On biscuits, history and biscuit history
The selection of biscuits can be a fraught political minefield given the potentially complex associations inherent in each and every type of biscuit. Just ask Gordon Brown. When asked by the denizens of bafflingly-deemed-a-key-arbiter-of-political-fortunes website Mumsnet to plump for his biscuit of choice during the lead up to the last election, the then prime minister unequivocally refused to respond. The Guardian insisted that Brown had not seen the repeated questions on the subject, but by then “biscuitgate” was enough of a pseudo-scandal that the PM was forced to make an actual statement vaguely endorsing “anything with a bit of chocolate“. David Cameron, meanwhile, was quick to leap in and declare a preference for blandly un-sweet “oatcakes with butter and cheese” and look who won the election (well, OK, neither of them really won, but the guy who couldn’t even name an actual biscuit did worse).
It is not hard to imagine some sweary, shouty Malcolm Tucker type councilling Brown against a specific expression of preference for a popular mainstream type of chocolate biscuit that may be, for example, named after a dynasty of totalitarian French monarchs whose “let them eat cake” level of disconnect from their own subjects brought about the demise of their whole system of government. When even a humble, everyday biscuit like the custard cream appears on delightful biscuit review website Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down with the words: “its baroque embossing harks back to an earlier time”, and the bourbon itself is used by the Daily Mail as an example of how good old fashioned English biscuits are being pushed aside in favour of foreign ones, it’s clear that finding an appropriately proletarian biscuit, a people’s biscuit, could be a challenge for any politician.
Bourbons, or Bourbon Creams as they’re sometimes known, were developed in 1910 by Peek Freans whose factory in Bermondsey had the London district nicknamed “Biscuit Town”. (Peek Frean’s A Visit to the Biscuit Works, filmed in 1906, is one of the very first structured documentary films, making the chocolate cream sandwich biscuit oddly a more recent innovation than the corporate video).
By 1910 the Bourbon dynasty, even in its cadet branch the House of Orleans, had not ruled France for over 60 years, while the Carlist Wars and the First Spanish Republic had weakened Bourbon power in Spain (Felipe VI, the current Spanish king, is still a Bourbon king, though). It’s hard to tell, therefore, quite why Peek Freans decided to name the biscuit that they originally branded “Creola” a “Bourbon”. It is pretty widely agreed that it is named for the royal family not the place, but whether Peek Freans were ardent royalists desperate for the restoration of the French monarchy is more up for debate. They certainly saw the commercial appeal of royalty when they decided to push these crown shaped “Regina Biscuits” for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. It is more likely, though, that the association of the Bourbon name with the absurd luxury of the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette would convey the kind of opulence that they wanted associate with the new biscuit.
Cream sandwich biscuits may today appear quite quotidian, but one look at this Peek Freans ad from 1900 (appealingly juxtaposed with Bovril’s promise to provide telegrams of news from the front line alongside your meat extract) shows quite how much of a thrilling novelty putting a bit of buttercream between two normal biscuits must have been at the time. The idea that you might have to send a postcard via your grocer to get this something “a little out of the ordinary run” seems delightfully quaint to us now, but shows that for an Edwardian these newfangled cream sandwich biscuits would have been a new, exciting treat and deserving of a name that suggested exotic luxury.
These days, of course, getting your grocer to send off a postcard is not really necessary. You can buy bourbons from any corner shop or supermarket, but equally they are perfectly easy to make at home.
A bourbon is simply a pair of chocolate biscuits sandwiched together with chocolatey buttercream. So, I made a simple biscuit dough from mixing flour, sugar, cocoa powder and bicarbonate of soda, then melting butter, milk and golden syrup together and adding it to the dry ingredients. To bake the biscuits I rolled them out to about a half centimetre thickness (yeah, these were going to turn out a fair bit thicker than a shop bought bourbon) and scored lines between them to make sure the biscuits retained their shape as they baked. I’ve always enjoyed how biscuits tend to have their name written across them, but neatly writing “bourbon” in biscuit dough proved beyond my skills with a skewer, so I just settled for the traditional rows of holes instead.
Making a simple buttercream from butter, icing sugar and cocoa, I sandwiched my biscuits together to create what would have passed for the height of biscuit luxury a hundred years ago. They were pretty good, a bourbon remains a classic biscuit, but it still have those luxury royal associations. What about that idea of a people’s biscuit? Well, it turns out Peek Freans were not always quite so royalist.
Back in 1861, the company had marketed a new biscuit filled with currants that became popularly known as a “squashed fly biscuit” but was, and still is, officially called a garibaldi. The garibaldi biscuit was invented by John Carr, whose family name remains associated with biscuits of the savoury cracker variety, but who left the Northern family business to travel to London and join Peek Freans just at the same time that Alfred J. Bird (of Bird’s Custard fame) was developing the first baking powder. Thanks to raising agents, Carr was able to make the first biscuits produced on an industrial scale that weren’t rock hard in texture and density and the garibaldi is the most enduring example of this.
The biscuits take their name from Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi who that year had been responsible for the establishment of the first Kingdom of Italy. The Expedition of the Thousand had seen Garibaldi and his Red Shirts, his volunteer army, expel the old ruler of Naples, King Francis II who was, yes, a Bourbon (indeed, the last Bourbon ruler in Italy). (Garibaldi’s king of choice, Victor Emmanuel II, was from the House of Savoy and therefore shares his name with nothing but a cabbage).
