GRUB!: Biscuits

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Most of my time these days is taken up with work things and boat things.  I’ve been trying to spend two or three nights a week on the boat, partly because it just feels cool and fun, and partly because I think the more time I spend there the more I can learn about what works and what doesn’t and just generally get used to things.  Like, for instance, the finite amount of electrical power available on a boat.  Right now I’ve got just two batteries powering everything that’s NOT the starter motor, and they’re kept topped up by the alternator and a single 100w solar panel.  On a sunny day that’s not bad.  On a cloudy day like today, after an evening when I did a bit of recreational soldering and then left a little 12v cooler of leftovers plugged in overnight, the power situation is on a knife edge.  I can charge a phone or an iPad and run the water pump and things like that, but I can’t use the inverter that gives me 240v AC power.  So my plans to fire up the soldering iron again were foiled and I’ve decamped to a local cafe that has free wifi and where electricity comes pouring out the wall like magic, regardless of how much soldering you might be doing.  It’s certainly a new perspective.

On to today’s topic.  I’m wary of spending too much time blogging about the boat, mindful of the fact that not everyone will find it as endlessly fascinating as I do. (Steve G, you’re obviously exempt front his comment.)  So I trawled through my list of potential blog topics, thinking it might be about time for a GRUB! post and hit on the idea of reviewing a few classic English biscuits.  This is partly because biscuits are just inherently a Good Thing, and also partly because I’m presently captivated by the current series of The Great British Bake Off. Those of you outside the UK may not be aware of the show; it’s a sort of extremely polite and English version of “Survivor” with yeast and pastry instead of bug-eating and obstacle courses.  (UK readers: I’m rooting for Richard.)  It really makes you want to bust out the mixing bowls and whip up a batch of just about anything.

First, let’s talk about biscuits vs. cookies.  Some would say they’re different words for the same thing, but I think that doesn’t really cover the subtlety of it, because the word cookie is also used here,  meaning that the whole category of foodstuff that we in North America call cookies, is here divided in two.  A UK biscuit will alway be crisp and crumbly; a UK cookie is the more North American large soft, cake-ish, chewy sort of affair that will often have chocolate chips or raisins or such.  In fact, a biscuit that has gone soft is considered stale, an argument that astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will remember was advanced in the Great Jaffa Cake debate about whether Jaffas are cakes or biscuits.  (Wherein Jaffas were determined to be cakes, because they go hard and dry when stale, where as biscuits go soft. Which makes on wonder if, in fact, Jaffa Cakes might actually be cookies…)

We start our review with Rich Tea biscuits, which have appeared in the blog before.  In that post I had no hesitation in declaring that these must be most inappropriately named biscuits in the English Biscuit Pantheon.  I stand behind that judgement to this day and in reviewing the previous post I find that I can’t really top it, so I’m excerpting it here in its entirety:
Rich Tea biscuits present a real paradox.  They are, in fact, the dullest biscuits imaginable, so how did they ever end up being described them as "rich"?  They don't exactly set the biscuit world on fire with their indulgent deliciousness.

I could go on and on about rich tea biscuits, but I think I'll leave that to the experts. Here's an excerpt from the now-defunct blog A Nice Cup Of Tea And A Sit Down, which was dedicated to all things biscuit.
The Rich Tea presents us straight away with a paradox. If these are 'Rich' tea, where are 'Poor' tea biscuits and what on earth do they taste like? Well they would have to be fairly ropey old affairs because the Rich Tea itself is not exactly a self contained one biscuit flavour festival. What flavour it does manage to achieve comes from the various sugars in the recipe, sucrose, maltose and some glucose plus a little bit of salt...

There are attempts at turning Rich Teas into something more palatable, covering them in chocolate or sticking some sort of cream up the middle, but it's all a bit hopeless really. So what are they good for? Dunking of course. The Rich tea can drive even the staunchest anti-dunker to dunk. The Rich Tea then comes into its own, convincing you that you have done the right thing by giving the eater the reward of sloppy hot Rich Tea, which is actually better than what you started with.

What else are Rich teas for? Humility. Through Rich Tea biscuits we learn that not all biscuits have been blessed with a fantastic taste, and that there is space in this world for dry bland biscuits that you can dunk in tea.
In fairness, I performed my Rich Tea Biscuit Rant for my friend Dan once and he leapt to the defence of the (I thought) indefensible biscuit claiming that he does indeed like dunking RTs in his tea, which I suppose is appropriate.  Apparently, there’s a sort of biscuit brinkmanship that takes place with Dan and his Rich Tea biscuits wherein he tries to keep them dunked for as long as possible, removing them milliseconds before they dissolve completely.  Edgey.

Moving on slightly from the Rich Tea we encounter the classic Digestive biscuit.  Digestives are just a few grams of fibre away from Rich Tea biscuits, being identical in shape and size and almost indistinguishable from the RT except there’s obviously a lot more roughage in the Digestive.

Clearly the digestive is much earthier than the Rich Tea.  Also, how charming is it that the English label their biscuits so emphatically?  I especially like that the Rich Teas are noted as “round”.

Digestive biscuits occupy much the same place here as Graham Crackers do in North America.  They date back at least to 1876, and Wikipedia says "The term "digestive" is derived from the belief that they had antacid properties due to the use of sodium bicarbonate when they were first developed.”  Certainly they are an improvement on the Rich Tea, though they really come into their own in the Chocolate Digestive, a chocolate-topped version (available in milk, dark and a few other fleeting brand extensions that come and go).  The dark chocolate covered digestive biscuit is almost as good as a chocolate covered Hobnob.

