It was a perfectly ordinary Wednesday. I was doing the weekly shop and had popped in to Village Greens, our local organic deli and greengrocer’s, to see if they had any interesting-looking apples.
And then, this happened…
Please excuse the slightly blurry photo, it’s probably because I couldn’t prevent my hands from shaking slightly as I snapped a pic. Because yes, that’s right, those are ‘Norfolk Beefing’1I know. It looks like the spelling says ‘Norfolk Boefing’. I really must ask them about that the next time I’m in… apples. And yes, I was exactly as excited as you can imagine.
I gently rummaged through the box to find eight of the best-sized and least bitter-pitted apples, before carrying my prizes to the counter, handing over my hard-earned pennies and then packing my purchases gently and carefully away…
Eh? What’s that? Why would the mere sight of these particular apples get me quite so agitated? Well… to cut a potentially very long story as short as I reasonably can: I have something of an obsession with ‘Norfolk Beefing’ apples – the long and storied history of which I’m currently researching – and the ‘Norfolk Biffin’ sweetmeat, that I wrote about, at quite some length, in ‘The Norfolk Biffin, A History, Part I – Biffin Desserts‘.
The thing is, despite having researched it for hundreds of hours and written thousands of words about the Norfolk Biffin, I still hadn’t actually tasted one. And it had been four years since I first (and last) saw actual ‘Norfolk Beeffing’ apples for sale – also in Village Greens – but at the time I decided I couldn’t justify leaving the oven on long enough to try to turn just the two I’d bought into biffins.
But not this time! This time, I decided that a tray of eight Norfolk biffins was going to feature in my near future, come hell or high water2It also helped that since 2020 we’ve had a solar panel array fitted to our roof. So by putting the oven on during the day I was able to make use of some of the generated power, and not have to feel quite so guilty about running up the bills. And here’s how I went about my first ever attempt at biffin-making.
First, Take Your ‘Norfolk Beefing’ Apples…
A “biffin” is the traditional name for a particular type of slow-baked, compressed apple sweetmeat. The term ‘sweetmeat’ can variously be defined as a small item of food made with, or covered in,. sugar or, as per the Collins Dictionary, “sweet items of food, especially ones that are considered special”. And to my mind, they don’t come much more potentially special than a Norfolk biffin.
The ‘Norfolk Beefing’ is one of the few apple varieties that is dense enough to be successfully cooked into a biffin. A lot of apples – particularly the only cooking apple you’ll find in most U.K. supermarkets: the ‘Bramley'(more correctly ‘Bramley’s Seedling’) – will bake to a soft, foamy texture, rather than solidifying into a biffin, and so to make the latter you really do need to try to get hold of the original ‘Norfolk Beefing’ variety. Or ‘Herefordshire Beefing’. Or possibly ‘Striped Beefing’3I actually have some doubts as to whether or not the apples I have are definitely ‘Norfolk’, rather than ‘Striped’ or ‘Hereforsdshire’, but no matter. It says ‘Norfolk Beefing’ on the label, so that’s good enough for me. or, according to some older recipes, ‘Minshull Crab’ (a.k.a. ‘Minchall Crab’), or ‘Blenheim Orange’, at a pinch. But if you can get hold of them, ‘Norfolk Beefing’ apples are absolutely the best ones to use.
Next, Bake Your Beefings into Biffins…
I decided that for my first attempt I would try to adopt a reasonably authentic(ish) “slow” biffin method; one that involves gentle cooking, followed by overnight cooling, then gentle hand compression, and a repeat of the same cycle a period of the following few days. There are “quick” biffin methods that involve putting an incrementally weighted tray on top of the apples to compress them as they cook, but I wanted my first attempt to be as true as I could make it to the sort of apple-drying process described by Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell in A New System of Domestic Cookery (1806):
“Put them in a cool oven six or seven times, and flatten them by degrees, and gently, when soft enough to bear it.”
Here are my selected ‘Norfolk Beefing’ apples, before I popped them into a non-fan electric oven:
I set the oven to an 80°C to 90°C temperature range4It’s not a digital oven, so the dial isn’t 100% precise., which I hoped would ensure enough heat to kill off any unpleasant bacteria, without it being so hot that the apples effectively boil in their skins and burst.
I cooked the apples for about 4 hours at this temperature, then turned off the oven and allowed the apples to cool overnight within. Here’s how they looked after the first day’s cooking and cooling:
As you can see, after one cooking-and-cooling session they’d started to brown up a bit, but were still recognisably reddish. I put them in the fridge for a few hours, before attempting to gently hand-press them to a flatter shape. That was a learning process, I can tell you. Not enough pressure and the apples barely compressed. Too much – as happened with the fruit in the bottom right of the pic – and the skin splits. I admit, I ended up erring on the side of caution and barely compressing them to begin with.
Next day I repeated the cooking and cooling process, with the oven set to the same temperature, and hand-pressing them in-between.
