Monday, August 30, 2010

Digestive biscuits.

We had ‘dyspepsia bread’ on Friday, so why not ‘digestive biscuits’ today? My impression was that digestive biscuits were particularly English, in comparison to the unequivocally American ‘dyspepsia bread.’ I thought I should know, being reared in the North of England where a digestive biscuit is an almost compulsory accompaniment to a cuppa. It appears though, that ‘digestive biscuits’ began to be mentioned with increasing frequency in both the USA and England by the 1840’s, and by the 1860’s, according to one source, were becoming ‘fashionable’.

It seems that my impression of an English origin can be blamed squarely on Messrs. Huntley and Palmer and Messrs. McVitie, who were responsible for the modern commercial product. These very popular biscuits – renamed ‘sweetmeal biscuits’ in the 1950’s - are, however, a far cry from the original ‘digestive biscuits.’

Wikipedia claims that the term ‘digestive’ is derived from the belief that the biscuits had antacid properties due to the use of sodium bicarbonate when they were first developed. Sorry, Wikipedia - the earliest digestive biscuits had no soda in them at all. They were leavened with yeast if they were leavened at all. They were frighteningly ‘healthy’ unsweetened brown discs, named ‘digestive’ with the same rationale as ‘dyspepsia’ bread was named – because, being excruciatingly plain, they were good (that is, they were not bad) for the digestion.

I give you a couple of terrifyingly healthy-sounding nineteenth century digestive biscuits, so that you may go down on your knees in thanks to the commercial biscuit manufacturers who gave us the ‘sweet-meal’ chocolate-coated versions which you can enjoy today.

Brown Digestive Biscuits.
Take equal parts of fine wheaten flour and meal, and mix them together. To 5 quarts of liquor, use 2 ½ lbs of butter, and 2 oz. of German yeast. Mix the whole into dough as directed for “butters”. When it has proved, make into biscuits as captains’, and bake in a sound oven. They will bake well after captains’ and Abernethy’s.
Complete Bread and Gingerbread Baker’s Assistant, London, 1854

Brown Bread Hard Biscuits.
Ingredients: 1 ¼ lb of brown wheaten flour, 1 oz. of fresh butter, a teaspoonful of salt, and rather better than ½ pint of water. Proceed as for Thick Captain’s, No. 323*. These are biscuits are also called digestive biscuits.
*Spread out the flour on the slab with a hollow in the centre, add the butter dissolved in the milk just tepid, mix, and vigorously work all together into a stiff compact smooth paste; this must be well-worked for ten minutes by pressing and jagging it with a rolling pin held in both hands; (bakers have a machine made on purpose, with which they achieve this hard work with comparative ease). You then wrap the biscuit paste in a napkin, and allow it to rest in a comparatively warm place for an hour: and, at the end of that time, divide it into twelve equal parts, mould them into balls with your hands on the floured slab, roll them out to the size of small saucers, prick them all over with a fork, bake on a floured baking-plate, in rather sharp heat.
The Royal English and Foreign Confectioner (1862)

Quotation for the Day.

“How can a society that exists on instant mashed potatoes, packaged cake mixes, frozen dinners, and instant cameras teach patience to its young?”
Paul Sweeney

1 comment:

South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild said...

There was a discussion on one of the historic foodways blogs or e-mail groups about various kinds of quick breads and crackers (especially American), and a product called "beaten biscuits" was mentioned. The beaten biscuit recipe -- as I remember -- was almost identical to that last digestive biscuit recipe, except for the use of white flour. The long period of beating with a rolling pin makes me wonder how popular these biscuits were with the cooks who made them!