There are few things more English than the traditional cup of tea and selection of biscuits, but the humble biscuit long predates the existence of England.
In fact, the earliest foods that could be called biscuits came from the Neolithic era, and were baked on stones, though archaeologists can’t be sure what form those early biscuits took. For the word biscuit, we have the French to thank, though it has a Latin root, referring to twice-cooked bread. The Romans themselves were partial to a biscuit, though their version was more like a rusk, produced through re-baking bread, ensuring that it would keep for longer.
By the height of the Middle Ages, the definition of biscuit had become more refined, as had the variety of biscuit types. There was a weird and wonderful array of proto-biscuits in England at this time, including wafers, made with a sweet batter and cooked over a fire. And by this time, biscuits had developed into a pleasurable food, often eaten at the end of meals, as a ‘digestive’.
There was still plenty of call for the traditional long-lasting biscuits, most notably in the Navy, where the need to develop enduring food for the long journeys associated with exploration and colonialism. The staple diet of sailors in the 18th century was salted meat and the biscuit, although this wasn’t exactly a chocolate digestive. These biscuits were hard to the point of being inedible, so its no surprise to learn the earliest surviving biscuit is a ship’s biscuit from 1784.
The more widespread availability of sugar from the middle of the 17th century, made possible through the horrors of the slave trade, affected all types of cuisine. This led to a degree of experimentation with biscuits and cakes, a development that was further fuelled by the adoption of Italian and French cooking influences, and the collapse of the guild system as more people started to bake their own biscuits. By the Victorian era, biscuits were widespread in English life, and as major food companies began to mass produce them, the biscuit came within reach of most English people.
Many of the biscuits that English people enjoy these days have a long history, and it is remarkable how enduring their popularity has been. Here are five of the best of English biscuits.
The Bourbon biscuit is a simple formula: two thin rectangles of dark-chocolate flavoured biscuit around a chocolate buttercream filling. It was first produced in England in 1910 by Peek Freans, based in Bermondsey in London, and was originally known as Creola. The Bourbon name, taken from the name of the French royal house, was added in the 1930s, and the biscuit has become immensely popular with English tea drinkers and biscuit eaters.
In fact, surveys have found that the Bourbon is one of the top tea-dunking biscuits for English people. Incidentally, the small holes in the biscuit are not just a distinctive design. They are there to ensure that steam can escape during the cooking process, so the biscuit doesn’t break up. Bourbons are popular in many countries, and are one of the most recognisable of English biscuits.
Another enormously popular biscuit, both in England and throughout the wider UK, the custard cream is another sandwich-type biscuit, but this time the filling is a custard-flavoured mixture. Originally, the filling was buttercream, and this is still used in some home-made versions, but butter is an expensive product to use in biscuits, so custard cream filling is now generally made with a mixture that has a vanilla taste, making it close to the taste of custard made with custard powder.
The custard cream predates the bourbon by two years, having been first seen in 1908, when the elaborate design on the sandwich biscuit sections helped them to stand out. There have been various versions of the custard cream, employing a variety of fillings, ranging from lemon to coconut, but the custard filling remains dominant in one of the most popular English biscuits of all.
Rich tea biscuits have some similarities to the digestive biscuits developed in Scotland, but this English product is distinctive. It is a sweet biscuit, made with flour, sugar, malt extract and vegetable oil, and have a surprisingly long history, dating back to the 17th century. It is believed that they were developed in the county of Yorkshire, and were originally known as tea biscuits, designed for the upper classes to dine on as a light snack between their meals.
The rich tea has become one of the most popular biscuits around, and makes an excellent tea-dunker. Many supermarkets and biscuit makers produce their own varieties, and the rich tea has also developed a following on the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Malta.
Another biscuit with a long history, ginger nuts were reportedly enjoyed in the UK from the 1840s and they were the best selling biscuit produced by the firm Huntley & Palmers between 1933 and the end of the Second World War. These days, they are widely eaten in England, the UK and in various other parts of the English-speaking world, particularly in Australia and New Zealand.
The ginger nut’s hard texture makes it perfect for dunking, which helps to explain its enduring popularity in England. And in fact, given how tough this biscuit can be on the teeth, a little light dunking is often advised to loosen it up. In some countries, ginger nuts are baked even harder, and are sometimes moulded into different shapes before being baked.
The newest English biscuit on the shortlist, but the Jammie Dodger still has a long history, dating back to the 1960s. It was first produced by the Burton’s Biscuits company, who have produced a variety of well known biscuits over the years, but this is the most attractive of their classic products.
The Jammie Dodger is based on a simple idea of sandwich of two shortcake biscuits with heart shaped holes that reveal a jam filling. The jam is often described as raspberry flavour although it is not technically raspberry jam, as it has to be sufficiently adhesive to keep the two biscuit halves together. The design is particularly distinctive and a throwback to an earlier time, referencing the Queen of Hearts from the Lewis Carroll stories. A particular favourite with children, the Jammie Dodger continues to hold its own in the extremely competitive English biscuit market.