I must confess I find the sort of apples one buys in supermarkets rather boring. Yes, they look nice and they are generally sweet and crunchy, but isn’t life about more than sweetness and crunch? What about flavour and texture? What about contrast and subtlety? There are times I worry about the dumbing-down of British palates, eroded by the incessant onslaught of marketeers’ blandness. Yes, I agree 100%: by all means ban the smoking of cigarettes in cars with children; but I’d also make it a hanging offence to eat fast-food in front of impressionable youngsters. And people who give their babies chocolate deserve to be slowly… But I digress.
Now where was I? Ah yes, I was going to write about Biffins. ‘Oh no,’ I hear a groan, ‘Not Biffins: everyone knows about Biffins.’ Well for that tiny minority who don’t, a few words of explanation might be appropriate. To sum up. If you went into any bakery in Norfolk in the 19th (I nearly said ‘last’) Century you would probably encounter trays of Biffins. And soon they had become very popular in London and elsewhere. Essentially, Biffins or Beefings were oven-dried apples, but of a particular variety (the Norfolk Beefing), which can still be found in select nurseries today.
According to Wikepedia, the oldest recorded reference to Norfolk Biffins is 1807. We planted our tree about five years ago and this autumn it gave us two apples. In Victorian times, bakers would put their beefing apples into their bread ovens as they were cooling down after the main baking session, to make use of any residual heat. We used the warming oven of the Aga (which runs at just below boiling temperature). The bakers would weigh their apples down with trays and suchlike, so give them their distinctive flattened shape, but this takes a certain amount of practice to get right; and of course too much weight would split the skins – and the biffin then rapidly dries out completely – to a leather-like consistency. So I pressed our two apples at the end of the process, when we reckoned the skins would be good and tough.
We grow about 15 types of old apples in our small orchard and we know from experience that many traditional ‘keeping’ varieties (such as the 18th Century (1708) Ribston Pippin, which we’re currently eating), develop sweetness and complexity through time. The textbooks suggest the best months to eat various varieties, but in our experience this will vary hugely from one year to another. Frankly, nothing can beat a few exploratory nibbles. Too often we’ve left the starting of a box of apples until the ‘correct’ time, only to find them over-ripe and woolly in texture.
So first give the apples time to develop some taste and texture (we conducted our little experiment in early December). Then pack them tightly in fresh, dry hay (which you can buy bagged in pet and animal feed shops) in a dish or bowl. When you think they’re ready, press them carefully, while they’re still warm and flexible. Ideally they should be less than an inch thick, although I think ours turned out very slightly fatter. Or you can just place the bowl in the oven and check at hourly intervals. Failing that, you can do what we did: put them in the warming oven over-night, and hope for the best in the morning.
You can find recipes for cooking Biffins on the internet, but if you’ve gone to the trouble of making your own, I’d strongly suggest you eat them plain, without ice cream or custard. Frankly, they’re absolutely delicious. Incredibly complex with a wonderful lingering, aromatic aftertaste. Personally, I don’t mind eating tough skins, but some delicate modern mouths might find them a bit much. And I’d also leave the core (mindful of the fact that ripe apple pips are quite toxic if chewed). Oh yes, and a glass of port enjoyed with the Biffin is superb!
Incidentally, I wonder what Charles Dickens would have written about modern supermarket food?