Book Review – The Biscuit: The History of a Very British Indulgence

The Biscuit: The History of a Very British Indulgence
Lizzie Collingham

Tea and a biccie? The biscuit is ubiquitous in British culture (see what I did there?), but here in North America, there’s been a distortion of usage over the years. What we know in North America as a biscuit — a light, flaky, risen cake — is known as a scone in England. Crackers — a  plain or savoury, dry, flat unleavened bread, cut into equal sized shapes — are biscuits, but biscuits can also be sweet, although they’re usually still plain. And what we call a cookie isn’t really a biscuit either, cookies being thicker, softer in the centre and containing other ingredients such as chocolate or fruit. The exception to this might be the shortbread and its ilk which can be both. Confused yet? Author Lizzie Collingham will enlighten you.

The biscuit started out as a twice-baked bread slice or rusk, back in Roman times, designed to ensure the product had a longer life. Because these dry flat breads lasted forever, they eventually became standard fare for sailors (sea biscuits), and that, in turn, was a huge propeller of British colonialism, as it was these same biscuits that kept sailors alive and allowed them to conquer (invade, destroy… you get the picture) foreign lands.

As the biscuit morphed from a dry, hard stale bit of carb to a slightly more fragile, flavourful and often sweetened treat, they became a marker of social status, particularly in British colonies where they represented a taste of home for the occupying British and a more high-class treat for the occupied to aspire to. Brands fought over territory, often using vividly decorated tins as marketing tools (whose Gran doesn’t have a coveted biscuit tin or two from the mid-20th century?), and offering a plethora of flavours and styles that have long since been abandoned in favour of the most basic varieties.

Tracing the biscuit from Roman times to the beginnings of confectionery in the middle-east, to the industrial revolution in the Victorian era, and then on to their role in keeping up morale during wartime, Collingham serves up a succinct plate of tasty morsels that are just like the biscuits she covers; neither too bland and boring or overwrought with too much sweet stuff.

In the process, she makes a case for both the importance of the biscuit in world and British history and how politics and social developments shaped the growth of the biscuit business, and how demand for biscuits was tied to further colonialism.

There are plenty of photos and images throughout and  Collingham even includes a selection of recipes for favourite varieties. The writing style is fun and engaging, the author avoids overly-academic language which helps to make the work more interesting to the average reader who may have been more intrigued by the biscuit part and less about the history aspect.

Fun and entertaining, while also being educational, best read with a nice cup of tea and, obviously, a plate of biccies to go with.