Biscuits: gwallter’s top ten

August 28, 2020 3 Comments
Biscuit discovered in Captain Scott’s Antarctic tent, 1912

In 1968, at the height of the student rebellion, Alethea Hayter published her influential book Opium and the English imagination.  In it she traced the critical role laudanum had on the creative work of Coleridge, De Quincey and other leaders of the English Romantic revolution.  I can’t make any such claims for the effects of my preferred substitute for opium.  But there is one similarity.  Like the Romantic writers, from an early age I’ve been a devoted and daily slave to my drug of choice. I am a lifelong biscuit addict.  Some of my friends are surprised that I haven’t already turned into a biscuit, at least in part.  This, after all, was the sad fate of the members of one of John Peel’s favourite bands, Half Man Half Biscuit.

But not all biscuits were created equal.  Many are so poorly made they barely deserve the name.  A good example would be the foul Oreo, recently dumped on the UK market, like a foretaste of chlorinated chicken, by Mondelez International, the US company that ruined Cadbury.   And that’s before we arrive at the notorious question of what is a biscuit and what is a cake (see below). So here is a list of my top biscuits, in no particular order.  Some are childhood favourites, others I’ve discovered more recently.  I’m aware my selection will be controversial, and likely to bring bowlfuls of flour down on my head, but if you too are a confirmed biscuithead and violently disagree, you’re welcome to make counter-proposals.

Choco Leibnitz

An admission to begin with.  Many of my favourite biscuits are chocolate biscuits.  This is easily explained.  If the biscuit is my opium, chocolate is my heroin.  A non-chocolate biscuit has to work hard to make this list.

As far as I’m aware, this is the only biscuit named after a philosopher.  He is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716), the great rationalist logician, mathematician, proto-computer scientist and librarian.  Whether he was biscuit-dependent doesn’t seem to be recorded, though it might account for the astonishing fecundity of his thinking.  The ‘Leibnitz-Keks’, to give it its baptismal name, is, in biscuit terms, not that ancient.  It’s been made by the Hanover firm of Bahlsen since 1891.  (In a terrible stain on its reputation, the company used slave labour, mainly Ukrainian women, in its factory between 1943 and 1945.)

The body of a Choco Leibnitz is a plain, crisp, rectangular butter biscuit.  Its apotheosis is the chocolate coating.  The chocolate overhangs all four edges, where it’s imprinted with exactly 52 ‘teeth’.  The exquisite pleasure in eating is to bite off the teeth, with care, to begin with, leaving the core rectangle intact.  Then you can savour the paradisal, perfectly balanced amalgam of biscuit and chocolate.  You’d need to be a logician and metaphysician of Leibnitzian talent to work out whether the milk or the plain chocolate version is the better one.

Ginger nut

Whoever worked out that ginger made a superb ingredient for a biscuit was a genius. Gingerbread is said to have been brought to Europe by an Armenian monk, Gregory of Nicopolis in 992 CE.  The Germans and Swedes embraced it, but it wasn’t till the seventeenth century till Britons developed a liking (Market Drayton was a centre of manufacture).  Why ‘ginger nuts’, when no nuts are involved?  No one seems to know.

Homemade ginger biscuits, of course, are preferable.  Of the manufactured sort, McVities is the best known.  I’m not aware of any social surveys on the question, but an educated guess would be that most conventional ginger nuts are dunked in a hot liquid before eating.  For my taste undunked McVities tend to be a little too hard.  When I was a boy in Corton Cottage, Hoylandswaine, I had a habit of placing them for a short time on the warm hob of our old Rayburn stove, and eating them once they’d reached a particular state of bendiness.

Chocolate hobnob

Anything with oats wins my vote.  (If the flapjack were a biscuit, it would win hands down here, and you could forget about the other nine choices.)  That said, the plain hobnob (a recent arrival, born 1985) is just a shade too plain for my taste.  (The Reading FC fanzine has the inspired title Hob nob anyone?, in reference to the local biscuit industry.)  The chocolate hobnob (born 1987), though, is just the thing.  Again, McVities make the standard version.  But this is a case where the imitator can surpass the original.  Lidl sells what it calls an ‘Chocolate Oatie’, which has more than a slight edge, to my way of thinking.  I’m not alone: one fan writes, ‘Lidl Oaties are the monarchs of the choc-and-oat kingdom’.

Older readers may prefer the chocolate digestive, fifty-two of which are eaten every second in Britain alone, apparently.  If no hobnobs are available, I’d have to agree that it’s an acceptable alternative.  The plain digestive biscuit, on the other hand, is one to fall back on in emergencies only.

The inventor of the McVities digestive was Alexander Grant.  In 1924 the Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, had to confess that Grant, a personal friend, had given him a Daimler car and £30,000 (shortly afterwards he was awarded a knighthood).  This created a stir at the time.  Today, of course, such prime ministerial misconduct goes unnoticed and unchecked.