Hobnobs are a further extension of the large diameter biscuit category.  It Rich Tea biscuits are smooth and featureless, and Digestives add a tantalising bit of fibre to the mix, Hobnobs are the next step on the continuum that probably ends with a nosebag of raw oats or a small shrub.  Hobnobs are excellent nobbly, oaty, crunchy, and generally superior in every way. They too are available in chocolate topped versions, and the dark chocolate covered Hobnob is, I think, the apotheosis of the large diameter plain biscuit form.

The Large Diameter Biscuit Lineup.  (Nosebag not pictured.)

Moving into the more exotic, let’s have a quick look at a real oddball of the biscuit world, the Garibaldi.  Named, for some unknown reason, after the Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi (no, really), Garibaldi biscuits consist of a layer of squashed currants baked between two layers of a very plain biscuit dough.  My friend Ted (and generations of English school boys before and after him) call them “squashed fly biscuits” because that’s what they look like, as you can see.


Garibaldis have a nice shiny, lightly browned appearance, and a slightly toothy texture. They’re rectangular and come out of the package stuck together in strips of five and have to be broken apart to portion them out.  Currants, of course, are generally inferior to raisins in every way, but here make a reasonable filling and result in an oddly satisfying biscuit that feels a bit indulgent (because of the fruitiness) and yet also quite plain and virtuous (because the biscuit part is really almost completely devoid of sweetness).

Now that we’re firmly in the sandwich-biscuit category, we can address the Jammie Dodger. Purportedly the nation’s most popular biscuit among children, the Jammie Dodger is made up of vanilla shortbread sandwiching a sugary, sticky layer of raspberry jam.  Jammie Dodgers have a distinctive heart-shaped opening on top to show off the jammy bit, and a sort of modernist splat pattern around that, making what I think is an odd juxtaposition.

Like Garibaldis, Jammie Dodgers are toothsome, and the jammie filling can be quite dentally challenging if your JDs are edging towards their Sell By Date.

Having started at the sad depths of biscuitry inhabited by the Rich Tea and moved through the various levels of biscuity goodness, we now reach the giddy heights of my favourite English biscuit the Bourbon Cream (though I must allow that dark chocolate covered Hobnobs are a very strong contender).  Bourbons are a rectangular sandwich made of two chocolate biscuits with chocolate cream between.  Manufactured by Peek Frean, I encountered these biscuits growing up in Canada, where they could only found as part of a Peek Freans assortment alongside other inferior biscuits like Arrowroots and those sort of Jammie Dodger-ish ones where you nibble the cookie away from the outside until you’re left with a circle of red sugar coated jelly-like substance, a layer of cream, and a tiny bit of the bottom biscuit (Fruit Cremes, if anyone cares).  Imagine my infinite delight when I first arrived in England and discovered you could by whole packs composed entirely of Bourbon Creams!  Adding to their charm, the originators of Bourbons (and Garibaldis), the aforementioned Peek Freans, are located in London, where both biscuits were invented.

A Jenga stack of Bourbon Creams, exhibiting the proud label and the regulation 10 holes.  These are a particularly cheap versions (Tesco Value Brand, about 45p for a pack of more than 30) so they don’t show much of the usual sprinkling of sugar on the top.

And now I’m back on my little boat, where I’m having a nice cup of tea and some biscuits. (Because there are now enough biscuits on the boat that I have to evenly distribute them between port and starboard for storage, so they don’t cause the boat to start listing.)  And I’m having my tea in a mug I only unpacked a few weeks ago.  Before I came to London in 2010, I left a carefully curated series of boxes behind filled with the kind of things I thought I’d want if I ended up staying and setting myself up in a flat.  At the time I envisioned myself on my own in a tiny place that I’d have to equip completely so I packed a lot of favourite kitchen items that I knew would make a place feel like mine.  Then I promptly moved into a shared house that was bursting with saucepans and teaspoons and can openers and such, meaning that my kitchen boxes gathered dust in the attic for four years.  But now, finally, I’ve got a kitchen again, and I recently rooted through boxes uttering little cries of delight and then laboriously trudging things out to the boat.  And what elicited the greatest squeal of happiness?  The mug.

Up until five years ago, when I threw my life up in the air, I had my morning coffee in this mug every day.  And I’d forgotten it!

This is the kind of thing that makes me disproportionately happy these days: being able to have MY things, in MY space.  Tea towels from Russia (with the days of the week in Cyrillic!), a spoon rest from New York, a small mechanical boat clock I bought years ago only to have it end up on a different boat I never could have foreseen owning, my last box of Kraft Dinner, and a chest full of small tools I actually get to use again.  Happy days.

And now if you’e excuse me I think it’s time for another twenty three biscuits.


jamy said...

I would happily read a blog that only ever talked about the boat! No need to spare that topic. :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, more boat please!

Rob R said...

More boat! And more getting ready for Baku. Your fans are speaking.

Anonymous said...

A timely and useful analysis of biscuit vs. cookie (you'll have to do a further installment to deal with colonial extravagances such as the TimTam), but no need to worry about ODing on boat details. This is new territory for most of your readers too - keep it coming!

Post a Comment