Coming from Essex as I do, I like to think that I have at least some idea about local produce, and more importantly local traditional dishes. You know the kind of thing, Kebabs with Stella, Chicken and Chips washed down with WKD.
Ok, I admit it, I have been woefully under-educated on local dishes, other than the more seafood-orientated fare from the estuary part of the county where I grew up. One such blind-spot in my knowledge is bread. Of course, I’ve always loved the stuff, but until recently bread was simply a nice part of a wider meal – and to me didn’t really have any regionality. I don’t think this is that unusual, however – the proliferation of common forms of bread in supermarkets means that everyone has exposure to a wide range of different bread types, but as a consequence probably doesn’t have any idea about their provenance.
And so it was, that having moved to northern Essex, and starting to read other food websites, I started to notice a particular form of bread that I’d never heard of before – the “huffer”. It’s probably a fairly common form of bread around the country, but when referenced it seemed to always be called the “Essex Huffer” – so, that’s what it is to me.
Taking the form of what I can only describe as a wedge shaped bap, the huffer is usually a white bread with a light but firm texture, and a lovely soft golden crust. Their history remains a bit of a mystery to me, but given their size (they can be huge!) and ability to hold up to a bit of punishment, I would think they originate as a hearty lunch for people out and about in their work – farmers, labourers etc. In fact, one of the first places we found mention of them was on the excellent “Life in Mud Spattered Boots” blog – where they’re suggested for just that kind of situation!
They can, however, be a bit difficult to find these days – you might find the odd pub doing them for a lunch menu, but I’ve never seen them in a bakery. Indeed, the first place we managed to try them was The Griffin – a pub in Halstead, which actually has a lunchtime Huffer menu. And here they are!
Having tried them, we can confirm they make excellent (and quite hearty) sandwiches. The density of the bread holds up really well to chunky and heavy fillings, and the smooth crust means that the outside remains nice and firm even if the filling is a bit squishy!
Given I do like to do a bit of baking now and again, I decided to try my hand and see if I could rustle up a batch to try at home. Back to the “Life in Mud Spattered Boots” blog again, where Anne has very kindly provided a recipe. I can certainly recommend it – on the two occasions I’ve used it, I’ve had really excellent results. Pop over to Anne’s blog for the recipe, but here are some pictures of my first batch in process!
To say I was well pleased with the result would be somewhat of an understatement. By the time they were all done and cooled, it was time for some lunch, so we dove straight in and went for a huffer sandwich. But what filling to have?
Luckily, we happened to have some smoked mackerel from the Bullocky smokehouse in the fridge, so Lucy rustled up a quick mackerel pâté:
2 fillets smoked mackerel
1 tbsp mayo (we used Stokes)
1 tbsp half fat creme fraiche
1 heaped tsp creamed horseradish
1 tsp lemon juice
Remove skin from the mackerel and break it into pieces. Add the other ingredients, season, then mix together with a fork until everything’s incorporated and you have a rough pâté.
We garnished with a little watercress, then tucked in. Absolutely delicious.
Very soon afterwards, we tried huffers again when our parents came to visit – this time to accompany curried turkey burgers with a mango chutney dressing – and they were equally great there.
They really are a versatile and delicious bread, and I’d recommend you try them out, whether that means finding a pub that serves them, or indeed making them yourself.