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Food Diversity Day – Norfolk Beefing apples and how to make Norfolk biffins

As part of Food Diversity Day, 13 January 2023, we are celebrating the Norfolk Beefing variety of apple and the importance of growing and eating a wide variety of apples in the UK. At the Food Museum we have 28 varieties of apples growing in our orchard and each year we celebrate the diversity of apples during our annual Apple Week in October half-term.

For this blog post we have invited Suffolk-based cook and food historian Monica Askay to share her knowledge of heritage apples and Amy Baker, learning assistant at the Food Museum, to describe her experience making biffins from locally grown Norfolk Beefing in our wood-fired brick bread oven.

Food Diversity Day is a new initiative which celebrates the UK’s most endangered foods inspired by the book ‘Eating To Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them’ written by Dan Saladino. For more information about the day and its programme of free online talks from high-profile chefs, bakers, brewers and wine-makers see their website: www.FoodDiversityDay.com

Norfolk Beefing or Biffins by Monica Askay

In Britain we have an extremely rich heritage of apple varieties. There are over 2,000 varieties in the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent. There is a really incredible range of flavours and textures, making apples extremely versatile in a whole range of dishes, both savoury and sweet.

There is a distinction between culinary (cooking), dessert (eating) and dual-use varieties. There are also some varieties grown specifically for cider making, although this is more of a West Country tradition. In Eastern counties, the cider tradition has been to use whatever apples come to hand.

The Norfolk Beefing or Biffin is an apple with a very distinctive appearance, flushed with a dark browny-purple red. It is a long-keeping and extremely hard apple with dry flesh which is rather bland when eaten fresh (initially culinary it is sweet enough to eat fresh by the spring). There is some dispute as to whether the name comes from the French ”Beaufin” or from its resemblance to the meat in its cooked state. To me, the skin does have a rather meaty appearance. It is a very old variety recorded in a fruit list from Mannington Hall Estate (owned by the Walpole family) in 1698. The hardness of the apple makes it ideal for drying, making excellent dried apple rings.

However, it is best known for the biffin (confusingly also another name for the variety). During the C19th biffins were extremely popular and were a Christmas delicacy, described by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, as part of a Christmas display in a fruiterer’s window. They were a Norwich speciality, prepared by bakers in their cooling bread ovens. They were cooked whole and gradually flattened and dried. Packed into boxes layered with sugar they were sent to London fruiterers or sent by post as gifts.  They are best dried in brick bread ovens so presumably changes in commercial oven technology led to their waning popularity and demise. They were still available commercially until the 1950s. A number of 19th-century cookbooks give instructions.

Norfolk biffins made at the Food Museum – By Amy Baker

First, we prepared our apples by washing them and removing their core. We placed some clean straw in a heavy-bottom baking tray and placed a wire rack on top. We put our cored Norfolk Beefing apples on the wire rack and placed a heavy baking tray on top. We then baked our apples in our wood-fired brick bread oven, but this method would work just as well in a conventional oven at home. The bread oven had been fired up that day to make pizzas with a school group, the learning team took the opportunity to use the end of the oven’s heat to bake our Norfolk biffins.

By late afternoon the oven had cooled to approximately 120°C, we placed the apples in the middle of the oven with a few heavy baking trays on top. The apples were then left overnight to bake low and slow in the last of the oven’s heat. In the morning, 18 hours later, the apples were removed from the oven and more weights were added to flatten the biffins further. The bread oven was a cool 40°C now, retaining its heat from being first lit the day before. Later in the afternoon, with around 24 hours in the bread oven’s heat, the biffins were removed.

Here is our first attempt at the Norfolk biffin, not as flat as we were hoping but very tasty. A tough skin with smooth creamy flesh, perfect to serve with thick double cream.  We look forward to trying again next Apple Week, October 2023, to celebrate our heritage apples.

With thanks to Paul Read for donating Norfolk Beefing to the Museum from his orchard, Home Farm at Thrandeston near Eye.


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