The history baked into our favourite biscuits

You can nibble them, you can dunk them, you can even arrange them nicely on a plate for visitors. We’re talking about biscuits, of course.

When you’re tucking in to one of your favourite buttery treats, you’re also tasting a tiny bit of history. BBC Bitesize sat down with food historian and author Lizzie Collingham to unwrap the stories behind our favourite accompaniment to a nice cuppa.

How the custard cream reflected a trend for greenery

If you’re not too peckish, next time you have a custard cream, take a look at the design before taking your first bite. There’s a good chance you’ll spot an intricate design of straight lines and swirls.

It’s very pretty and not there by accident, either. Lizzie said: “Ferns were very fashionable in Victorian England. People would have little glass cases and grow ferns in them, sometimes in the shape of churches. It was a terribly fashionable pastime for ladies.” The design on top of the custard cream is perhaps a reflection of that trend, known as , but Lizzie believes the biscuit also represents a key moment in the industrialisation taking hold in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

The custard cream - like many other biscuits - was a product of the industrial revolution.

She explained her theory: “Custard powder was made by a chemist, Alfred Bird, whose wife was allergic to eggs. It was seen as a modern, exciting thing to make a food. Biscuits were the first industrial food, the first food stuff to be produced by a machine; form mixing, kneading, rolling out, cutting out, baking, it could all be done with minimal intervention from people. To put custard powder in a biscuit… it brought together two things which represented industrial progress.”

The exact date for the invention of the custard cream is unclear. Some sources say they first appeared in 1908, others state 1913, but - interestingly - both given years are long after the Victorian era and its passion for ferns. It didn’t seem to take long for the biscuit to capture people’s hearts; an advertisement for Peek Freans from 1920 states the custard cream is: “Far and away the most popular of all the cream sandwich biscuits.”

Garibaldi biscuits and an Italian freedom fighter

Sometimes called a ‘squashed fly’ biscuit, these dried fruit favourites date all the way back to the 1861, the year which also saw the unification of Italy.

One of the heroes of that time in Italian history was Giuseppe Garibaldi, who - together with his army, known as Red Shirts due to their distinctive clothes, led a conquest of Sicily and Naples which helped achieve unification in his homeland. When he came to Britain in 1864, Garibaldi was treated as a hero. “He was popular with the working classes,” Lizzie said, “as he believed everybody should have the vote. He was also popular with the middle and upper classes for standing up to the Bourbon and Habsburg households [two royal families based in mainland Europe].”

Such was the love for Garibaldi, when Nottingham Forest football club formed in 1865, they decided to play in the same shade of red as that worn by the people’s hero and his men.

In 1861, Jonathan Dodgson Carr invented a biscuit for Peek Freans consisting of currants sandwiched between a pair of crispy layers, one we know today as the Garibaldi. It is a little unclear what the link was between the biscuit and the man himself, although theories include a tribute to the way the Redshirts ate bread and berries when their supplies ran low. Another is that Carr simply named the biscuit after a very popular man in a clever piece of marketing.

Giuseppe Garibaldi left a significant mark on Italian, biscuit and footballing history

A digestive a day keeps the doctor away?

In her research, Lizzie discovered a cookery book containing a biscuit recipe from 1492. It was a translation from an Italian book that saw food as being close to medicine, with the body needing to balance out the four humours.

To help aid digestion, small biscuits were served in the court in Naples which could be dipped into wine. This tradition moved over to the British court in time, where the caraway seed was a popular ingredient in biscuits as they helped tackle ‘windy cholic’ - caraway seed biscuits even get a mention in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers in 1836.

Now seen as a treat, the digestive was originally created to aid digestion

In 1892, Alexander Grant developed a recipe for a digestive biscuit for the McVities company in Scotland. Although there had been other digestive biscuits before it, this was the one that still sells in its millions today. It contained the relatively new invention bicarbonate of soda. It was advertised as being good for digestion and helpful to people who weren’t feeling so well. Bicarbonate of soda is one of the elements of the digestive juice produced by the pancreas. It is an alkali, so reduces the acidity of the stomach acid that has been mixing in with food.

Although the original biscuit was advertised as having health benefits - and the exact McVities recipe remains a secret to this day - by 1925, the digestive had also become something of a treat. That was the year a layer of chocolate appeared on the biscuit for the first time - but is it on the top of the digestive, or the bottom? The debate continues to this day.

This article was first published in May 2022.