Calling all smart cookies! National Biscuit Day offers the perfect chance to go crackers about one of the world’s most popular snacks. But did you realize just how many types of biscuits there are?
American biscuits are small crusty bread rolls, often served at breakfast or as a side dish. However, in the UK, the word “biscuit” is used for flat sweet treats, which are known as “cookies” in the US. One of the most unusual traditional British varieties is the Garibaldi. Also known as the “squashed fly biscuit,” it contains currants in between two layers of dough.
History Of National Biscuit Day
Many of you will be surprised to find out that biscuits aren’t a modern invention. Instead, they were born of necessity in the ancient world. Merchants and military personnel in the Roman, Greek, and Egyptian empires would often spend many weeks at sea, ferrying cargo and making their way to foreign shores. Hence, they needed a snack that would provide them with a source of calories for the entirety of the journey. Fresh food was out of the question. It just wouldn’t keep. So captains turned to stocking their larders with dried foods that wouldn’t go off.
Preservation techniques were already fairly advanced in ancient times. People knew that if you dried something out, it would last longer and wouldn’t go off. Millers, therefore, began grinding up flours and then baking cooked bread on a low heat for an extended period. This technique helps to retain the nutrition, but removes the water content, preventing any microbes from thriving.
From that point, dried biscuit-like breads became a staple at sea. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, cooked up flat brittle loaves made of an old grain called millet. Later, the Romans created the first example of what we would recognizably call a biscuit. They spread wheat flour paste over a plate and then left it to dry and harden.
Biscuits also played a prominent role in the early history of medicine. Many physicians believed that problems with the body emerged in the bowel. An “imbalance” in the gut led to patients developing all sorts of nasty symptoms, including many health problems we would recognize today. Doctors, however, saw biscuits as a health aid – very different from the view of medics today – and prescribed them daily for people with digestive issues.
Interestingly, this approach probably would have worked. Cooks made ancient biscuits of whole grains and without sugar. They were a plain, high-fiber food, ideal for settling stomachs.
Eating biscuits at sea remained popular in the middle ages. In the sixteenth century, the Royal Navy provided its sailors with a daily allowance of a pound of cookies and a gallon of beer (yes, you did read that right!) to help them fight off the Spanish armada.
The modern conception (or should we say “confection”) of biscuits as sweet treats didn’t begin until the seventh century. The ancients saw them strictly as a travel food – something you’d take with you for long journeys that wouldn’t spoil. But the Persians began to experiment. Instead of just making the flour into a paste with water, they began incorporating other ingredients like eggs, butter, and cream to improve the texture. They noticed that when you added these items to the mix, you wind up with fluffier, more luxurious delicacies. After a while, they introduced sweet things, like fruit and honey, creating the first cookies in history.
Biscuits arrived in Europe around the end of the tenth century. Legend has it that an Armenian monk traveled from central Asia to France and passed on a recipe he had learned in the Caucuses. The main flavor at the time was ginger.
Even so, these biscuits were still not the modern confections that we enjoy today. They were fluffy and tastier than their ancient forebears, but the mass production of sugar was still absent. For most of the middle ages, biscuits were a side-show – and exotic delicacy that people in some parts of the world enjoyed on occasion as part of their traditional cuisine.
Once sugar production ratcheted up in the eighteenth century, however, the game changed. Suddenly, flour-millers and bread makers could add sweetness to their mixes and create entirely new classes of products, all at a low cost.
By the 19th century, per capita sugar consumption rocketed, and biscuit firms like McVitie’s, Crawfords, and Carr’s all set up factories to mass-produce confections.
The history of biscuits, however, bifurcated between the new and Old World. In the New World, the term came to mean a soft, leavened quickbread. In the Old World, it referred to an unleavened, hard, and flat, flour-based product.
National Biscuit Day is a celebration of biscuits of all forms – not just cookies, but also oatcakes, crackers, water biscuits, and crispbreads. While most biscuits for sale are sweet, savory varieties still make up a considerable chunk of overall sales.
How to celebrate National Biscuit Day
As you might imagine, celebrating National Biscuit Day is a lot of fun. It is your yearly excuse to eat as many biscuits as you like – and to do a spot of baking.
Baking an ancient Roman biscuit called a buccellum is perhaps the most exciting way to experience the day. While the final product won’t be as delectable as manufactured biscuits, it will give you an insight into the sort of cuisine that people enjoyed in the past while sailing.
Failing that, nothing is stopping you from baking cookies or traditional biscuit bread. What’s more, you could trial unique, healthy versions using authentic ingredients. There are plenty of recipes that still use wholemeal flours and sugar alternatives on the internet.
Biscuits are an experience that you’ll want to share. Many people, therefore, invite family and friends over for an afternoon of cookies and tea enjoyed in the traditional style. You just take your favorite type of tea (Assam, Darjeeling, and so on), add a spot of milk, some sugar, and then pair with your favorite biscuits – sweet or savory! Many people like to dunk their biscuits in their tea.
Traditionally biscuits came in particular sizes and shapes. Still, there’s no need to stick with the official format if you don’t want to. Cookies don’t have to be round. If you’ve got some shape cutters at home, put them to good use. You can make cookies in the shape of donkeys, cars, stars, hearts, triangles – whatever you have to hand. And for extra fun, you can cover them in icing sugar.
There are few crumbs of information about just how National Biscuit Day started, but that’s no reason to miss out on the celebrations. So bake up a treat for friends and family, or settle down with a cup of tea or coffee and enjoy one of your favorite varieties. Don’t forget to share your creations with your friends on social media. You never know what other biscuit fanatics are lurking out there.