The History of the Biscuit

May 29, 2020

The History of the Biscuit

Who doesn’t love a biscuit? It’s fair to say that at Artisans & Adventurers HQ many a biscuit has been nibbled upon whilst we’re busy packing orders or sitting down for our afternoon cuppa. So we were very excited to learn about a holiday we hadn’t heard of before - drum roll please - National Biscuit Day! Friday the 29th May marks what we think is one of the greatest days of the year, so pop the kettle on, grab your dunking biscuit of choice and let us run you through the history of some of the UK's favourite biscuits, as well as some of the most popular biscuits around the world. 

You may be surprised to know that biscuits aren’t a modern invention, in fact they have been around since the ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian empires! Biscuits were created back then out of the necessity for a high-calorie food to sustain merchants and military on long journeys across the sea. Fresh food would not last the weeks spent at sea and so captains needed to stock their larders with dried foods that wouldn’t go off. Food preservation methods were already fairly advanced in ancient times, and people knew that if you dried something out that it would last longer before perishing. So, millers began grinding up flours and then baking cooked bread on a low heat for a long period of time. This technique helped to preserve the nutrients but removed the water content, preventing mould from forming and so making longer-lasting foods. 

From that point, dried biscuit-like breads became a staple at sea. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, cooked up flat brittle loaves made of an old grain called millet. Later, the Romans created the first example of what we would consider a more modern idea of a biscuit. They spread wheat flour paste over a plate and then left it to dry and harden. Eating biscuits at sea remained popular in the middle ages. In fact, in the sixteenth century, the Royal Navy provided its sailors with a daily allowance of a pound of cookies and a gallon of beer to help them fight off the Spanish armada! 

The modern idea of biscuits as a sweet treat didn’t begin until the seventh century. The ancient civilisations had seen them strictly as a travel food - sustenance for long journeys that wouldn’t spoil. But the Persians began to experiment with this idea of biscuits and instead of just making the flour into a paste with water, they began incorporating other ingredients like eggs, butter, and cream to improve the texture. They noticed that when you added these items to the mix, you ended up with a fluffier, more luxurious biscuit. After a while they began adding sweet things like fruit and honey, creating the first modern sweet biscuit in history. 

Biscuits arrived in this more modernised form in Europe around the end of the tenth century. Legend has it that an Armenian monk traveled from central Asia to France and passed on a recipe he had learned in the Caucuses. The main flavour used at the time was ginger. However, these biscuits were still not the modern confections that we enjoy today. They were definitely tastier than their ancient counterparts, but the mass production of sugar was not yet in place. For most of the middle ages, biscuits were considered an exotic delicacy that people in some parts of the world enjoyed on occasion as part of their traditional cuisine. 

Until the 18th century biscuits were still mainly eaten in the UK as part of the dessert course, along with some casual snacking. But as tea became a core part of the British social scene, biscuits became an integral part of a new ritual, which would eventually become known as afternoon tea. The 18th century also saw the development of two biscuits which would become larder staples in Britain: savoys and ratifias. Savoys were often baked in long tins, and by the 20th century would be known as ladyfingers, while ratifias were very crisp and almond flavoured. Both were used a lot in cooking, especially for the British classic - trifle.  

Britain went through two industrial revolutions which meant that by the end of the 19th century mass-manufacturing was present on a huge scale. Steam power and then electricity meant that by the 1880s, factories could produce biscuits for everyone. Big names included Peak Freans and Huntley & Palmers. New favourites were being produced quickly, from gems (later named iced gems) in the 1850s, garibaldis in 1861, Osborne biscuits in 1860, the pearl (the precursor to the rich tea) in 1865, the Marie in 1873, and the first chocolate digestive in 1899. Savoury biscuits were important too, and Jacobs’ cream cracker came along in 1885. Many biscuit companies also produced special tins using new printing technology, which quickly became collectable items.

