The humble dumpling is a stomach-filling staple, but what exactly constitutes a Norfolk ‘swimmer’, asks Eve Stebbing.

The humble dumpling has mostly simmered away in culinary history in an unobtrusive if rather solid way, but, with Mary Berry recently advocating a return to such food staples, it is time to reassess these bubbling little buns. Few now remember that the word ‘dumpling’ was born in Norfolk at the beginning of the 17th century, where the dialect borrowed the low German word for ‘lump’ – an earthy name that perhaps robbed them from the outset of any possible glamour. Added to this is the fact that the initial purpose of a dumpling was to fill stomachs cheaply and distract attention from a probable shortage of meat in a meal.

However, what some may view as a parochial foodstuff does, in fact, have a cosmopolitan side. Dumplings are at home in any cuisine, having arisen in different cultures around the world, and seem to spawn a saying, story or anecdote wherever they surface. The Chinese dim sum is said to symbolise prosperity and the reunion of the family. The Italian ‘strangolapreti’ gnocchi, literally ‘priest strangler’, hints at far darker tales.

In Norfolk, where farmers’ wives still refer to themselves as ‘proper dumplings’, the doughy balls are synonymous with a love of good food and generous portions. The region is rightly proud of the delicate quality of its local speciality, even branding its dumpling the ‘swimmer’ because, when correctly made, it should rise to the surface of whatever liquid it is cooking in. The claim that it bobs so beautifully it can be used to keep up a fisherman’s nets may or may not be true.

What makes a dumpling a true Norfolk swimmer is hard to pin down. Butcher Michael Quinton, a Freeman of Norwich, looks blank on the subject. He was taught to make suet dumplings by Violet, a cook to The Queen at Sandringham, but she never mentioned the swimmer. She did put him straight on a number of matters, however, including the exact cooking time – 20 minutes – and the necessity to keep the mixture dry in order for the dumplings to be light. In perfectly preserved Heydon, where Norfolk traditions are strictly observed, ‘H’, the landlord of the Earle Arms, also makes his using suet. It’s adding horseradish, he says, that makes them such an excellent accompaniment to his beef stew.

Fortunately, some useful clues have been written down over the centuries by conscientious food writers. Hannah Glasse, writing in the 18th century, extols the virtues of the Norfolk ‘yeast’ dumpling. In more modern times, Elizabeth David accounts for the tenacity of the yeasted dumpling in the region with the fact that the bread ovens were kept alight until after the Second World War, leaving traditional cooking methods intact.

Retired baker Brian Tubby, however, seems confident on the matter and claims to know exactly what constitutes a swimmer – they were, apparently, made with the last of the bread dough. ‘Shape them up, leave them to rise for an hour and they’ll pop up nicely as they cook,’ he explains. And Mr Quinton’s suet variety? ‘Some say they’re from Suffolk – we called them “sinkers”!’ he laughs. Heavier they may be, but there is something just as satisfying about an unctuous and savoury suet offering as there is in the contrastingly light and fluffy swimmer bobbing in a stew, soup or sauce. Sink or swim? The choice is yours.

Norfolk swimmers

Recipe by Brian Tubby

Ingredients

  • 225g flour
  • 1tspn salt
  • 7g live yeast
  • Half a pint of warm water

Method

Combine the flour and salt. Put the yeast into the warm water, then mix with the flour and salt. Knead the dough to a dry but springy consistency, adding more flour if necessary. Cover and leave to rise. Shape up into four balls and boil in a 5-litre pan of water for 20 minutes. Makes four good-sized dumplings.