Here they are on after a second session in the oven, getting noticeably browner and with more wrinkly skins:
After the third session they had started to flatten a little more easily (and I had another splitter, top-right):
And finally, after the fourth session, the two ‘splitters’ were beginning to collapse a little, whilst the others were starting to compress nicely:
I could have continued to cook, cool and compress them for another two or three sessions, as per Rundell’s original “six or seven times” instruction, but my schedule didn’t really allow me to carry on with the process – I’d run out of my end-of-year annual leave days and was going back to work on the Monday5Actually, I was starting a new job on the Monday, but more on that in another post… – and so I decided to call a halt and see what I’d managed to come up with.
And the Results..?
Here’s the finished product:
And from an arty angle:
And with one on its side, so you can see the degree of flattening:
Well, they certainly looked like the biffin pictures I’d seen from other folks who’ve had a go at making them, including Monica Askay, Alex Bray, Francis Pryor (although his look like they were in the oven at a higher temperature, and/or for a fair while longer), and Amy Baker of the Food Museum in Suffolk (who cored her Norfolk Beefings before baking them).
Here’s what they looked like when sliced right through the middle:
And this is the peeled – the skin was a bit tough and chewy and I’m not sure it added anything to the eating experience – and cored version; ready to be gobbled up with a spoon as-is, or smothered in lashings of creamy custard first; your choice.
And the Verdict..?
Delicious. Absolutely delicious. A deep, super-concentrated apple flavour with a hint of cider and spice, even though neither were involved in the cooking process. I can honestly say, hand-on-heart, that this is the tastiest cooked apple that I’ve had to-date. I mean, spiced apple butter is another winner, don’t get me wrong, but for pure, unadulterated apple flavour I really don’t think I’ve had better.
But have I successfully made a true Norfolk Biffin?
Well… I have to admit, I’m not completely convinced that I have. The thing is, Norfolk Biffins are reputed to have been very long-lasting in storage. They were originally wrapped in paper, packed in boxes and shipped around the country, after all. So they must have to be able to survive the transportation process, arrive in good condition, and, perhaps most importantly, not poison anyone with botulism when they were eaten.
I think the “biffins” that I made were still a little on the moisture-retentive side. If you look again at that pic of the sliced-through biffin, you’ll notice an outer area of darker, firmer cooked apple, but the inner section, closer to the centre, is still quite glossy and shiny, and not fully dried out. I suspect that I either didn’t cook them at a high enough temperature – maybe 100°C to 120°C would have been better, to encourage more of the moisture in the fruit to evaporate away – or simply put them back in the oven another two or three times, as Rundell originally suggested, back in 1806.
Either way, I think I have to be honest and say that what I’ve made here is probably some sort of semi-biffin. It’s an absolutely delicious, slow-baked apple, and I’m going to thoroughly enjoy eating my way through the half-dozen I have left6Correction: sharing the last half-dozen with my beloved wife! (Please stop punching me on the arm, beloved wife, there are still some biffins in the fridge…)but it’s more of a dessert dish than a portable sweetmeat. I certainly wouldn’t want to try to store them for a while just to see what happened; I think the end result would be blue mould, and lots of it.
Perhaps these semi-biffins are closer to the “industrial biffins” or, as Mary Norwak called them “commerical biffins”, that I talked about in my Norfolk Biffin article? Although the industrial version was pressed under a weighted baking sheet, which is another thing I didn’t do… more testing is required, clearly!
To conclude: an interesting experiment, and pretty good results for a first attempt. I’ll definitely have another go at biffin-making at the earliest possible opportunity. Hopefully Village Greens will re-stock ‘Norfolk Beefing’ next year. And in the meantime, I’m planting up a half dozen ‘Beefing’ cordons – two each of ‘Norfolk’, ‘Herefordshire’ and ‘Striped’ – on my allotment, and already have a three-year old ‘Norfolk Beefing’ on the go, so with any luck I’ll be producing a decent crop of biffin candidates within two or three years.
But if there’s anyone out there who has access to a crop of ‘Norfolk Beefing’ apples and a traditional bread oven, then please, please give the classic, slow-biffin baking method a go, and then get in touch to tell me how you get on. I’d love to know what a proper, storable Norfolk Biffin looks, smells and above all tastes like.
And if you have any comments, questions or suggestions for my next round of biffin-making, please do feel free to let me know, via the comments section below.
- 1I know. It looks like the spelling says ‘Norfolk Boefing’. I really must ask them about that the next time I’m in…
- 2It also helped that since 2020 we’ve had a solar panel array fitted to our roof. So by putting the oven on during the day I was able to make use of some of the generated power, and not have to feel quite so guilty about running up the bills.
- 3I actually have some doubts as to whether or not the apples I have are definitely ‘Norfolk’, rather than ‘Striped’ or ‘Hereforsdshire’, but no matter. It says ‘Norfolk Beefing’ on the label, so that’s good enough for me.
- 4It’s not a digital oven, so the dial isn’t 100% precise.
- 5Actually, I was starting a new job on the Monday, but more on that in another post…
- 6Correction: sharing the last half-dozen with my beloved wife! (Please stop punching me on the arm, beloved wife, there are still some biffins in the fridge…)