The Biscuit - the History of a Very British Indulgence
Speaker: Dr Lizzie Collingham
Thursday, 22 April 2021
Author and biscuit authority Dr Lizzie Collingham, gave Todmorden U3A members a real treat when she talked to their monthly meeting about her research into the History of a very British indulgence, taking the members on a fascinating journey from near prehistoric breads and biscuits in the Middle East to tales of British naval supremacy, colonial life and industrial food production.
The earliest known producers of biscuits were the Mesopotamians, in the third millennium BC. Bread loaves were baked, sliced in half, and left to dry in the residual heat of the oven, creating the biscuits, or rusks. Initially mashed and brewed to make beer out of the barley within them, they soon became a form of portable and durable food; initially of the poor and lowly, which included monks. Some monasteries were found to have recipes for a type of broth made by pouring vegetables and herbs onto the biscuits – our speaker confirmed she had tried these, and they were delicious.
Sailors and explorers made soup by crushing biscuits, adding hot water and whatever food was available. Different countries had their own variations – an example being 'Lob Scouse' where salt pork was part of the soup, or stew.
By the 8th Century AD, sweet biscuits were being made, by Muslim confectioners. This was in Baghdad, a city regarded by some as being the focal point, even centre of the world. Local farmers had become proficient at refining their sugar cane into icing.
The sweetened biscuits became popular. Sugar was thought to have magical properties, seeming to warm the body up, creating a feeling of wellness. Up to then, sweet biscuits were uncommon and usually made with honey. These created moisture, and didn't keep well. Those made with sugar could be stored, then eaten months, or even years later.
Biscuits in Britain
The confectioners' skills and craft spread to islands in the Mediterranean, then to Spain and Italy. The earliest Spanish reference to the confectioners was found in Catalan, and they were first noted in Italy around the time of the renaissance.The first recorded recipe in Britain for these types of biscuits was in a 1558 translation of an Italian book of recipes and remedies. It was for hard, brown, heavily spiced, Italian biscuits.
In Britain, sweetened biscuits, initially at least, were eaten mainly by wealthy people. They became part of the 'Banqueting Course' of meals, and served with glasses of wine for them to be dipped in. There would be an ante room or chamber set aside for this purpose – or even a structure used in the garden. There were concerns from the clergy that, along with the eating and drinking during these courses, there would also, on occasion, be instances of 'lewd behaviour'. Some ladies added food preparations to their 'lists of accomplishments', and published pamphlets about their methods.
Biscuits in the navy
Biscuit production in Britain increased greatly from the time of Naval expansion, and the Industrial Revolution. The local bakers near to ports struggled to cope with demand, and larger companies became involved including Huntley and Palmer, and Peek Frean.
British biscuits were consumed extensively in other countries, Huntley and Palmers' biscuit tins being re-used in Mongolia as a plant container, at the Battle of Omdurman as a makeshift sword scabbard and recorded by missionaries as being a favourite of a tribal chief in Uganda. In India, Nationalists protested against British biscuits, but a Calcutta biscuit trader renamed them 'Hindu Biscuits' to maintain sales. And biscuits taken to Antarctica by Robert Falcon Scott still remain in the hut used in his expedition.
Biscuits - for the wealthy
But, back in Britain, biscuits were still for the wealthier people only. For example, the cheapest tin of Huntley and Palmers biscuits cost two shillings, more than a full days' wages for most of the population. Advertisements showed biscuits enjoyed by the smartest people in fashionable locations. Despite food becoming cheaper due to imports from the commonwealth, this remained the case up to 1939.
Tea and biscuits
Our 'Tea and Biscuit' habit was established by the end of the second world war, even though both things were rationed, and biscuits requiring a large number of ration points. During WW2, the government recognised that drinking tea, with biscuits, helped to maintain and boost morale among the population.
Rationing continued until 1954, and over the next twenty years biscuits increased in popularity. Today Great Britain, per capita, are now the world's top biscuit consumers.
At the end of her presentation, Dr Collingham took questions from the audience, which concluded an enjoyable meeting.
The next Todmorden U3A Monthly Members Meeting by Zoom will be on Thursday 20th May 2021 at 1.45 p.m. open to all fully paid-up members.
Our presenter for May will be Jacqueline Depelle 'Upstairs Downstairs – humble beginnings to the American dream'.
Not yet a member? You can attend one talk free by requesting an invitation to this zoom event. We're always delighted to welcome new members.
Many thanks to Colin Sanson for this report
Previous U3A reports on the HebWeb - click here