TEA-TIME WITHOUT BISCUITS IS UNIMAGINABLE, says pladis. It was our advertising slogan that was remembered for years: ‘Tea-time without Ülker is unimaginable’.
Then … we said, “don’t forget to bring Ülker this evening, Dad.’
I don’t know if we could sell biscuits today without advertising or reminders. However, I suppose our customers have such expectations, even if some addictions of our consumers are still permanent…
A ‘biscuit’ means that it has been twice-cooked. It’s a habit from very ancient times, left from rusks. Interestingly, at the beginning of the 20th century, biscuits, with the production approach brought by the industrial revolution, its long shelf life and by the way of packaging, were superior to handmade products and became a good, common, folk-type luxury. In Crimea, my grandmother kept her children content with an Ottoman upbringing. Their Russian neighbors used to say “don’t pamper them, will they feed you with biscuits?” After all, she would say, “It’s God’s work,” and be grateful.
In short, biscuit manufacturing is a tricky business, requiring a little chemistry, a little more physics, and, most of all, dexterity. Let me give an example: If you make pies at home every day without stopping, let the color, taste, thickness, and density/weight be the same in every corner and center of the tray, and if I say on all trays. Will it ever happen? Yet, this is precisely what is necessary in order to manufacture biscuits. Because no one wants a biscuit or package with a different taste, shape, thickness or weight in exchange for their money, right? I learned milling and biscuit making in Manhattan, Kansas, crackers at South Polytechnic in London, cookies in Midwest America, extrusion in Sabetha, Kansas, butter, chocolate, and confectionery in Solingen. Since high school, I have been actively involved in R&D; that is, I am a biscuit and chocolate maker. Recently, while writing the Verkade museum article, I quickly read Lizzie Collingham’s book “The Biscuit: The History of a Very British Indulgence”. Below, I would like to discuss the history of biscuits briefly based on this book, and maybe it will be of interest to you.
Biscuits are the most versatile of foodstuffs. They are associated with the middle class, durability, luxury, and indulgence,” says Lizzi Collingham. In which book? In “The Biscuit: The History of a Very British Indulgence” (*)…
This book is an essential resource for a biscuit manufacturer, examining the history of biscuits from a multi-faceted perspective. Lizzie Collingham, a historian at the University of Warwick, in her book sheds light on the micro-history of biscuits, including wafers, waffles, and gingerbread. Readers learn about the evolution of biscuits on the stage of history, how economic, social, and political conditions affect the art of biscuit making, and how biscuits passed from the table of the privileged elite to the table of the common folk over time. In addition to how biscuit factories have developed throughout history, readers have the opportunity to learn about life in a biscuit factory, the various uses of biscuit boxes, biscuit advertisements, and the history of famous biscuit brands. The author has researched not only public archives but privately published cookbooks and stories of workers, sailors, bakers, and soldiers.
This book has much more details and includes recipes for many products, such as Spicy Biscuits, Sponge Fingers, Ginger Biscuits, Spring Buns, Pistachio Cookies, Muffins, Macarons, Anzac Biscuits, and Fig Rolls. There are also sections providing important information about Wafers, Waffles, Gingerbread, Funeral Biscuits, Digestive Biscuits and Biscuit Boxes. It is also a vital resource for those who want to write the history of a product or a brand.
The book begins with the rebellion on the British ship Bounty in 1789; among the things that these rebels, who were also filmed, loaded on the ship were 150lb (70kg) biscuits. Because biscuits were one of the most important items for survival. The mutiny starts as the boat of William Bligh and his crew of 18 was set adrift by the current and wind around the Tongan archipelago on April 28, 1789. They had to be content with a quarter liter of water and an ounce (30g) of biscuits a day to complete this challenging journey ahead of them. Biscuits have been the staple food of sailors, soldiers, travelers, and explorers for centuries, as it is one of the most viable and durable methods of preserving the nutritional value of wheat.
In the 1930s, a food writer described the biscuit as “the most aristocratic sweet transformation of wheat, easy to transport, extremely durable and digestible, that can be eaten at any time of the day.” According to him, “the biscuit is a candidate to become one of the most common and democratic foods for all people.”
