Britain takes the biscuit

We delve into Britain’s rich biscuit history to find out why we are so bonkers about these sweet treats.

When it comes down to it, we’re a nation of moderates (sorry, Jeremy Corbyn). Indulgence on a grand scale makes us anxious, particularly when it comes to sweet things. For most of us, tucking into a really decadent dessert feels a bit like coming home and finding your other half waiting for you in a bath full of rose petals fun in principle, but slightly alarming in real life.

Biscuits, on the other hand, are gloriously unthreatening. They’re the archetypal little bit of what you fancy and a perfect expression of our national character. And that, as the statistics prove, has earnt them a very special place in our hearts. Collectively, we ate some seven billion seven billion! biscuits in 2013.

Last year, a Waitrose survey reported that, if you lined up all the Kit Kat fingers people living
in Brighton get through in six months, they’d reach to the end of the city’s pier and back again. That’s an awful lot of wafers.

In spite of the boom that’s been seen in gourmet cupcakes and cookies, we remain stubbornly devoted to biscuits and not the sort of sugar-dusted, ganache-filled delicacies you find in grand European cafes, either.  No, we’ve always been much more partial to the plainer, Puritan varieties. Only in the UK could something known as a squashed-fly biscuit become a bestseller.

What’s behind it? Part of the appeal is the biscuit’s long and distinguished history. Back in the 17th century, when Britannia ruled the waves, dried roundels of flour and water were dished out to deckhands, a bit like rudimentary ration packs. They tasted of sawdust (being made
without salt, which attracts moisture) and were often so full of weevils that the sailors would have to tap them at the table to get the bugs out, but they became woven into the fabric
of our imperial story.

Back home, confectioners realised they could make a packet (so to speak) by selling the sorts of dainty sponge fingers that were all the rage on the Continent. Flour and eggs were whisked into light sponges that were baked, then returned to the oven to dry out, making it ‘twice-cooked’ or biscuit in French.

Fast-forward 100 years and, with sugar no longer a pricey luxury, biscuits had gone mainstream. ‘They really came into their own here in the 1840s, when afternoon tea became popular,’ explains Lesley Norris, the brain behind some of the best-loved biscuits at Yorkshire bakery Bettys. She’s an evangelist: ‘For me, there’s no stronger marriage than the one between a cup of tea and a biscuit.’

For Lesley, the biscuit’s appeal has a lot to do with the place it occupies in our personal pasts. ‘I remember coming home from school, grabbing a handful of milk-chocolate digestives and taking them outside with me to munch on,’ she recollects. ‘They were what I grew up on.’

The best-selling biscuit at Bettys is its Yorkshire shortbread, made with lashings of butter, but these melt-in-the-mouth morsels aren’t the only biscuits that are big news in God’s Own County. The same Waitrose survey that exposed Brighton’s Kit Kat obsession revealed that Yorkshire folk are potty about custard creams.

Launched in about 1908, these are very much a product of the Edwardian era: a decorous exterior conceals a vanilla-scented filling that’s ever so slightly exoticrisqué, even. And those swirls in the biscuits themselves are actually fern fronds (very William Morris).

So culturally significant is the Bourbon that it has its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (noun, a chocolate-flavoured biscuit with a chocolate-cream filling). Of all the biscuits we buy in bulk, it comes the closest to Continental sophistication and
its name hints at a rather glorious gilded past.

The truth is that, back in the 1930s, a manager at the Peek Freans factory in Bermondsey, south London, decided that  a chocolate buttercream sandwich called the Creola was long overdue a rebrand. Dusting off his history books, he alighted on a name that would suggest entirely falsely that it had once been nibbled by the ruling families of France and Spain.

Midlanders show regional solidarity by buying malted-milk biscuits, which were developed in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, shortly after the First World War, and in the tea-obsessed North-East, ginger nuts (next to diamonds, the hardest substance known to Man) reign supreme. This makes sense: you can only really get through one of them without breaking your teeth if you have a mug of something to hand for dunking.

Most intriguingly, perhaps, the Waitrose census showed that the rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge doesn’t just manifest itself on the river. Scholars in the two cities are apparently at loggerheads over whether the dark-chocolate digestive (Oxford’s preference) is tastier than its milk-chocolate cousin, the favourite in Cambridge.

I don’t know about you, but, for me, there’s something very reassuring although not entirely surprising about the fact that the country’s finest minds have pronounced views on this sort of thing. Pass me the tin, won’t you?

To dunk or not to dunk?

After conducting extensive tests, scientists from Guru magazine, led by Dr Stuart Farrimond, have discovered that, if you’re going to dip your biccies in a brew, a Rich Tea biscuit is the safest one to go for. Some of the country’s most famous biscuits were put through their paces under laboratory conditions.

Hobnobs, it was found, disintegrated the most rapidly, taking just four seconds to break up in a cup of tea. ‘The larger oat particles provide less structural strength to the biscuit,’ reported Dr Farrimond.

Rich Teas, however, were still holding up well after 20 seconds. The researchers also discovered that chocolate digestives are at their best when dunked for just three seconds any longer and the chocolate will melt completely and spread all over your fingers. If you’re planning to dunk, how hot should your tea be?

Dr Farrimond’s team recommend that you let it cool for three minutes to give your biscuit the best possible chance of making it to your mouth in one piece.