Read / Tea: Tea and Biscuits

Dr Sally Bayley.

I was recently visiting a friend in Hampstead and naturally was offered tea. I was alarmed to find that, for her, tea came without biscuits. ‘What, not even a decent gingernut?’ I exclaimed, instinctively. Tea, surely, should always be served with a biscuit or two: something I have tried to insist upon in my local pub where I often ask for tea and where, occasionally, a snug little muffin sidles in alongside my mug. Admittedly, pubs are perhaps not the best places to begin demanding tea and biscuits. But it is definitely a biscuit I want, not a muffin; a small golden fluted biscuit with tiny currant eyes like the McVitities shortcake variety I would scramble for as a child. Fruit Shortcakes were my household favourite, and I remember them lying hard and crisp on the silver bottom of our biscuit tin, their small dark pupils winking up at us. They knew they were the real tea time treasure. I could hide four or five in my hand at a time, allowing them to stack up beneath the sweaty roof of my palm, hoping that no one would swipe them away from before I bid a hasty retreat, back to the corner of the kitchen, back to my hot mug of tea. With biscuit crime timing is everything.

Tea wants something crisp and resolute. It does not want a soft squishy sidekick. A good tea biscuit should not give in too quickly to liquid. In fact, it should have nothing of liquid about it.  It is the perfect balance of sweet crispness that makes for the perfect tea biscuit. There should be nothing too crumbly or messy. Homemade shortbread, although delicious, is impractical. For one thing, if you want to sneak in a quick dunk, you are likely to lose your whole biscuit. It is a matter of ‘Biscuit Ahoy!’ Shortbread evaporates in the face of tea and you are left with a lot of unsightly gunk floating on the surface. Shortbread will quickly turn you into a boor.

A gingernut will do, but still, it is not ideal: too much mastication. You want to take your biscuit for granted. Certainly, you don’t want to have to work too hard. The perfect tea biscuit should perch quietly and discreetly on the edge of a saucer; it should be small enough to disappear around the corner of the mug. Biscuits should be discreet. You don’t want anyone thinking you’re greedy. A Digestive or Hobnob, although textually perfect – oaty, sweet, dry and uncomplicated – tend to wobble on the edge of a saucer. The worry is that they will break off and give the game away. The perfect tea biscuit is like a well matched partner in crime: they can disguise themselves from a distance, be rapidly and discreetly consumed, then quickly replaced. The perfect tea biscuit should be subtle enough that you can generate a certain teatime trompe l’oeil. Tucked away behind your mug may lurk several neat sugary discs. No one notices that you have put away two or three and they are ready to pass you another.