I remember from Pocahontas the animated film that John Smith offered Meeko the raccoon a piece of hard tack biscuit as a peace offering. The idea of gravy and biscuits is another Americanism. The American word “cookie” should encompass the idea of the British biscuit, but it doesn’t quite suffice. (Here’s a good overview of the etymological confusion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biscuits )I have a love affair with biscuits almost as rampant as my love affair with British radio, Doctor Who, and tea.
The first British biscuit I think I ever knew were rich tea, which World Market and an independent purveyor of all things Anglo-Irish, Bally Dun Imports (no longer around), sold in Albuquerque. At the time, I thought the name for them was the brand (hence I called them McVities biscuits rather than rich tea), therefore proving once again that both sides of the Atlantic easily confound brand names and nouns. I really liked these McVities, though one should understand that they are only meant to be eaten with tea (or dunked in tea)—they don’t have any tea in them.
Much later I learned of digestive biscuits and their close cousins Hobknobs (mentioned, I believe, in Jacqueline Rayner’s Winner Takes All). The former are powdery, oaty biscuits and the latter are oaty, crumbly cakes that taste as if they’ve been flavored with honey (though I have no idea if they have). They make one feel virtuous and therefore I tend to eat a lot, therefore defeating the whole healthfulness imbued in them by the oats. Chocolate digestive biscuits have one side covered in chocolate, either plain (dark) or milk. The name digestive, by the way, comes from the early variety thought to have been endowed with antacid properties (due to the baking soda/soda bicarbonate). I don’t know that they help me digest, but I like to eat them.
Custard crèmes and bourbon crèmes are extremely common biscuit varieties. If they did what they said on the tin, the former would really be called “vanilla cream sandwiches” and the latter “chocolate cream sandwiches”—in taste they remind me somewhat of E L Fudge cookies from Keebler. I remember one of the first impressions I had of J was that he looked down on custard crèmes as inferior to bourbon crèmes!
A personal favorite that I’ve recently found are fruit shortcake biscuits, which are somewhat similar to rich tea in the cookie base, but lighter and filled with bits of dried fruit and dusted with caster (granulated) sugar. Again, one is convinced by the presence of the fruit that they are somehow better for you than other biscuit varieties. I also have a passion for ginger nut biscuits, which are basically like ginger snaps and have a very strong ginger taste.
The varieties go on and on. Jammie dodgers, rich tea fingers, wagon wheels, Penguins, Tunnocks tea cakes, Tunnocks caramel wafers . . . I’m sure some of our British readers can name some favorites I’ve never even heard of. There are regional variations (I’m sure I can’t count a Welsh cake as a biscuit; it a cake . . . but by that logic, is a fig newton a cookie or fruited cake or a biscuit??). My flatmate Radha’s favorite biscuit/cookie is the Oreo, which has made a killing here in Britain since being slyly placed on the shelves in the second half of 2009. My very Welsh friend Julie has a positive lust for French Fancies, but whether these count as cakes or biscuits I’m not sure.
As you can see, I’m just dithering now. Time for a biccie.