’ only appears in a few sources and seems most likely to have been a regional variation name for the ‘Norfolk’ apple, based on local pride rather than any clear difference in the apples themselves.|
|⇧33||Compare the prices mentioned to James Gidney’s advert of 1820: “1s to 1s6d per dozen: in boxes, from fifteen to twenty dozen“, which is 12 to 18 pence per dozen, if you order them in bulk for delivery from Norwich to London, versus “three-halfpence or two-pence a dozen” if you buy them from the (local?) “fancy bread baker’s” in 1838. I wonder if the price of biffins had fallen because supply had increased since 1820, or did Gidney’s higher prices reflect the additional cost of shipping, and/or the luxury status of the dessert?|
|⇧34||Fourteen, rather than thirteen? There’s a brief history of the baker’s dozen at Britannica.com, if you’re interested.|
|⇧35||Protected Designation or Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status is awarded to certain foodstuffs – for example ‘West Country Farmhouse Cheddar‘ cheese or ‘Melton Mowbray‘ pork pies – to prevent just anyone from marketing their own product as an “authentic” version. I for one would love to see a Norfolk producer making, marketing and then protecting ‘Norfolk Biffins’ with PGI status.|
|⇧36||Either that, or it was some completely anonymous print-setter, copy-editor or advertising copy-writer, working for the London Morning Post, who was tasked with putting a two word eye-catcher at the start of every small ad, and decided that “Norfolk Biffins” was the obvious one to go with…|
|⇧37||As we’ll see in part two, ‘Beefing’ is one of the many synonyms for the ‘Biffin’ apple and one that Hogg was particularly keen on.|
|⇧38||Hogg repeats this same observation in The Apple and Its Varieties (1859), as well as volume two of the Herefordshire Pomona (1876 – 1885) which Hogg co-wrote with Henry Graves Bull, and The Fruit Manual (1884), which could suggest that the biffin was still going strong by that time, or that Hogg or his publisher simply copied the earlier entry into the latest volume without reprising it. However in The Apple and Pear as Vinous Fruits (1886) – which was also edited by Bull but is dedicated to orchard fruit put to liquid, alcoholic use rather than cooked – Hogg doesn’t mention biffins, say only that “Apples and Pears may simply be dried whole; as, for example, the Herefordshire Beefing, the Norfolk Beefing, &c., &c.” Again, evidence of the biffin falling out of favour or just an edit to fit with the theme of the book? Impossible to say for sure.|
|⇧39||Biffin paste, y’say? But of course, biffins spread on crumpets! What could be finer with a proper cup of tea? Biffin for tiffin! Yum…|
|⇧40||Fry’s produced the first solid chocolate bar in 1847, milk chocolate became available from the mid 1870s, the Kendal Mint Cake Company was founded in 1880, Rowntree’s started selling fruit pastilles in 1881 and fruit gums in 1893, Basset’s Liquorice Allsorts debuted around 1899, and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk was set to revolutionise the sweet shop from 1905 onwards. I’m not saying that these sweets and many, many more like them definitely sounded the death-knell of the biffin, but it seems highly likely that their relative ease of distribution, of storage and point-of-sale display for the retailer, the producers’ advertising, and their equal attractiveness to the consumer, would have made boxes of squashed baked apples seem distinctly awkward and unprofitable to stock and sell by comparison.|
|⇧41||Isabella Beeton soon found herself on the receiving end of accusations of plagiarism by Eliza Acton whose Modern Cookery for Private Families was the source for many of Beeton’s recipes, but was nevertheless soon eclipsed in popularity by the newcomer.|
|⇧42||You rather have to wonder whether Mrs Beeton, or her publisher husband, had shares in Henry Tate & Sons…|
|⇧43||Two shillings for a pound of uncooked ‘Norfolk Beefing’ apples, compared to 1s 6d for a dozen dried Norfolk biffins in 1820? Well, that’s inflation for you.|
|⇧44||Here ‘beefin’ is familiar, whilst ‘beefen’ is a very slight variation I haven’t seen in any pomology sources, although it is one I’ll be looking at in part two of this article. Robert Hogg would definitely have approved of Smith and Whitney’s dismissal of ‘beaufin’ as a dialect corruption of ‘beefing’ and a product of a false etymology. In fact, they may well have used Hogg’s works as their reference.|
|⇧45||In 2014 Dr Jeremy Parrott purchased a 20 volume bound collection of All the Year Round and, on examining them when he took delivery, realised that they were Charles’ Dickens’s personal set, in which Dickens had added hand-written notes of which authors had written which pieces. Logically, if Dickens died in 1870 the set wouldn’t include notes on the 1884 ‘Norfolk Broads’ piece, unless Charles Dickens jnr. had extended the collection and continued the annotation. I believe Dr Parrott is writing a book on the subject, (which was meant to be published by Yale University Press in 2019, but which hasn’t appeared in their online catalogue just yet, so perhaps has been delayed) which might explain why there isn’t a handy guide to the contributors anywhere online that I can find…|
|⇧47||A new product line to add to your range, with a three hundred (plus) year old pedigree? What’s not to love?|
|⇧48||By now I really am very, very keen to try my first biffin and I’m tentatively planning to bake a whole tray or two, in order to justify the energy cost, next time our local deli has them in stock.|
|⇧49||If you don’t know who Victoria Wood was… wait, what am I saying? You’re reading the footnotes of a long-read blog post about an obscure apple dessert made from a specific Norfolk variety… of course you’re the sort of person who knows who Victoria Wood was ;)|