Essex Huffer Bread Rolls

baking huffers

The Essex huffer is a triangular shaped bread roll peculiar to Essex (some might say, not the only pecularity of Essex). Huffers are substantial and won’t fall apart, making them perfect for food on the move; tractor drivers can eat them one-handed during long harvest hours and huffers emerge relatively unscathed from the depths of a well filled walker’s rucksack. Eat them warm, filled with bacon and mushrooms or eat them cold filled with cheese and sweet tomato chutney.

Twenty or so years ago, when I decided to bake my own huffers, I couldn’t find a recipe anywhere and the huffers on sale in various Essex pubs and bakeries varied quite a bit. Some were dry and boring wedges of bread while others were light and fluffy. Some were baked as individual rolls, others batch baked and broken apart. The only constant was their triangular shape.

I delved a little deeper. The claim that the word huffer originates from a corruption of ‘half a loaf’ seems plausible (especially in an Essex country accent) as does the story of huffers being made originally for workers labouring all day in the fields.

If this is how huffers originated, it’s important to know a little history of Essex farming. In the late nineteenth century Essex was badly affected by the agricultural depression, which led to a great influx of farmers from other parts of England and most notably, Scotland. It seems logical that these migrant farmers and their families brought not only their different farming skills to Essex but also their food heritage with barm cakes and morning rolls, Devon splits and cobs. Maybe huffers are a variation on a traditional bread from another part of the country. Maybe somebody decided it was a lot quicker to make a large round of bread and cut it into sections instead of fiddling around making individual rolls. Or maybe it was the invention of an enterprising baker with a good eye for marketing. Who knows?

Whatever their origins, Essex huffers are delicious and my version is below. I make no claim for authenticity, other than my cultural heritage though for truly Essex huffers, you should use Marriage’s flour made with wheat from Essex farmers and Maldon sea salt.

Bread dough rolled out and cut into quarters for Essex huffers

The dough is enriched a little with milk and butter, similar to Scottish morning rolls. After proving, the huffers are shaped by rolling out the dough and cutting it into quarters.

Essex Huffer dough ready to go into oven

The huffers can then be fitted together on a baking tray or baked in the round using two round baking tins.

When baked and cooled, cut your huffer in half horizontally and fill. My favourite huffer filling is streaky bacon. Sometimes with lettuce and tomato. A fried egg makes a delicious, if rather messy, filling.

BAKING ESSEX HUFFERS


Essex Huffer Bread Rolls

Large, triangular bread rolls from Essex

Ingredients


280 ml just boiled water
60 g butter cubed
1 ½ teasp salt
200 ml milk
750 g strong white flour
1 ½ teasp fast action dried yeast

Directions

  1. Stir the butter and salt in the just boiled water until the butter has melted and the salt dissolved. Add the milk and set aside.
  2. Put the strong flour and yeast into a large bowl.
  3. Check that the liquid has cooled to hand temperature, pour it into the flour and mix together until all the liquid is incorporated.
  4. Leave to stand for ten minutes (it will make kneading easier) and then knead until you have a smooth, stretchy dough.
  5. Put the dough back into the bowl, cover and leave to rise for an hour or two.
  6. When the dough has doubled in size, tip it onto a lightly floured work surface, fold it a few times and then divide in half and form two tight balls.
  7. Leave the dough to relax for a few minutes and then use a rolling pin to roll into two rounds, each about 23 centimetres in diameter.
  8. Cut the rounds into quarters (or more if you prefer smaller huffers) and put them in the round into two greased, round 24cm baking tins or separate them and fit them onto a greased baking tray (30 x 38cm or larger), leaving a small gap between each. Cover and leave to rise for about 45 minutes.
  9. Bake for about 20 minutes at 230C or 25-30 minutes at 210C for a more chewy crust.

