Crumbs! A history of biscuits in 15 fantastic facts – from flatulence cure to phenomenal fuel
Britons love biscuits. But how much do you really know about them? Here’s how they have been used for booze, breath fresheners and much more besides
No other country buys and eats more biscuits than Britain. In the last month of the national lockdown, shoppers spent an extra £19m on biscuits. There is a biscuit for every occasion: rusks for teething babies, party rings for birthdays, custard creams to dunk in tea, Penguins and Tunnock’s wafers for lunchboxes, water biscuits to eat with cheese. We even assign character traits to different varieties and use them to reveal our personalities. Politicians interviewed on Mumsnet are routinely asked to choose their favourite.
Britain’s favourite snack began life in the ancient world when slices of bread were dried to store them. The Romans called these rusks panis bicoctus (bread twice-baked), and so the original method for making biscuits is embedded in their name. Here are some more fantastic facts about biscuits …
1. You can make beer with them
The earliest biscuits were not made to be eaten. The ancient Sumerians dried slices of barley bread into hard, dry rusks to store the malted barley they needed for brewing. To make beer, all they had to do was soak the rusks in warm water to make a mash, sweeten it with honey or date juice and leave it to ferment.
2. The fig roll was invented as a health food
Medieval Muslims were the first to add sugar to the dough for twice-baked bread, and transformed biscuits into a luxurious health food. Sugar was seen as a medicine that kept the body in a perfect state of balance. The medieval Arab physician Ibn Butlan recommended eating biscuits filled with warming figs and nuts.
3. The first British biscuits were breath fresheners
The first biscuit recipe came to Britain in an Italian alchemy-cum-medical handbook. The instructions on how to make these “tasty morsels” could be found alongside plague remedies, tips on curing “the stinch of toes” and “how to find gold with salamanders”. The biscuits were hard sponge fingers flavoured with musk or aniseed and eaten at the end of a meal to sweeten the breath and suppress vapours rising from the stomach.
4. Biscuits were originally made to be dunked in wine
Seventeenth-century gentlefolk dunked their hard sponge fingers in the sweet wine served at the end of a meal. This is why sponge fingers, langues de chat and biscotti are long and thin: so they could fit into narrow glasses. Guests would be given special toasting biscuits, which had patriotic symbols such as coats of arms printed on them, to dunk in their wine before toasting the Prince of Wales or the Duchess of York.
5. Gingerbread men are modelled on Guy Fawkes
After the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, a new tradition spread through England. The biscuit figures sold at fairs were traditionally made in the likeness of Catholic saints, but after Guy Fawkes’ foiled attempt to blow up parliament, the bonfire celebrations that followed featured figures of him. People could now show their support for the Protestant cause by eating the papist villain. Hence, the association of gingerbread with Bonfire Night.
6. Biscuits are why Liverpudlians are called scousers
Ship’s biscuits were not meant to be eaten dry but first soaked and then used as a base for a stew called lobscouse, which was a standard meal for sailors. Scraps of whatever meat or fish was to hand were added: seamen in Lapland used walrus, the Germans used herring and the English added salt beef and vinegar. In Liverpool, “scouse” became such a common meal among the dock workers that they – and later all Liverpudlians – were called scousers.
7. Eating a biscuit relieves sin
At funerals, it was once common to place a biscuit on a corpse, which a mourner would eat before the burial to take on the sins of the departed. In Ireland, this ritual was adapted: each guest was handed a glass of wine and a biscuit across the coffin as they filed past to pay their respects. By the 17th century in England, all that was left of the custom was to serve the guests with biscuits and wine before the church service. For his brother’s funeral, Samuel Pepys calculated six biscuits for each person and as much burnt claret as they pleased.
8. The biscuit factory was born in Britain
In 1846, Huntley & Palmers set up the first designated biscuit factory in Reading. The journalist Henry Mayhew marvelled that: “Though we can imagine our stockings and ships’ blocks, and even pins and needles, to be manufactured mechanically … it does seem hard to believe how it can be possible to fabricate … ‘Ladies’ Fingers’ and ‘Tops and Bottoms’ by a series of cog-wheels and cranks.” By 1874, Huntley & Palmers was manufacturing tens of thousands of tons of biscuits and was the world’s largest biscuit manufacturer.