Jaffa cake

Another McVities product, from 1927, and a delicious one.  Made in Stockport, on a production line over a mile long.  The Jaffa Cake brings us to the difficult case of Biscuit v Cake.  Packaged and marketed as a biscuit, but called a ‘cake’, and soft and squashy underneath its chocolate covering.

In a court case in 1991 the company’s lawyers argued it was a cake.  This suited them because VAT was not chargeable on chocolate-covered cakes, but it was on chocolate-covered biscuits. The court agreed with them.  Some years later Prof. Tim Crane got his philosophical teeth into the controversy in a radio programme.  Referring to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thinking on ‘family resemblances’, he argued that how we categorise objects depends as much on our own perceptions and concepts as than on the objects’ shared characteristics.  The court was barking up the wrong tree when trying to list and add up these characteristics.

At the end of his discussion Prof. Crane voted, randomly I think, for ‘cake’.  Personally, I see the Jaffa ‘cake’ as most certainly a biscuit.  The main danger of the Jaffa cake, if we’re honest, is not its philosophical complexity, but its moreish-ness.  Once you’ve opened a packet it’s hard to stop till you’ve demolished the lot.

Chocolate chip biscuits

Again, you can make these at home, though most of the recipes are preceded by the word ‘easy’, which makes me feel nervous. 

The commercial sort sometimes come labelled as ‘Maryland cookies’ –  Burton’s began making them under that name in 1956 – which suggests an American origin.  And indeed it’s claimed that the chocolate chip was invented by a US chef, Ruth Wakefield in 1938 – though in Massachusetts, not Maryland.  It appears that Marylanders have never heard of the term.  ‘Maryland cookies’ may have been a term dreamed up by Burton’s advertisers, designed to appeal to 1950s UK consumers in love with all things American.  Wakefield’s name for them was ‘Toll House chocolate crunch cookies’; they were shipped out to American soldiers during the Second World War.

My experience is that the best chocolate chip biscuits are those that contain a good quantity of crunchy nuts to set off the chocolate taste.

Malted milk

I’ve forced myself to include a very plain biscuit.  But it’s the best of all the plain biscuits.  There’s not much to be said about a malted milk; it speaks for itself.  It’s small and rectangular, and, as the name implies, it’s milkier than most.  It’s stamped with the design of a cow, in a quasi- vernacular way that recalls a late medieval woodcut.  This gives it a pleasingly rustic appearance that goes well with the earthy taste.  You could easily image Wat Tyler and his rebellious peasants munching malted milks as they marched from Kent to London in 1381.

Malted milk biscuits were first made by Elke Brothers of Uttoxeter in 1924.  They’re now owned by Fox’s Biscuits, who still make them in their Uttoxeter plant.  There’s a chocolate-coated version of malted milk, but paradoxically it’s not an improvement on the plain one.  Malted milk is what I turn to when feeling especially pious and puritan.  After that I’m usually back to the chocolate.

Crunch creams

Fox’s again.  This biscuit gives you one of the most satisfactory crunches of any biscuit.  Capturing the experience of eating a golden crunch cream is difficult.  It’s partly to do with the composition of the top and bottom layers, with their crinkly surfaces, solid but yielding easily to the molars.  But also with the magic of how you bring the two together by collapsing the cream layer between them.  Whatever the explanation, it’s a treat – though in bulk, perhaps, a bit on the over-sweet side.

Crunch creams are made in Fox’s Kirkham factory near Preston.  They must contribute quite a bit towards the profits of their ultimate owner, Ranjit Singh Boparan, a secretive, very low-profile magnate known as the ‘chicken king’, who employs over 23,000 people across his many companies.

Garibaldi

You’re right, they’re terrible, even dunked – ‘dead fly biscuits’, we used to call them in the playground.  I hardly ever eat them.  But the Garibaldi is a rare example of a political biscuit, and deserves a place for that reason alone.  You could argue that Bourbon biscuits also have a political edge, but who would be seen propping up that odious ancien regime?  And they’re terrible to eat, too.

The name?  Needless to say, the Italians are innocent.  The Garibaldi was invented not in Florence but in Bermondsey, south-east London, by Jonathan Carr for the Peek Freans company in 1861, as a tribute to the leader of the Risorgimento.  Between 1848 and 1861 Giuseppe Garibaldi led a long campaign to free Italy from the Spanish Bourbons and the Austrians and unite it for the first time into a single state.  He came to the UK on a tour in 1854 and again in 1864, when he was warmly greeted by crowds of thousands wherever he went.  He cut an attractive figure, in his trademark red shirt, and was admired throughout the world for his republicanism and struggles for national independence, in South America as well as in Italy.  A.J.P. Taylor called him, with a little exaggeration, ‘the only wholly admirable figure in modern history’,

The biscuit, it has to be said, is an impoverished icon of Garibaldi’s nobility.  The fate of Peek Freans is just as ignoble.  It was long ago swallowed up by a succession of bigger concerns.  The current owner is the international conglomerate Danone S.A.

