Why biscuits will see us through the good times and the bad

Why biscuits will see us through the good times and the bad
A person’s choice of biscuit can say a lot about character. Pass me another Jammie Dodger…

Rachel Cooke
Rachel Cooke

Sat 14 Nov 2020 15.00 GMT

Tea and a selection of biscuits.
‘In lockdown, the days want for punctuation, and thanks to this, small domestic ceremonies have never seemed so deeply necessary.’ Photograph: Martin Lee/Alamy Stock Photo
Iassociate the 1920s very strongly with cocktails: sidecar in hand, I hear the distant buzz of jazz trumpets and think myself very glam and slim-waisted, even if I’m only in my kitchen, listening to the Bee Gees in jeans and sneakers. But I also know now that those years involved a more homely kind of hedonism, for it was only then, I’ve learned, that the biscuit truly embarked on its wholesale seduction of the middle classes, manufacturers launching “cocktail” ranges (delicate cheese wafers and celery “sticklets”) to be served at parties, and hostesses everywhere ensuring that their guest bedrooms were always furnished with quilted boxes containing Maries or Rich Teas. It was also between the wars that the chocolate biscuit made its first appearance: Peek Freans’ Creola, later known as the Bourbon.

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All this, and a ton more, I found out by reading Lizzie Collingham’s delightful The Biscuit: the History of a Very British Indulgence, a book that pretty much does what it says on the (tartan, greaseproof paper-lined) tin. As she reveals, what started out as a long-lasting foodstuff for soldiers, sailors and explorers eventually became – thanks in part to the confectioners of the Islamic world, who added sugar – a sweet indulgence, the rise of which was powered by empire and mass production. The British love biscuits more than any other nation – we spend £8m on them every day in the UK, a figure that seems to me to be both entirely predictable and a little preposterous – and how eloquently they speak of us, in good ways and bad. A person’s choice of biscuit, when they eat it, and with whom, can be just as telling as anything else about them. The hierarchy of biscuits rivals anything you might see in the new series of The Crown, which also features viscounts – albeit not of the foil-wrapped, mint variety.

Biscuits speak of happier times: coming home from school and raiding the cupboard; Granny visiting with her home baking
Collingham’s book, which comes complete with recipes for Garibaldis and Jammie Dodgers, could not be better timed. In lockdown, the days want for punctuation, and thanks to this, small domestic ceremonies have never seemed so deeply necessary – or not in my lifetime. Just as I’ve never been more fixated on the cocktail hour, and when it might reasonably (or not so reasonably) begin, so I’m struck by the powerful need, just lately, for biscuits. I know, I know. We should all be doing yoga and trying to boost our vitamin D intake. But as a certain woman from Barnsley might put it, sod that. Fastened at home like a flag to a pole – I could be waving, but I might also be drowning – I find that though I do not always feel like breakfast or lunch, a biscuit is never not just the thing. I drink my tea, and I eat my ginger snap or my orange Club, and as I do, I stare out of the window, wondering about next year, and whether it will ever come, and if it does, what it will bring. It’s a pause that comforts not just because sugar is involved, but because there’s nostalgia in every crumb.

Biscuits speak of happier times: of happiness itself, in fact. Coming home from school and raiding the cupboard. Granny visiting, her suitcase full of home baking. Lying, slightly sunburned, on a beach in the south of France with my friend, J, while we slowly and steadily ate a whole packet of petit beurre between us. In my life, biscuits have always signalled recovery, whether from the wet and the cold (a digestive scoffed on a freezing Yorkshire beach; one of the aforementioned mint Viscounts pulled out of a pocket or rucksack halfway up a fell), or from a broken heart (a chocolate Hobnob in a college room; a Tunnock’s caramel wafer in a suddenly silent flat).

No wonder, then, that even as I write I’m thinking of what’s waiting downstairs: a Tupperware box of chocolate biscuits baked to my grandmother’s recipe by my mother, and posted to me last week. In a moment, having finished this, I’ll go down and eat one, safe in the knowledge that it might see me through – not just to the first splash of tonic this evening, but in its own small way to when all this is over, and the world roars back to life at last.

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