9. Queen Victoria refused to have a biscuit named after her
Association with royalty helped sell biscuits. Marie biscuits were named after a Russian duchess, bourbons after a French royal house, Albert biscuits after Queen Victoria’s husband. However, Victoria declined Huntley & Palmers’ request to name one after her. Perhaps she thought it would be too vulgar to have her name emblazoned across biscuit tins. The palace suggested that they should instead name it after her favourite home on the Isle of Wight – and so it came to be that Osborne biscuits were one of the most popular 19th-century biscuits.
10. Digestive biscuits were invented to cure an ‘epidemic’ of flatulence
If 19th-century newspapers are to be believed, Victorian gentlemen were martyrs to an epidemic of flatulence. McVitie’s is credited with having invented the digestive biscuit as a remedy for their disordered stomachs. In fact the idea that biscuits would cure “windy colic” was nothing new. In the 15th century, caraway biscuits were eaten to comfort the stomach. In 1892, McVitie’s added baking powder – thought to guard against indigestion – to sweetmeal biscuits.
11. Biscuits were the fuel of explorers
Industrial English biscuits packed in airtight tins that claimed to defy “time and climate” were a godsend for explorers. Robert Scott ordered special glucose-enriched biscuits from Huntley & Palmers for his ill-fated expedition to the south pole. Tins of these biscuits can still be seen on the shelves in Scott’s hut on Ross Island.
12. Got a tin? The sky’s your limit
Biscuits were sent out to shopkeepers from the factories in large square tins, which biscuit-eaters the world over put to a variety of creative uses. A Mongolian chieftain used one as a travelling garden to grow garlic to flavour mutton stew. Soldiers used them as stoves, washbasins and toilets. In Uganda, churches kept Bibles and prayer books in Huntley & Palmers tins to protect them from the depredations of white ants. They were made into musical instruments and even used to manufacture a coffin for Queen Victoria’s son-in-law, who died on a voyage home from west Africa.
13. An Australian biscuit company holds the world’s largest collection of baby photos
In the 1880s, the Australian biscuit manufacturer Arnott’s invented the milk arrowroot biscuit as a product particularly suitable for children’s delicate digestions. They then launched the first advertising campaign to solicit feedback from customers. Proud parents were encouraged to send in photographs of the healthy offspring they had raised on Arnott’s biscuits. Over the next 60 years, the company received tens of thousands of baby photographs. The winning entrants regularly featured in Arnott’s newspaper advertisements. Arnott’s now have one of the world’s largest photographic archives of sugar-fed young Australians.
14. In the 1920s, jazz clubs gave out party biscuits
Biscuits found new niches in the hedonistic world of the 1920s with its whirl of jazz clubs, dance crazes and cocktail parties. The biscuit manufacturers brought out ranges of cocktail biscuits and targeted the new milk and coffee bars. Just as biscuits had been presented as the ideal snack to pack for a bicycling trip, Excursion biscuits were presented as perfect to take on a motoring jaunt while Yacht biscuits were meant to be taken sailing. There were even Conversation biscuits, presumably to be sampled while chatting with friends.
15. The second world war made biscuits and tea into a happy couple
Sweet tea was the drink of choice for Britain’s working classes, but during the second world war, tea and sugar were rationed. Many complained that wartime tea was never sweet enough. And so biscuit manufacturers stepped in by supplying auxiliary service canteens so that firefighters, ambulance drivers and bombed-out civilians could get their sugar fix alongside rather than in their tea. By 1945, it had become a reflex to reach for the biscuit tin when the kettle went on.
Well, you can get biscuits (which in my mind are quintessentially a commonwealth thing) at the shop and also American style cookies... But they're all kinda cheap and I'm contemplating making proper American style choc/walnut cookies. So good with some milk and when it's cold out like now - Warm cookies are the best.