The Mesopotamians discovered in 3000 B.C.E. that cooking the grain twice would make it sweeter and be stored longer.
On the morning of August 24, 79 C.E., enslaved people at the Modestus bakery in Pompeii were still busy making bread. Eighty-one loaves of bread baked that morning were found in Victorian excavations approximately 2,000 years later. The first biscuits were dry bread produced as a staple food.
Like the Greeks, the Romans also baked their bread twice to make biscuits. Athenaeus spoke of biscuits made from “delicious loaves.” The Romans made panis bicoctus (twice cooked) hard rusks. This Latin phrase will later be referred to as “biscuit”; that is, the method of making a biscuit is hidden in its name. Panis bicoctus was used as a durable and easily transportable bread variety by the Roman army and navy. As it is frequently encountered in various sources, twice-baked bread was the basis of the monastic diet.
The first people to add sugar to the dough of twice-baked bread, called ‘baqsamat‘ in Arabic, were confectioners living in Islamic geography. By adding sugar to the dough, the bread became a sweet biscuit-like rusk called “baqsamat bi sukkar.” The ancient Greeks and Romans used a honey-like substance harvested from reeds in India and Arabia. At some point in the fourth century B.C.E., North American Indians discovered how to produce hard crystalline sugar lumps by boiling and straining cane juice.
There was no information in the literature of ancient and medieval medical practitioners to help them distinguish food from medicine. By the 8th century, the Islamic world had replaced the Roman Empire as the center of scientific and gastronomic innovation. Arab doctors classified sugar as a hot and moist substance, like blood, and therefore neutral in that it does not disturb the balance of the body; they said it is suitable for all ages. Islamic cuisine also quickly assimilated this excellent food. Sugar can be found in every recipe in Sayyar al Warraq’s 10th-century cookbook. Nestorian physician and theologian Ibn Butlan, who was born in Baghdad in the 11th century, recommended to consume candies made with camphor and rose water when the weather is hot and candied figs and hazelnuts when it is cold. For this reason, eating sweet biscuits was seen as a kind of preventive medicine in ancient times.
Arab/European culinary with Islamic confectionery, a Catalonian cookbook compiled in the 1400s, is the first written proof that the Arab art of confectionery came to Europe. The first cookbook to document Italian cuisine during the Renaissance, On Right Pleasure and Good Health (1470), was written by Bartolomeo Sacchi who was not a cook and commonly known as Platina.
A century later, Italian versions of both sweet rusks and sweet dough biscuits of the Arab world emerged among the various confectionery served at Renaissance feasts. At that time, biscuits were eaten at the beginning and at the end of the meal.
“Waffles and Wafers” is also an extremely interesting part of the book. The author explains: Waffles are considered a kind of biscuit. However, it is not directly related to rusk bread baked twice.
Lady Elinor Fettiplace who is mentioned in the fourth chapter of the book, derived a variety of biscuits, ranging from English biscuits to Spanish and Italian biscuits with egg-leavened doughs, from Arab rusks and twice-baked bread of the ancient world at Appleton Mansion in 1589. Lady Elinor flavored her biscuit bread with seeds and flavored with cumin while using coriander to aid digestion and anise to freshen breath and suppress the stomach. Biscuits thus entered the British culinary repertoire as a protective product against digestive disorders.
In the Middle Ages, the efficient production of their biscuits was the main concern of any nation that wanted to dominate the sea.
The Ottoman Empire also initially relied on biscuit imports from Egypt for naval supplies, but as the Ottoman power increased, The Sultan established bakeries in Istanbul under the responsibility of “Emin-i Peksimad.” The navy managers closely followed the quality of the biscuits and sometimes even presented samples to the sultan. Before long, bakeries were opened in Crete, Peloponnese, Cyprus, and Çanakkale.
Marine discoveries led to a boom in global trade. Seafarers’ long-lasting biscuits were the staple food of transoceanic commerce. Seafarers’ biscuits were one of the first foodstuffs to be produced industrially. To support his naval explorations, John I of Portugal (1357-1433) also built a large biscuit oven next to the royal palace for the navy.