The UK's favourite biscuit is often a topic of furious debate, there are those who believe you cannot beat a classic rich tea, some who believe dunking a custard cream in your tea is nothing short of a crime and some who will settle for the frankly underwhelming garibaldi. A 2018 survey found that the UK's favourite biscuit for dunking is the humble ginger nut, followed by rich tea and then digestives. The same survey found that the nation's favourite biscuit overall was, of course, the chocolate digestive! Runners up for the title were chocolate hobnobs, jammie dodgers and custard creams (which we’ve included an ethical vegan alternative recipe for at the bottom of this post).  So it’s fair to say that here in the UK we love our biscuits, but what about the rest of the world? 

vegan custard creams

Popular throughout India, Nankhatai or ‘butter biscuits’ are small shortbread-like biscuits, originating from the Indian subcontinent and popular in Northern India and Pakistan.The word Nankhatai is derived from the Persian word ‘Naan’ meaning bread and ‘Khatai’ from a Dari Persian word meaning Biscuit. In Afghanistan and Northeast Iran, these biscuits are called Kulcha-e-Khataye. Nankhatai is believed to have originated in Surat in the 16th century, the time when Dutch and Indians were important spice traders. A Dutch couple set up a bakery in Surat to meet the needs of the local Dutch residents. When the Dutch left India, they handed over the bakery to an Iranian but the bakery’s biscuits were disliked by the locals. To save his business, the new owner started selling dried bread at low prices. It became so popular that he started drying the bread before selling it. With time, his experimentation with bread ultimately gave birth to the nankhatai!

Our friends down under in Australia seem to have a universal love for a biscuit named the Monte Carlo. These sweet treats have been manufactured since 1926 by Arnott's Biscuits, a popular confectionery brand in Australia. Each biscuit is made up of 2 coconut and golden syrup biscuits sandwiched together with vanilla flavoured cream and sticky raspberry jam - yum! Another popular Aussie biscuit is the Anzac biscuit, which is made using rolled oats, flour, sugar, butter,  golden syrup, baking soda, boiling water, and (sometimes) desiccated coconut. Anzac biscuits have long been associated with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) established in World War I. It has been claimed that these biscuits were sent by wives and women's groups to soldiers abroad because they kept well during naval transportation. Today, Anzac biscuits are manufactured commercially for retail sale. Because of their historical military connection, these biscuits are used as a fundraising item for the Royal New Zealand Returned Services' Association (RSA) and the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL). Special collectors biscuit tins with World War military artwork are usually produced in the lead up to Anzac Day and sold in supermarkets, in addition to the standard plastic packets available all year. In fact, a British version of the Anzac biscuit supporting the Royal British Legion is available in several major supermarkets in the UK.

Lebkuchen is a traditional German Christmas biscuit similar to gingerbread. These spiced, often heart-shaped biscuits (which are actually more akin to unleavened cakes)  are instantly recognisable to most as a festive treat. Lebkuchen as we know it today was first invented during the 13th century by monks residing in Franconia, Germany. Therefore, it is not surprising that today, Nüremburg, a city located in this region, is the most popular exporter of lebkuchen. Historic lore suggests that the biscuit became widespread in 1487 when Emperor Friedrich III presented the city’s 4000 children with biscuits bearing his portrait. Today, the biscuits are typically heart-shaped and often as large as dinner plates! They are made with a variety of ingredients, and they come across a broad spectrum ranging from spicy to sweet. Common ingredients included in the cookie are honey, aniseed, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and nuts.

how to make vegan custard creams

So by now we’re sure you’ve worked up an appetite for some sweet treats! Therefore we wanted to include one of our favourite recipes for vegan-friendly custard creams - an ethical twist on a British classic. This fantastic recipe is from Wallflower Kitchen and is super simple to make at home.

You will need:

For the biscuits: 

  • 150g vegan butter
  • 2 tbsp custard powder (make sure it’s dairy free!)
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 180g plain flour

For the filling:

  • 75g vegan butter, I used Vitalite dairy-free spread
  • 125g icing sugar
  • 2 tbsp custard powder

how to make vegan custard creams

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together the vegan butter, custard powder and sugar until smooth.
  3. Add the flour in a small amount at a time and continue to mix the dough until completely smooth and it balls together. If it's still crumbly, keep mixing or add a little more butter.
  4. Knead the dough until smooth and roll to about 1/2 cm thickness. Use a rectangular cookie cutter to cut out the cookie shapes and transfer them to the baking sheet.
  5. Bake for 10 minutes until lightly golden brown. Leave to cool whilst you prepare the custard filling.
  6. Whisk the vegan butter and gradually add in the icing sugar and custard powder. Don't thin it out as it needs to be thick.
  7. Once the biscuits are cooled, pipe (or spoon) the custard buttercream filling on half the biscuits and sandwich with the rest of the cookies.

These biscuits will keep for 3 days in the fridge or 1 day at room temperature in an air-tight container. And we think they’re even better than the original!




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