NORFOLK FOODS

DUMPLINGS
Here is an admission; I have never eaten a Norfolk dumpling. I don’t think many people have. There are plenty of recipe online which purport to be for Norfolk dumplings, but they are for plain dumplings and I have eaten many of those. These recipes all use baking powder as the raising agent, but a true Norfolk dumpling is made with yeast, so it resembles bread dough. In fact I think it likely that it was some of the dough that the housewife was using for baking bread that she reserved to put in the day’s stew to make dumplings. In the past yeast was much more common than baking powder, so this makes perfect sense. I don’t suppose the flavour is very different, but I would like to try a real Norfolk dumpling to be sure.

When baking bread was a common daily task it was no trouble set some dough aside for dumplings, but now making bread is rare cooking feat and the baking of a loaf at home is a special occasion; far too special for something as plain a dumpling to tag along as an afterthought. Norfolk dumplings differ from ordinary dumplings in having no suet as well as containing yeast. The yeast made them rise and float, hence their name of “swimmers”. One day I may persuade my wife to make me a real Norfolk swimmer. According to George Borrow Norfolk produced the best dumplings in the world and I don’t think his tongue was in his cheek; but he also said that Norfolk speech was the purest form of English -that may be true, but today’s Received Pronunciation must have evolved elsewhere.

RUSKS
As for Norfolk rusks, I have eaten plenty of them. There was a baker’s shop in the city which used to specialise in Norfolk rusks. They served them in paper bags with the name of the shop printed on them in red. Unfortunately I have forgotten the name of the shop, but even if I could remember it that fact would be of no use to you, because the shop has long gone. I do not think you can buy Norfolk rusks any more, nor Suffolk rusks either. There may be a farm shop somewhere in East Anglia where they are still available; if you know of any perhaps you can let me know. There is no difference between Suffolk rusks and Norfolk rusks by the way; only where they were made. A rusk is best known as the thing that children  are given to chew on when teething. I think Norfolk and Suffolk rusks are richer in fat than babies’ rusks, but they are basically the same dry hard biscuit.

BIFFINS
These apples too are no longer to be had; they sound a rather difficult fruit that had to be kept till March to be edible as desert apples. Norfolk Biffins used to be very well known. Back in Charles Dickens’s time they were popular as far afield as London. They are even referred to in A Christmas Carol. They were typically sold dried, which partly accounts for their disappearance; we no longer buy dried apples from the greengrocer, and only rarely from the health food store, which probably imports them. When I was a lad my father assumed that the variety had completely died out, but apparently you may still buy cultivars if you wish to grow Norfolk Biffins yourself. They certainly appear among the trees in the Gressenhall collection of apple trees.

CRABS
Perhaps the best local delicacy of all is the Cromer crab. In my opinion there is nowhere that the crab grows better in the world than off North Norfolk. On Guernsey they are very proud of their spider crabs, and in Whitby they grow the same species as we do, but neither have the exquisite flavour of the Cromer crab. The Yorkshire crabs are a dull brown colour as they lie there on the fishmonger’s slab. The pink and cream shells that sit appetisingly  in the shops of Sheringham and Cromer are only equalled in appearance by the rusty brown of the crab meat and the white flesh from the claws of the dressed crab. I would add the bloater to my list of local seafoods, but although they were very popular in East Anglia they were available elsewhere.

SAMFER – Samphire to the uninitiated. This plant of the salt marshes is not the true samphire which grows on the cliffs of Wales. It is more correctly called the glasswort, but not in Norfolk, where it is samfer. It can be eaten as a hot vegetable, but it is best served cold but cooked, with vinegar. It must be stripped from the inedible  part which grows through the middle of the succulent branches. Since it has been discovered by the rich holidaymakers it has become an expensive delicacy, but it used to be very low class vegetable indeed. It is still available free for those who know where to look for it. My mother-in-law grew up in Wells-next-the-Sea and knew all there was to know about samfer.

Annual Turkey sale at Attleborough, 1950.

Annual Turkey sale at Attleborough, 1950.

TURKEYS

The Norfolk Black was bred in this county and is the oldest breed in England. It differs from the wild turkey found in Mexico which has dark brown feathers. As long ago as the early 18th century tens of thousands of Norfolk Turkeys were marched south every autumn to be in London in time for Christmas. Norfolk is still the centre of turkey production in the UK. Nowadays the birds spend their whole lives indoors and you don’t realise how many are produced nearby. The turkeys grown on an industrial scale are not the traditional Norfolk Black but white turkeys. As with all such large-scale produce, the taste is not as good. For the real flavour of Christmas as it used to be, try a Norfolk Black, reared outdoors. Don’t expect this to be cheap!

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE

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