Once cooled, break the huffers apart and split each one horizontally to fill.


oilseed rape crop

On The Farm In April

newly planted Christmas trees

The weather has been good here, with some gloriously sunny days that have dried out the fields so that land work has resumed on the farm. We managed to plant 1400 tiny Christmas trees earlier this week, mathematically agriculturally marked out using a spade, old electric fencing posts and baler twine. Standing only 30 centimetres high, these should be ready for cutting down in 2023, which seems an age away.

teleporter

Today they’re spreading fertiliser on the fields, which means the teleporter is running backwards and forwards between the barn where the fertiliser is stored and the fields. The fertiliser is delivered in enormous 1 tonne bags that the teleporter picks up and transports to empty into the spreader.

oilseed rape field

The oilseed rape is coming into full flower, which is a wonderful sight for those of us who don’t suffer from hay fever. This old tap standing in the corner of the field is a reminder of when this field was grazed by horses. After the crop has been harvested in early summer, the rapeseed will be sent away for pressing to extract the oil. If you buy a bottle of vegetable oil with a picture of a yellow flower on the label, it’s rapeseed oil. I can’t help thinking that somebody should think of a better name for the crop.

cheese and bacon flan

Packed lunches for tractor drivers call for solid food. I gaze in awe at pictures of bento boxes with their delicate salads and pretty arrangements of fruit but I know that beautiful as they might look in the kitchen, after a few hours bouncing around in a tractor cab, they would look decidedly unappealing. Apart from that, packed lunches destined for the fields need to be eaten with a minimum of fuss, preferably one handed. An old fashioned cheese and bacon flan fits the bill perfectly.

Essex huffer

Huffers are regularly packed into lunch boxes for tractor drivers and also into my rucksack when we’re walking. My family often tease me that I must be glad when we’ve stopped for lunch as my rucksack must be considerably lighter when we’ve taken out the huffers and fruit cake. Cruel. But true.

farm buildings

As the days lengthen and I no longer feel the need to close the shutters and sit in front of the fire in the early evening, it’s good to wander around the farmyard when everybody else  has gone home and enjoy the last of the sunshine for the day.

Even if nothing is growing in the cold soil of the garden, it really does feel as though spring has well and truly arrived.

 


harvest 2014

combine harvester in great forest field

combining wheat in Great Forest field

 

Harvest is now in full swing. The first of the wheat was combined over the weekend and today it’s being loaded into lorries to be taken to the central co-operative grain store. Larger, more efficient machinery means that the combine can cut four times the acreage in a day than we cut ten years ago so that the combine is now working here for days at a time, rather than weeks. These days are spread over a few weeks and in the gap until the rest of the wheat ripens, the hedges and verges around the already harvested fields will be cut back and cultivations will begin for next year’s crops.

 

 

 
If you listen to The Archers, you may be under the impression that during harvest farmers have time to sit in the pub having a pint with their leisurely meal. If only. All too often, lunch and supper are eaten on tractors as drivers wait on the field headland watching for the flashing light on the combine to indicate that the tank is full and signal to them to drive alongside so that it can unload into the trailer. Balanced meals with at least  five a day fruit and vegetables are cast aside in favour of food that can be eaten one-handed while driving across a rough field without making hands sticky and can rattle around in the tractor cab all day without turning to mush. Beautifully presented bento boxes decoratively laid out with delicate fish and salads are definitely not on the menu. Instead, solid, old-fashioned food seems to fit the bill and some days as I pack up pork pies with a tomato and a hard-boiled egg, it seems like stepping back thirty years and needs only a bottle of fizzy pop or ginger beer to complete the picture.

 

 

packing raspberry crumble cake for evening cold boxes

packing raspberry crumble cake for evening cold boxes

 
Soft Essex huffers are more popular than chewy sourdough and while the raspberries are plentiful, I’ve been making Raspberry Crumble cake to slip into evening coldboxes when energy and concentration levels dip. Slightly sharp, juicy raspberries contrast with chunks of white chocolate, flaked almonds and a buttery crumble topping to make a cake that can be cut into sizeable chunks and won’t fall apart like a delicate sponge cake.

Click here for the Raspberry Crumble cake recipe.

Click here to find out how to make Essex Huffers