Posted in Kafevend Blog
We recently looked at the continued popularity of the good old fashioned custom of tea and biscuits. It's not a practise we're ready to relinquish any time soon, but have you ever wondered how the biscuit got started in the first place?
The biscuit gets its name from the Latin for twice cooked – bis coctus. Biscuits were particularly useful food for travellers because they had such a long shelf life. A double dose of cooking ensured their longevity by making them as hard as possible in the first place, and less likely to go soft.
As far back as Roman times, a soldier's rations contained buccellum, biscuits simply made from a paste of wheat flour and water. Egyptian sailors used millet flour for their own variation of the biscuit staple. And in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was the turn of the Crusaders to carry biscuits with them for sustenance.
As the European Age of Discovery got under way in the 1400s, the invention of canned food was still a long way off in the future. Live food, like fresh fruit and veg, had its limitations when it came to the epic voyages that the likes of Christopher Columbus were making. Biscuits then were an absolute essential, though as we're well aware today they contain no essential vitamins and minerals, not a single one of your five a day, and the sailors suffered dreadfully from scurvy as a result.
You may have heard ship's biscuits referred to as hard tack and they would have been exceedingly hard. For longer voyages they would go into the oven four times instead of the usual two. A sailor's daily allowance typically consisted of a pound of biscuits and a gallon of beer. That sounds like a lot of beer but imagine trying to swill those biscuits down. One can imagine the practise of dunking biscuits was invented as a necessity!
So far the biscuits people ate were largely plain affairs, a substitute for a good square meal. They don't sound terribly appetising, do they? It seems fitting then that the voyagers who made do with the unappealing hard tack were the very people who discovered sugar and spices. Trade routes were established and the nation's wealthiest began to benefit. The crusaders were the first to return with spices from their travels. Later on, as Britain invested much time and effort in colonising various parts of the world, the potential to grow highly prized crops such as sugar was quickly recognised and acted on. With increased availability, prices came down, making sweetened foods a reality for more of the population. As we discovered the other week, the wealthy of Yorkshire were enjoying the prototype of the Rich Tea biscuit during the 1600s, which tallies with the introduction of sugarcane to the Caribbean by the British.
Once sugar beet became established in Europe itself during the 1800s, prices were pushed down further still and by midway through the century Britain's working classes could start to enjoy biscuits with their tea too. The cheaper price of sugar, coupled with Victorian mechanisation of the baking process, led to the availability of commercially produced biscuits on a huge scale. It was during the 1800s that well known biscuit companies such as McVities, Peek Freans, Carr's and Fox's first became established. It's testament to their delicious wares and our own insatiable sweet tooth that we still look forward to their biscuits with our tea today!