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The Essence of England: The Great British Biscuit

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The Essence of England: The Great British Biscuit

If you were asked to compile a list of the most quintessentially English of foodstuffs, then high up on the list would be the humble biscuit, accompanied of course by a steaming cup of tea.

The biscuit was not created in England, in fact, the earliest foods that could realistically be called biscuits originated in the Neolithic era, and were baked on stones, although according to archaeologists who have studied the period, we can’t be sure how exactly those early biscuits looked.

For the word biscuit itself, we can thank the French, although the word originally has a Latin root, and refers to twice-cooked bread. The Romans themselves were keen on biscuits, although their take on the snack was more like the rough and ready food we would call a rusk, and was produced through re-baking bread, which was one of the ways used to make sure that it lasted longer.  

The definition of biscuit remained hazy until the Middle Ages, when the word was used to refer more specifically to something that we would recognise. At that time there was an unusual yet fascinating  array of proto-biscuits eaten in England, which included wafers, which were made with a sweet batter and cooked over a fire. The other important development was that by this time, biscuits had developed into what was considered a dessert food, often eaten at the end of meals, as a ‘digestive’.

There was still plenty of demand for the traditional long-lasting biscuits, though these were most common in the Navy as the centuries wore on, as they met the need for solid and enduring food that would last for the long journeys associated with exploration and colonialism.

In fact, the staple diet of sailors in the 18th century consisted almost entirely of salted meat and biscuits, although it is important to remember that this was no dainty chocolate digestive. These biscuits were hard, so hard, in fact that they were almost inedible. They were designed to last and the oldest surviving biscuit is a ship’s biscuit that dates from 1784.  

The English biscuit was transformed thanks to the widespread availability of sugar from the middle of the 17th century. The arrival of sugar as a culinary ingredient had a major affect across all types of foods, particularly cakes and biscuits, as people experimented with different tastes and textures. At the same time, the influence of Italian and French cooking and the collapse of the guild system led to more people baking their own biscuits. By the Victorian era, biscuits were a widespread phenomenon in English life, and as major food companies began to mass produce them, the biscuit came within reach of most English people throughout the 20th century.

The habit of serving biscuits as an alternative to cakes and other sweets with English tea caught on and to this day, a cup of tea and a biscuit or two is a traditional mid-afternoon or morning snack. Many of the biscuits that English people enjoy in 2021 have a long and distinctive history, and it is remarkable how enduring their popularity has been. If you are new to the English biscuit tradition, here are six of the best biscuits to try this year.

Bourbon

The Bourbon biscuit is made to a simple but enduringly popular formula: two thin rectangles of dark-chocolate flavoured biscuit are sandwiched around a chocolate buttercream filling. The Bourbon biscuit was first produced in England in 1910 by manufacturer Peek Freans, which was based in Bermondsey in London. Originally, the biscuit was known as Creola, but the Bourbon name, which was taken from the name of the French royal family was added in the 1930s, and the biscuit has become immensely popular with generations of English tea drinkers and biscuit eaters.

In fact, surveys in the UK have found that the Bourbon is one of the top tea-dunking biscuits for English people. One interesting note concerning the Bourbon is that the small holes in the biscuit are not just a distinctive design but fulfil a useful purpose. The holes ensure that steam can escape during the cooking process, which helps to ensure that the biscuit doesn’t break up. Bourbons are popular in many countries around the world and are one of the most recognisable of English biscuits.

Custard Cream

The custard cream is another hugely popular biscuit, both in England and across the UK. Like the bourbon, it is a sandwich-type biscuit, but this time the filling is a custard-flavoured mixture. Originally, the filling used in these biscuits was buttercream, and this is still used in some home-made versions, but butter has long been considered an unnecessarily expensive product to use in biscuit filling, so the custard cream filling is now generally made with a mixture that produces a vanilla taste, making it close to the taste of custard that has been made with custard powder.

The custard cream predates the bourbon by two years, having been first seen in England in 1908, when the elaborate design on the sandwich biscuit sections helped them to stand out among the competition. There have been various versions of the custard cream, employing a variety of fillings, with varying popularity, ranging from lemon to coconut, but the custard filling remains dominant in one of the most popular English biscuits of all time.

Rich Tea

Rich tea biscuits have some similarities to the digestive biscuits, but this English product is a distinctive type of biscuit. It is a sweet biscuit, made with flour, sugar, malt extract and vegetable oil, and has a surprisingly long history. In fact it can be plausibly dated back to the 17th century. It is believed that the Rich Tea was developed in the county of Yorkshire, and was originally known as the tea biscuit, considered a light snack for the upper classes to dine on between their meals.


The rich tea has become one of the most popular biscuits in UK and is particularly good as a tea-dunker. Many supermarkets and biscuit makers produce their own varieties of the Rich Tea and the biscuit has also developed a surprising following on the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Malta.

Ginger Nut

Another biscuit with a long history, ginger nuts were reportedly enjoyed in the UK from as early as 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 many other parts of the English-speaking world, particularly in Australia and New Zealand.

The ginger nut’s hard texture makes it the ideal biscuit 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 to an even harder texture and can sometimes be moulded into different shapes before being baked.

Chocolate Digestives

Digestive biscuits coated with chocolate have long been popular throughout the UK and can feature milk, dark or white chocolate. First produced in 1925 and known as the Chocolate Homewheat Digestive, other varieties that have been seen over the years include the basic biscuit with chocolate shavings throughout, chocolate chip, caramel chocolate, orange-flavoured chocolate, or mint chocolate. So dominant has the chocolate digestive been in English culture, that in 2009, it was named as the most popular biscuit in the UK to dunk into tea.

Jammie Dodger

Such is the long established English biscuit tradition that the Jammie Dodger is the newest English biscuit on this shortlist, despite being made for the first time in 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 without a doubt the most attractive of their classic products.

The Jammie Dodger is based on a simple idea of bringing together 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.

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