The history of biscuits can be traced back to a recipe created by the Roman chef Apicius, in which “a thick paste of fine wheat flour was boiled and spread out on a plate. When it had dried and hardened it was cut up and then fried until crisp, then served with honey and pepper.”
The word ‘Biscuit’ is derived from the Latin words ‘Bis’ (meaning ‘twice’) and ‘Coctus’ (meaning cooked or baked). The word ‘Biscotti’ is also the generic term for cookies in Italian. Back then, biscuits were unleavened, hard and thin wafers which, because of their low water content, were ideal food to store.
As people started to explore the globe, biscuits became the ideal travelling food since they stayed fresh for long periods. The seafaring age, thus, witnessed the boom of biscuits when these were sealed in airtight containers to last for months at a time. Hard track biscuits (earliest version of the biscotti and present-day crackers) were part of the staple diet of English and American sailors for many centuries. In fact, the countries which led this seafaring charge, such as those in Western Europe, are the ones where biscuits are most popular even today. Biscotti is said to have been a favourite of Christopher Columbus who discovered America!
Making good biscuits is quite an art, and history bears testimony to that. During the 17th and 18th Centuries in Europe, baking was a carefully controlled profession, managed through a series of ‘guilds’ or professional associations. To become a baker, one had to complete years of apprenticeship – working through the ranks of apprentice, journeyman, and finally master baker. Not only this, the amount and quality of biscuits baked were also carefully monitored.
The English, Scotch and Dutch immigrants originally brought the first cookies to the United States and they were called teacakes. They were often flavoured with nothing more than the finest butter, sometimes with the addition of a few drops of rose water. Cookies in America were also called by such names as “jumbles”, “plunkets” and “cry babies”.
As technology improved during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the price of sugar and flour dropped. Chemical leavening agents, such as baking soda, became available and a profusion of cookie recipes occurred. This led to the development of manufactured cookies.
Interestingly, as time has passed and despite more varieties becoming available, the essential ingredients of biscuits haven’t changed – like ‘soft’ wheat flour (which contains less protein than the flour used to bake bread) sugar, and fats, such as butter and oil. Today, though they are known by different names the world over, people agree on one thing – nothing beats the biscuit!
Some interesting facts on the origin of other forms of biscuits:
The recipe for oval shaped cookies (that are also known as boudoir biscuits, sponge biscuits, sponge fingers, Naples biscuits and Savoy biscuits) has changed little in 900 years and dates back to the house of Savoy in the 11th century France. Peter the Great of Russia seems to have enjoyed an oval-shaped cookie called “lady fingers” when visiting Louis XV of France.
The macaroon – a small round cookie with crisp crust and a soft interior – seems to have originated in an Italian monastery in 1792 during the French Revolution.
SPRING-uhr-lee, have been traditional Christmas cookies in Austria and Bavaria for centuries. They are made from a simple egg, flour and sugar dough and are usually rectangular in shape. These cookies are made with a leavening agent called ammonium carbonate and baking ammonia.
The inspiration for fortune cookies dates back to the 12th and 13th Centuries, when Chinese soldiers slipped rice paper messages into moon cakes to help co-ordinate their defence against Mongolian invaders