The History of the Biscuit
The humble biscuit has a global history from it’s Persian origins to the modern day American Cookie and has been embraced by many cultures through-out history. The biscuit has been able to adapt to society and the available ingredients from the market.
Biscuits are generally prepared from varying combinations of refined flour, butter, sugar (honey or fruit sugars) and eggs. Today we amassed thousands of biscuit recipes and baking has become something available to nearly every household in the world.
The modern day name “biscuit” finds it’s origins in France. It translates into English as “cooked twice”, The latin word “bis” meaning twice in and “coquere” translating to cooked. The name originates from the process involved with the production of biscuits being to bake them in an oven (or medieval equivalent) and then to dry them out on a lower heat to remove the moisture. This process prolongs the life of biscuits and prior to the modern day use of preservatives was a natural longer-life product. Hence they were very popular staple with sailors going on long voyages to explore the world and were often referred to as “stone bread”.
The word can also be seen throughout modern day European languages from Biscotti in Italy to “Beschuit” in Holland the name and the process of baking biscuits and in essence the traditional methods for baking biscuits have largely stayed the same in the last thousand years. The equipment has certainly improved in that time and the advent of processed ingredients and imported sugar has again altered the dynamic of what we can do in our home kitchens.
Biscuits may have come from Persian Kitchens and spread globally by the Roman Empire, but there is evidence from China, India and other parts of Africa showing that these areas were producing a variety of products from alternatives to wheat but with a similar longer life compared to fresh foods.
Modern day biscuits are baked with similar ingredients and processes to European Biscuits with new industry variations to suit the customer. For example in India Glucose, biscuits are very common and are believed by many to offer extra energy. This has led to a multi-million pound industry in the sub-continent producing Glucose Biscuits. British biscuits tend be more solid and plain in comparison to their global cousins. This has been considered to be due to our naval history and the natural adaption into modern society. (This can be the reason why we enjoy dunking our biscuits in tea to soften them prior to eating). By contrast, mainland European Biscuits can be softer and more sugary in texture. The American cookie is another modern variation to the tradition. Many have marvelled at the cookie for its sheer size, softer texture and for incorporating some unique additions such as chocolate chips or processed chocolate sweets such as “smarties”
In 1875 there was a huge leap in Industrial production and artistic preparation when Alexander Ashbourne patented the first ever metal plated biscuit cutter. This has revolutionised the presentation of the much loved biscuit and cookie. The Biscuit Village owe a lot to this invention as it has paved the way for Biscuit Bakery’s to do more than hand cut biscuits and on a large scale has allowed for biscuit distribution to engulf to the world
Modern Day Biscuits
Modern day biscuits can be sweet or savoury but all follow the same flat-bread features of their ancestors. Some of your favourite biscuits might be older than you first think. The Cracker has been with us since around 1885 and the Digestive Biscuit since 1892. The American Chocolate Chip Cookie was first invented in 1937 by an inn-keeper to serve in her restaurant and has grown in popularity on a global scale. One of the newest biscuits to arrive on the scene and change the world of the “afternoon tea and biscuit” would be the “HOB NOB” which was first released in the UK in 1986. The greatest British Biscuits in our history would have to be the “digestive biscuit” and the modern relative the “rich tea biscuit”. Britain has certainly embraced the global concepts for biscuits and cookies and we appear rather partial to the US Cookie, which is a common feature in 21st century Supermarkets and Shopping Centres. Biscuits are also given as gifts through-out the seasonal calendar year and are considered by some cultures as an essential gift to offer to guests.
Many countries have famed biscuits, which are now enjoyed globally, from the Australian “ANZAC biscuit” and “Tim Tam” to the Sri Lankan “Koki’s”. The cookie / biscuit is truly an amazing concept and after over a thousand years it’s still much loved and changing with society to bring delicious snacking relief to our world.