The subject to write about is ‘Biscuits’

Something from my writing group last year:

So… the subject to write about is ‘Biscuits’… and my mind is empty of anything but a few crumbs…

Perhaps if I start by thinking about actual biscuits rather than fictitious ones, then I might make some progress. I know that the word biscuit means ‘twice-cooked’ and I thought it came from French, but no, it comes from Latin ‘bis cotus’; I think where the French came in was when they put the two words together to make biscuit. These biscuits were baked, and then put back into a slow oven to dry out. However, twice cooked biscuits, biscotti aren’t really what most people have in mind when they ask for a biscuit.

Most people are thinking more along the lines of a custard cream (and really, which way do you eat them?) bourbons, Nice, chocolate digestive, Garibaldi, rich tea…

Apparently the Romans and the Persians made a type of biscuit, but not the sort of item we know today, made simply from fat, flour sugar and flavouring. British biscuits as we know them emerged during that mysterious and imprecise period, the Middle Ages. They were made alongside pancakes, to use up those ingredients which were forsaken during Lent…

However, I think cooks have been rubbing the ingredients together and making them into shapes and baking them for  as long as those ingredients have been available– they are so simple, so portable and with such a variety of flavourings and additions.

Fast forward to the Tudors with our images of massive feasts and great jollification, interspersed with burning a few heretics; the rich had a great fondness for sweet food, including gingerbread, which was more like the sort of continental gingerbread we buy around Christmas time in German markets, the dry cinnamony biscuit treats rather than our lovely sticky cakey gingery gingerbread.

This was the era of marzipan, or marchpane…

Writing … Now maybe I could revert to the task and write about the Battle of the Marchpanes… When my husband and I were first together we invited friends for a Tudor banquet, and to complete the meal we decided to offer marchpane… The contemporary recipe I had, didn’t make it clear exactly what I should do and so I baked them. I now know that baking marzipan welds it to the baking tray… the marchpanes were offered as entertainment rather than a dessert and this incident has been known as the Bttle of the Marchpanes ever since.

I’m not sure that marchpanes count as biscuits…

I came across a couple of nice definitions,  “Biscuits in the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man and Ireland are hard, and may be savoury or sweet”, and another “smallish, hardish, flattish, floury disks “. This might seem blatantly obvious, but if you go to some other parts of the world and ask for a biscuit, a biscuit is not what you get; in the United States you get something like a flat scone which sounds very undunkable and the sort of thing to be covered in butter and jam. How did this happen? Surely the Mayflower took biscuit making skills with them? It may be down to the Scots and people from Guernsey because they make something called ‘soft biscuits’ which are all but in name, scones.

If you are having a nice cup of tea or a coffee and want a biscuit while in the USA, you have to ask for a cookie. When I was a child my mum made what she called cookies… these I later found out are actually melting moments; now bakers and supermarkets and discrete shops sell cookies, which are actually softer and squidgier than our ‘proper’ biscuits, but maybe they are the nearest thing in the United States.

Another American word which I haven’t quite worked out is cracker; we mean something on which you put cheese, but I think crackers could actually be a sort of biscuit in the English definition. I know an American friend who sends me recipes, often uses Graham crackers which are similar to digestive biscuits.

So, back to biscuits, and by the way, in Spanish they are bizcocho, in German Biskuitmasse, in Russian бисквит and in Polish biszkopt.

Everyone who has read Treasure Island knows about ships’ biscuits, and they are another reason I can’t believe that biscuits as we know them are a recent thing. Travelling long distances anywhere, by land or even more by sea, biscuits are the perfect convenience food. The ancient Egyptians had a bready cakey thing made from millet flour called dhourra, the Romans had a biscuit along the bis cotus lines called buccellum which they ate with honey and pepper, and at the time of the Amada, Drake’s gallant lads had a daily allowance of a gallon of beer and a pound of biscuits…

To return to confectionary biscuits from sixteenth century hard tack, and not diverting to shortbread and Mary Queen of Scots, biscuits as we know them properly, really came to the fore in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution, revolutionised even small bake-houses and bakeries.

I looked at the 1841 census, and just to take a sample looked for the name ‘Smith’ and the word ’biscuit’; there was Margaret Smith, aged thirty and living in Lanarkshire, a bread and biscuit maker. By 1851 there were eight biscuit making Smiths, including in Portsea, James Smith, a ‘Confectioner & Biscuit Baker Employing 4 Men 9 Boys & 2 Women’… by the end of the century there were 216 people named Smith involved across the country in biscuit making…

Biscuits are big in Britain…

Now, how should one correctly eat a custard cream? … and what should I write?






Oh… here’s the melting moment aka cookie recipe:

  • 2½ oz margarine
  • 1½ oz lard
  • 3 oz caster sugar
  • ½ medium egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • 5 oz self-raising flour
  • oats or desiccated coconut
  • glacé cherries


  1. Heat oven to 180ºC, 350ºF, Gas Mark 4. Grease two baking trays.
  2. Cream the margarine, lard and the sugar until very light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla essence.
  3. Stir in the flour and mix well.
  4. Roll walnut sized pieces of the mixture into balls and toss in rolled oats or desiccated coconut.
  5. Place on baking trays, flatten slightly and place a small piece of cherry on each biscuit. Bake for 10-15 minutes.




Jane Hayles 1816 35 Portsea Servant , Shop Attendant

Morris Morgan 1827 24 England Portsea Servant, Biscuit Baker

Julia Ralfs 1826  25 Portsea Servant, Shop Attendant

George Self 1831 20 Portsea, Servant, Baker

George Smith 1840 11  Portsea, Son

James Smith 1806 45 Lasham Head Confectioner & Biscuit Baker Employing 4 Men 9 Boys & 2 Women

Fanny Steel 1829 22 Havant Servant House Servant

Sarah White 1790 61 Sussex Servant, Housekeeper

James Wren 1827 24 Henfield Servant Confectioner



Jonno Cherry and Campbell McGilvery


Last Name Smith
Birth Year 1835
Age 16
Birth Place England
Birth Town Henley on Thames
Birth County Oxfordshire
Relationship To Head of Household Son
Gender Male
Occupation Biscuit Makers Boy
Street Bosier Square
Parish Reading St.Mary
City Reading



James Smith 1806 45 Lasham Head Confectioner & Biscuit Baker Employing 4 Men 9 Boys & 2 Women

Fanny Steel 1829 22 Havant Servant House Servant

Sarah White 1790 61 Sussex Servant, Housekeeper

James Wren 1827 24 Henfield Servant Confectioner


Plus six others in Birmingham, reading, Nothampton, Bristol, st Luke, and hanover square

Over the years 216, 95, 54, 22


One Comment

  1. David Lewis

    We call them cookies in Canada and my favorite is peanut butter chocolate chip. The trouble is that the cookie jar is located on the way to the bathroom so it’s hard to ignore as it seems to have magnetic powers as well. One more cookie wouldn’t hurt I guess?


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