Biscuit Etiquette – Part 2

The biscuit world is awash with pretenders and charlatans. We’ve all seen them…offering the promise of cake when they’re clearly nothing of the kind, or wearing airs and graces that sit oddly with the paucity of their origins. Thankfully there is at least one biscuit that wears a nobility and bearing that brings certainty to the world. A confection upon which a way of life can be built. A teatime snack that is all things to all men. I speak of course of the wondrous Digestive.

Its unassuming face and structure suggest a simplicity that most find comforting and instantly appealing. Here you will not discover sticky fillings that must be carefully negotiated, or flaky carapaces that seem taut to the point of explosion as they approach the unwary mouth. No. The quiet, determined aura of the Digestive reassures you that it’s on your side.

As Nelson prepared his battle plans for the engagement at Trafalgar, and wrestled with the dangers of his ‘Touch’ manoeuver, you know that as he slumped into his captains chair, took his tea in his hands, felt the gentle roll of the cabin beneath his feet, and picked up a digestive that his kindly steward had saved for a time as dark as this, he would have felt his worries melt away and his courage return whilst in the company of such reserved strength.

While Churchill prepared his ‘On the beaches’ speech you can be certain that a plate of digestives nestled nearby. Shakespeare’s original manuscripts are no doubt awash with brown crumbs that even now remain sweet to the taste. If only Captain Oates had remembered to include a pack of them in his rucksack while preparing for the antarctic expedition then maybe things would have turned out different…

So what makes the digestive so special? Well, it has a unique place in the nation’s heart in so far as you will find it just as readily being dunked into the tea of builders while on their tea-break as you will on the fine china plate of royalty. The special blend of sweetness, alongside the perfect balance of tensile strength that means it stays crisp in the bite but quickly melts into your mouth, lends it what William Blake once described as a ‘fearful symmetry’.  It can bear being buttered to make digestive sandwiches, brave the hot waters of tea without falling apart, and dwell happily amongst its biscuit brethren without appearing to be trying too hard.

In many ways it represents the British as we want to be seen. A stiff upper lip, hardy in the travel, most palatable, and able to walk with paupers and kings. Ask anyone whether they want a digestive and the answer will be unanimous in the affirmative – unless the people you are proffering them too are either escaped mental patients or possibly French.

So, the digestive is a confectionary representation of the British ideal. It is quite simply Michael Palin in biscuit form.

Biscuit Etiquette – Part 1

As we’ve already mentioned on a previous post the British do love a good cuppa. Alongside the beverage of champions though is something that is as much a necessity or comrade-in-arms as Emma Peel was to Steed, Scully to Mulder, or Butch to the Sundance Kid. I speak, of course, of that most gentle of confection…the humble biscuit.

It’s a subtlety of the British manner system (more on that in a later post) that is usually overlooked, but such neglect can have devastating consequences. Imagine the scene : You invite a classic Brit into your home, offer them a cup of tea, show them much kindness, feed them a veritable feast, possibly entertain them with games or even performances from the piano in your parlour, hand-knit them a scarf and matching hat while executing a particularly difficult and intricate gymnastics routine, then carry them home through the snow on your bare back. You would expect some appreciation for your fine hostelry, but the thing going through your guest’s mind the entire time in the warmth of your home would be,

‘Why didn’t they give me a biscuit with my tea? How did I offend them? Maybe they hate me… right, that’s it! My vengeance will be swift and terrible!’

Wars start this way people, long and terrible wars – although mostly internalised and only played out through slight impoliteness in extreme cases. To avoid such faux pas, and as a vital way of understanding British culture,  observing the nuances of biscuit etiquette is of utmost importance.  But such is the complexity of the subject that I thought I would begin a series today that points out the essentials that will help you survive even the most testing afternoon tea without drawing the occasional disapproving glance.

To understand the way Brits interact with biscuits first you must understand the things themselves. So here we begin our survival guide to Biscuit etiquette with one of nature’s most obvious danger signs.

The Rich Tea Biscuit (or as it’s know in street parlance ‘The Quiet Assassin’)

Danger! Danger!

If your host presents you with a plate of Rich Tea biscuits then immediately several things become apparent. Firstly they’re a simple, practical person. No unnecessary frills, whistles or bells are needed for them to feel secure in themselves. But take a glance around the room… are things a little too clean? Does everything have its place, and everything in its place? Possibly the furniture or decorations tend to be spotlessly white? If children live in the house is there any evidence of their existence except for the quiet, small creatures that shuffle into the room at dinnertime, their clothes buttoned up to the neck, hair firmly brushed into a side parting and not a crease in sight?

The safest thing for you to do is make profuse apologies about realising that you’ve left the oven on at home next to your narcoleptic, chain-smoking, grandma who was sleepily sitting on your woolen sofa watching Countdown. Then carefully replace your biscuit, being most deliberate in your efforts not to drop a single crumb onto the floor, and leave the house at a formidable pace.

Once outside run as fast as you can until you’ve put at least 20 leagues between you and the abode, then breath a sigh of relief, for you have escaped the clutches of a serial killer. The Rich Tea biscuit is such an obvious sign of repressed anger, fear, and passion that the host may as well have arrived at the door in a blood-soaked butcher’s apron, knife in hand, screaming that they were about to turn you into a pie.

It’s pretty much tasteless, often pulls apart while being dunked in tea, and has a strange resemblance to Farley’s Rusks…only less fun. To willingly give these to people without the accompaniment of chocolate digestives, Jaffa cakes, or Jammy Dodgers is obviously an evil ploy to gum up your mouth and thus dampen your screams when the chainsaw gets fired up.

So beware the Rich Tea biscuit, and those that bear them…