Kit Kat

How could you leave out the Kit Kat?  The name was patented by Rowntree’s of York in 1911, but in a fit of absent-mindedness they didn’t get round to inventing the biscuit till 1935.  it’s never been less than essential when you need something brief but tasty.  ‘Have a break, have a Kit Kat’ has been the slogan since 1957, but I must confess I tend not to break, but bite right across both fingers in a two-finger pack.  The most evanescent of biscuits.

Rowntree’s may have borrowed the name from the Kit-Kat Club, an eighteenth-century political and literary drinking club, which met in a pub in Shire Lane in London.  (The publican was called Christopher Catt, and he sold fast food in the form of mutton pies called ‘Kit Cats’.)   But perhaps not: the Rowntrees were good stout Quakers and would have disapproved of Mr Catt’s drunken guests.  Kit Kats are now made by yet another worldwide conglomerate, Nestlé.  Rowntree’s looked after their workers in model villages; Nestlé just look after their own ‘long-term value creation model’.

Biscotto

At last, a genuine Italian biscuit: the almond biscotto or cantuccio.  Its home is Prato, so it’s sometimes called biscotto di Prato.  Dry and hard, biscotti can rescue the inner puritan from sinful indulgence in the more vulgar, chocolaty varieties of biscuit (see above, passim).

Endnote

The Huntley & Palmers biscuits Captain Scott took with him to the South Pole in 1911 were made from white flour and bicarbonate of soda – nutritionally quite worthless.  By contrast, Roald Amundsen’s biscuits contained oats and yeast, which gave him and his comrades much needed vitamin B.

Comments (3)

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  1. Peter Wakelin says:

    I’m sure this post will break your record for comments – it’s a topic that matters deeply to nearly everyone. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to write Wales in 100 Biscuits.

    On cakes cf biscuits, the exact distinction is that when left to go stale (if you can restrain yourself for long enough), cakes get dry and biscuits go soft. Jaffa Cakes are therefore indeed cakes.

    The big discovery from your blog for me is that I have false memory syndrome about chocolate hobnobs getting me through university – apparently they weren’t invented until after I left. It’s true I usually survived on much cheaper biscuits – Nice, Rich Tea and budget, own-brand Garibaldis and Malted Milk.

    Earlier than that, my teatime treat coming home from school was a choice from the biscuit tin of either a Penguin or a Jacob’s Club – both of which have inspired in generation after generation the kind of nibbling challenge that you mention for the Choco Leibnitz (and for Jaffa Cakes was too indecorous to describe). The dream of opening up the Jacob’s Club – equivalent to finding Charlie’s Gold Ticket to the Chocolate Factory – was to discover one of the solid chocolate failures the factory occasionally produced. (I fancy it required a corresponding offering to the biscuit gods of perfectly refolding the Club wrapper and foil to enclose nothing but air).

    I would happily drop the Ginger Nuts and replace them with Fig Rolls – about which there was something nearly nasty and rather fascinating.

    You see, you’ve got your readers over-excited. I could go on. However, the real mystery to me is how you have managed to nurse this addiction all your life and remain as slim as a gazelle. We’ve had to ban biscuits in our house.

    • Andrew Green says:

      I was dimly aware that this might be my most controversial blog since 2013. And I was right. People hold intense and dogmatic views about biscuits, which must surely have deep psychological roots. I’ve checked the complete works of Sigmund Freud and can’t find any instance of the great man treating this important subject. There is Marcel Proust, of course, though a madeleine is strictly speaking a cake. The free flow of associations in your piece has a Proustian tinge (even if the sentences are on the short side). Today I tasted a Club biscuit – first time for years. A deeply disappointing experience. Now made by McVities and a mere shadow of the old version: miserably small, and just a thin veneer of chocolate, instead of the old chunky layer that used to sheer off on first bite. Fig rolls? You can’t be serious, Peter. Now Freud would surely have things to say about them. A biscuit ban in Llanilar? Very sad.

      • Peter Wakelin says:

        I’m just surprised that your blog hasn’t filled up with comments. Is the nation asleep on this issue as on so many others as it hurtles towards hell? Gwallter may have to lead the uprising of conscience.

        Biscuits in literature will be a great topic for you to expand upon. Freud’s avoidance of the subject must tell us a lot that he might prefer to conceal about his deeper nature. As to fiction, I’m struggling to think of examples but there’s Alice in Wonderland; and Michael Carson’s challenge captured in his title, Stripping Penguins Bare.

        I’m very sad to hear of your Jacob’s Club experience: the biscuit ban in the household at least means I can preserve my memories. But now you’ve got me thinking about it, I might have to make an exception for a fig roll.

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