No visitor to the UK should leave without sampling Britain’s best biscuits – they even earned their very own festival this year. My crunch guide to the real must-tries…
About the author: I’m Laura Mannering and I’m Editor of World Out There. Laura’s Travel Notes is the part of the blog where I put my briefer tips, musings and opinions – colourful snack-size travel bites to inspire you.
Earlier this month there was a celebration held to revere one of Britain’s oldest, crumbliest institutions – no, not the Queen’s Jubilee (sorry Your Maj). It was the first ever British Biscuit Festival.
Held at the Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury, central London, there were tables of posh biccies, Charleston dancers showing off their moves, a build-your-own biscuit stall and a map tracing the journeys of famous British explorers who had counted long-lasting biscuits among their essential supplies (Scott, Shackleton). There were crowds and a village fete atmosphere – and lots of sugar rushes.
At the Candipops stall, young designer Candida Bradley was selling brilliant handmade replica biscuit keyrings – she lives in Bermondsey, east London, once nicknamed ‘biscuit town’ because of the famous Peek Frean biscuit factory which opened in 1866 and shut down in 1989. Inventors of the bourbon biscuit and the Garibaldi – two British classics – the factory meant that Bermondsey was once constantly enveloped in the smells of biscuit baking.
But the best treats at the festival were to be had from the assorted freebie tins around the place – custard creams, bourbons, jammie dodgers and iced rings, the biscuits of my British 1970s/80s childhood.
My family had a biscuit jar on top of the telly in the kitchen and it was the first thing we did when we got home from school – boil the kettle for a cup of tea and snaffle a couple of biccies.
First used as long-life snack for explorers, soldiers and sailors, the British biscuit has become a simple, affordable comfort which crosses class boundaries.
Yes, there are lots of posh permutations of the biscuit, but most people’s eyes light up at the sight of an old-fashioned a custard cream. The tins of classic biccies at the festival diminished rapidly as visitors pounced on their nostalgic favourites.
And as if further proof were needed, Britain’s 16-24 year olds made it official in a recent survey, saying they preferred traditional biccies and refusing to dismiss them as ‘boring’.
The organisers of this year’s British Biscuit Festival are hoping to make it an annual fixture – a fitting tribute to a crunchy cultural institution.
In the meantime, if you are making a trip to the UK, here are the top five British biscuits you should chomp with a cup of tea. Packs are available in all supermarkets for less than a pound…
Britain’s best biscuits: The definitive top five
The bourbon: To my mind, the king of biscuits. Two chocolate biscuit oblongs filled with chocolate fondant, the bourbon was first launched by Peek Frean in 1910. It was originally called the Creola, but was given extra gravitas when it was renamed after Europe’s historic empire-building monarchs, the Bourbons. Today it’s still a major player in the classic biscuit realm. As a child, I used to incur the wrath of my granddad due to my bourbon-eating technique – painstakingly biting the top biscuit off first, bit by bit, then nibbling the biscuit corners around the fondant, thus leaving a creamy raft of goodness to be savoured…
The custard cream: This one was overwhelmingly voted the nation’s favourite biscuit in 2007 – around since 1908, the swirls on top are said to be inspired by Victorian fern motifs. The main thing is, it tastes darn good – the biscuits are buttery and the fondant inside has a custard-y flavour, hence the name. Ripe for the annoying bourbon-eating technique outlined above.
The jammie dodger: Slightly more sophisticated and harder to eat, the jammie dodger is quite a hefty snack. Two thick, round shortbread biscuits are held together by a sturdy dollop of strawberry jam, a kind of sugary super-glue. As a child I was amazed at how difficult it was to prise those two biscuit discs apart. Still am. Attempts to deconstruct a jammie dodger tend to create lots of crumbs.
The ginger nut: Too simple for me as a child (it’s one biscuit, with nothing in the middle, thus quite boring) I now appreciate the fragrant ginger, the honey after-taste and the high-crunch factor of the ginger nut – there’s nothing soft about this biscuit. If you want to liven it up a bit, dunk it in a cup of tea for a few seconds then suck the absorbed liquid from the biscuit itself before it disintegrates into your mouth. Magic.
The digestive: McVitie’s has been making biscuits since 1830 and there are now lots of permutations of the original plain digestive. A salty, crumbly biscuit as at home with cheese on top as dunked in tea, it’s a trusty, unfussy stalwart of the classic biccie family. Milk chocolate digestives were a special treat when I was younger – the first I would nab from the Christmas assortment tin. As an adult, I have progressed to the dark chocolate version – the original digestive with a layer of shiny plain chocolate on one side. A quality biscuit indeed.