The history of biscuits

Munchable, scoffable, dunkable, WONDERFUL biscuits – few things in life are more pleasurable than a mug of tea and your favourite biccy.

It just so happens that the 29th May is officially National Biscuit Day! So, we thought we’d have a brief look at the history of these delicious treats. If you make it to the end of this without a craving for one, then your willpower truly is iron clad…

In the beginning…

House of the Baker, Pompeii

It turns out that biscuits, in some form or other, have been around for a really REALLY long time! The name ‘biscuit’ comes from the French ‘bis-qui’, but it’s Latin root ‘panis biscotus’ (meaning twice-cooked bread), tells us a variant of the treat has been around since at least the Roman period.

The biscuit the Romans had is closer to a ‘rusk’, the sort that babies today now enjoy, and was basically bread which had been baked again to make it crispy. In this form, the bread kept for longer and was often used as a snack for those ‘on the go’ or as part of a centurion’s’ rations. Jumping ahead of ourselves here, we see biscuits being used in this way much later in the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries too as part of ships’ rations. Unable to maintain a constant supply of fresh food, naval boats would carry huge supplies of ‘ship’s biscuits’ or ‘hardtacks’, biscuits so tough they were famous for being indestructible. Unsurprising then, that the earliest surviving example we have of a biscuit from 1784, is one such biscuit!

Medieval and Tudor treats

‘Biscuit’ came to use in English from around the 14th century, and variations on the theme started to appear. Varieties closer in form to pancakes were also becoming more common. Wafer biscuits started to emerge and grew in popularity, these were made of a sweetened batter and cooked over a fire. The famous ‘Jumble Biscuit’ also appeared in the Medieval period, traditionally shaped in a knot pattern and flavoured with much prized spices like caraway, aniseed and mace.

By the Tudor period gingerbread had started to appear. Containing sugar and expensive spices, it was only for the rich (and those who weren’t too bothered about their teeth!) The gingerbread was often coloured and moulded into intricate shapes and structures. The first ‘gingerbread-men’ are often attributed to court of Queen Elizabeth I, where biscuits were made in the likeness of important guests. Fancy!

The darker side to our sugar craving

Biscuits started to become more accessible to the masses in the 17th century due to the colonisation of the West Indies and Americas, and the rise of the slave trade. This dark and shameful chapter of our history caused the price of sugar to fall dramatically, which in turn sparked new developments in the types of biscuits and cakes on the market. Chocolate, coffee and tea were also introduced to Britain at this time, and were soon to become the popular partners to biscuits. Until the 18th century, biscuits had mainly been eaten as a dessert, but as drinking tea became rooted in our society, biscuits became tea’s ideal accompaniment.

A biscuit revolution

Biscuit and cake stall, St Neots Market, c. 1900

By the 19th century, biscuits had really taken off, and the varieties available had increased substantially. The Industrial Revolution allowed biscuits to be produced on mass, and changes to the working day caused breakfast to be eaten earlier and dinner later, leading to an increase in the need for an afternoon snack! Big names such as Peak Freans started the production of Garibaldis in 1861, and Bourbon biscuits in 1910.  Digestive biscuits were developed by Huntley & Palmers in 1860, and marketed as, you guessed it, an aid for digestion.  In 1892 McVities made the first Rich Tea biscuit, and followed it up with the Chocolate Digestive in 1899. Many biscuit companies produced special tins of their biscuits, which quickly became the new must have collectable items.

Plum’s Cake Shop & Cafe St Neots, c. 1920s

And today…

Today, the biscuit industry is worth over £3 billion and recent studies have shown that 99 in every 100 UK households buy biscuits. From the humble Digestive, to the dunkable Hobnob, to the flamboyant Party Ring, it’s fair to say our love of biscuits shows little sign of diminishing.

So, which is your favourite?…