Garibaldi was hugely popular in Britain. After his success in uniting in Italy, his visit to London in 1864 would be met by the kind of enormous crowd we tend to associate with events like the Queen’s jubilee, but which indicates rather a level of enthusiasm for political radicalism and republicanism running counter to the idea that Victoria herself was the era’s great crowd puller. Socialist writer H.M. Hyndman would comment that: “No such spontaneous or enthusiastic reception was given by Londoners to any foreigner either before or since. It was a personal demonstration, due to the courage of the guerrilla leader of 1859/60 and in remembrance of his long and brilliant life of adventure in South America on the side of the People. At that moment a wave of Republicanism swept our country.”
As the biscuit that was already on the market for three years before Garibaldi’s London visit can attest to, Garibaldimania was in full swing in Britain for years before that. In fact, Garibaldi memorabilia had been popular for over a decade at this point. In particular, a lot of Garibaldi souvenirs can be seen in the North-East through the mid-late 1850s. Garibaldi had stayed for some time in the North-East in 1854 and remained very popular in the North, not least because of his good relationship with Joseph Cowen, a radical activist, newspaper activist and later Liberal MP for Newcastle. It is the success of this 1854 visit which is thought to have inspired the Northerner John Carr to name his biscuit after the Italian revolutionary with the notion that these currant filled foodstuffs would have been the food that kept the Red Shirts going.
Making garibaldi biscuits is pretty easy. All it takes is a mix of flour, sugar, salt and bicarbonate of soda, before rubbing a little butter in to get a good quality of crumb and adding milk to make a simple biscuit dough. The tricky thing is in rolling the dough thin enough, covering it in currants, folding it over and then rolling it very thinly again to create a biscuit with enough currants to taste good, but not so many that the dough can’t hold it together any longer. Then it’s just a case of glazing the biscuits with egg white and sprinkling them with sugar.
Normally I would always go for a chocolate biscuit when faced with a choice, but I was pretty happy with these actually. Still, for all that the garibaldi biscuit represents the dining choice of his Red Shirts, the common man in a revolutionary army, it more pays tribute to the man himself (that Garibaldi’s home town of Nice has also given its name to a biscuit is probably a coincidence. Probably). A truly people’s biscuit would instead be named after those troops themselves.
That brings us to the final biscuit that I made this week, a biscuit that is just about to celebrate its centenary. Better known in its antipodean homeland than over here, Anzac Biscuits are a legacy of the First World War and the Gallipoli campaign fought by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Unlike Garibaldi’s Red Shirts, the ANZACs weren’t fighting for liberation, they were just caught up in a futile European colonial war thanks to still being part of a British dominion. Still, their biscuit is named for the common troops on the ground, not their general, so they definitely gain points for that. (Bourbon ruled Spain remained neutral in the First World War, too involved in their own political troubles, while post-Garibaldi Italy, now ruled by Victor Emmanuel III the grandson of Garibaldi’s king, went from one side to the other so would have fought alongside the ANZACs in the end).
Anzac biscuits were made as sweet, oaty biscuits designed for families back home in Australia and New Zealand to send to their loved ones on the front line. The crucial thing about them is that they contain ingredients that would keep on the unrefrigerated conditions on ships to Europe taking a good two months or more (hence no ingredients that would spoil, such as using eggs as a binding agent). The standard recipe for Anzac biscuits has come to involve oats, dessicated coconut and syrup or treacle to bind it together, but whether this is actually the way that Aussie housewives cooked a hundred years ago is more debatable.
In fact, there is no record of this particular recipe before the 1920s, while Unibic (the company that makes Anzac biscuits – under licence to use the Anzac name and giving a small portion of the profits to the Returned and Services League of Australia or, in Britain, the Royal British Legion) have only been making Anzac biscuits since 1999. Their recipe is “based on a competition run by The Australian Women’s Weekly more than 40 years ago that aimed to come up with a definitive recipe for the iconic biscuit. As such, ours have the traditional taste and crunchy texture that generations of Australians and New Zealanders have grown up with“, so doesn’t exactly go back a hundred years either.
Despite this, I decided to approach my Anzac biscuits through this standard recipe, mixing flour, sugar, porridge oats and dessicated coconut, before melting together golden syrup and butter and adding bicarbonate of soda until the butter-syrup mix fizzed up. I stirred the syrup and butter into the dry ingredients to make the biscuit dough and baked a tray of the biscuits for about ten minutes.
The more cookie-esque Anzacs were a pleasingly sweet and tasty, but at the end of the day which biscuit tasted best? Did the garibaldis beat the bourbons as they did in the Expedition of the Thousand? Were the Anzacs beaten back as they were at Gallipoli? I’ll let Professor Plum be the judge of that.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: On the one hand, anything with chocolate is a winner, and the giant size bourbons definitely got eaten fastest, but I feel I ought to judge the biscuits on the basis of more than one ingredient. On the other hand, I was definitely biased against the Anzacs for their high dried coconut content. Clearly, I need another criteria, and there’s only one worth judging by: dunkability. Garibaldis are the clear winner – perfect with tea, sweet, crisp, and a bit of fruit so you can pretend they’re not that naughty really.