Thomas Grant published the details of biscuit production machines in scientific journals. Five years later, he introduced similar machines for making sailor biscuits at the Carlisle bread factory. We, as pladis still produce J.D. Carrs’ famous TABLE WATER Biscuits in stone ovens in the city of Carlisle and sell them all over the world. In 1846, when Huntley & Palmers established the first mechanized biscuit factory in Reading, England, England had become the world’s leading producer of industrial biscuits.
The production of high-quality, superior biscuits was an important condition of being a powerful empire. Merchant ships, which were the lifeblood of European trade empires, and the navies that protected them, needed biscuits.
The reason for the confusion in the history of biscuits in America is the terminology. What the British call biscuits today, the Americans call them crackers or cookies; What the British call a donut, South Americans call it a biscuit.
In the 18th century, we saw that fancy biscuits proliferate, and cookbooks were full of recipes.
Finally, industrial production allowed sweet biscuits to reach the global market. England, the world’s leading industrial country, was also the birthplace of industrial biscuits. English biscuits were now exported to Europe. About three-quarters of all U.K. biscuit exports were made to Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, as well as Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia, Russia, and Turkey. After British biscuit companies laid the foundations of the intercontinental industrial biscuit market, European manufacturers stepped in to get their share of this success. European biscuit manufacturers imported British equipment and imitated the biscuits of British companies. Even the Germans made English-style products and called them the English Cake and Biscuit Factory. At the beginning of the 20th century, European biscuit manufacturers were competing with the British in their own markets.
As for Biscuit Tins, tin boxes which were used to store the product had many interesting uses apart from their main purpose. In the 19th century, manufacturers were making boxes so attractive that customers wanted to keep the tins longtime after the biscuits were finished. The first tins were decorated with pictures of flowers and colorful geometric patterns. Later tins contained hunting scenes, winter landscapes, or figures of people wearing turbans, with elephants or camels to evoke the East. Biscuit boxes were so attractive that they were often kept on the mantelpiece as decorative objects, helping to promote the product and the brand.
In 1954, Hector Laing, president of McVitie’s & Price, introduced manufacturing innovations realized without human intervention at McVities’ biscuit factory in Harlesden, London. These innovations were almost “revolutionary.” Automating processes has greatly reduced costs without compromising the quality of product components. While McVities payed twice as much for quality raw materials as most of its competitors, the savings in time and labor; made it twice as profitable as its competitors. In the following periods, other biscuit manufacturers followed this method of McVities. By 1968 the number of workers needed to produce one ton of biscuits had decreased by a third, but compared to 1939, the factory was producing at twice as much capacity. By the 1970s, noisy machines had replaced the girls cheerfully singing music hall songs. United Biscuits chairman Hector Laing dreamed of creating a marvel of automation where he could operate the entire factory at the touch of a button. At the beginning of the 2000s, the vision of making biscuit factories fully operational with computer processes was realized.
Prior to the First World War, biscuits rarely came to the table in meeting places. Biscuits, Chocolate biscuits emerged between the world wars. Cadbury is considered to be the first company to produce chocolate biscuits in 1891. There was Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp, renamed KitKat, in 1935. They touted this biscuit as “the best friend to a cup of tea.” Between 1920 and 1938, the amount households spent for biscuits in Britain doubled. A study of biscuit eating habits revealed that in 1945 people from all walks of life ate biscuits at almost every hour of the day.
After all, all kinds of biscuits contain a mystery, and they reflect the conditions of the place and time they were made. Biscuits are such a “flexible” food that they can be associated with almost every aspect of the food category. They continued their adventure, which they started to help digestion at the end of the meal with to be consumed during breaks during the day and at any time of the day and on every occasion. They can be consumed alongside almost anything; sometimes, they can even replace the meal. As you can see, the biscuit is the cultural heritage of the people with its production and consumption.
(*) Collingham, L. (2022. The Biscuit: The History of a Very British Indulgence, Vintage, p.304.
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