It is Biscuit Week on The Great British Bake Off, with some cracking challenges: to bake Italian biscotti, wafer-thin arlettes and build a 3D biscuit-box filled with 36 biscuits!
Biscuits originated as rock-hard military or sailors’ rations, that were ‘bis-cuit’ (twice-baked) to prevent them from mouldering. ‘As dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage,’ says Jacques in As You Like It, recalling the thankfully forgotten experience of trying to eat one of these jaw-crackers.
The British Navy mass-produced ship’s biscuits or ‘hard tack’, issued to eighteenth century sailors as a pound of biscuit and a gallon of beer a day. ‘As hard as a captain’s biscuit’, complained a contemporary proverb. These biscuits were inedible without dunking, and were used to bulk out dishes such as Lobscouse, a seaman’s stew of salt beef, biscuits and onions. As for the weevils (flour bugs) that rapidly infested the store – I have battled weevils in my kitchen in rural New Zealand and there is nothing quite as revolting as finding wriggly white bugs in your flour bags!
Over time, biscuits became lighter as Elizabethan cooks sought to satisfy the taste for fashionable sweetstuffs. Made of whisked sugar, eggs and flour, these are the recognisable prototypes for sponge fingers, their preservative quality reduced in favour or lightness and flavour. Naples biscuits (long oval sponge fingers) were developed, to dip into wine rather than tea, and to make desserts such as trifle. Many of Britain’s most delicious varieties were invented by the eighteenth century: macaroons, lemon wafers and ginger nuts.
Yet biscuits long remained associated with travel: we find recipes for Gingerbread For A Voyage and various forms of hard-tack to be carried in pockets while riding, or stored in airless, metal-lined tins for years on end. Street-sellers sold them from baskets, as this illustration from The Cryes of London: Drawn After the Life, in 1688 shows.
The ‘Dutch Biskets’ this woman is selling may have been an import from Holland at the time of William and Mary. A contemporary recipe shows that these snack foods sold ‘To Go’ were made of yeasted biscuit dough flavoured with caraway, cut into circles and pricked with a pattern.
Biscuits have always been a vehicle for fashion. In my new novel, THE PENNY HEART, the heroine recollects the faded gentility of her mother’s Apricot Jumbles or Knotted Biscuits, made from a ‘receipt’ of the time of ‘Good Queen Bess’. These pretty sweetmeats were the origin of the term ‘Jumbled up’ – perhaps a foretaste for this week’s Bake Off. Crisp biscuits need a light hand and a hot oven: with Paul and Mary looking over the contestant’s shoulders we should see some fun at crunch time!
To Make Knotted Biscuits of Apricots
Take ripe Apricots, pare, stone and beat them small, then boil them till they are thick. Take them off the fire and beat them up with sifted Sugar and Aniseeds to make a pretty fine paste. Make into little rolls the thickness of straw and tye them in little Knots in what form you please; dry them in the Stove or in the Sun.