Food & Drink / 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.

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  • Completely agree, I have been in France near strasbourg for the last couple of months and have found it extremely difficult finding a biscuit made for tea. Every trip to the shops involves a long stare at the biscuit aisle filled with fancy contortions of this and that type of biscuit which surely isnt going to work. They are just going to drown or crumble or disolve. Buscuits here seemed to be made for a different purpose. To excite or to insist the butter-ness, to be charming or to deliver subtility in taste. There is an ancient tradition of making ‘bredele’ during christmas. They are a variety of small biscuits made with different spices and a variety of nuts. They are delecious and some of them have the right texture but are too small to be dunked. As for someone offering you tea and a biscuit, forget it. Your lucky if you get offered a tea !!!!!!!

  • A fully-fledged aesthetic scheme for the taking of tea and biscuits – lovely! Though personally I tend to throw worries of greed aside and go straight for the Digestive/Hobnob route. Big, substantial biscuits. Then again, for size as well as deliciousness there’s the chocolate chip cookie…. I need to think this through more…. in over my head….

    Great piece!

  • When I came to England six years ago, I arrived eager to embrace the forms and customs of my newfound home. I set about tasting everything from PG Tips and mugs of Earl Gray to Red Leicester and pints of Brakspeare Bitter. I took a certain amount of pride in my capacity to knock back a stiff bitter with relish, to indulge in a warm crumpet with marmalade, to spread crumbles of stilton on a cracker for lunch. And after six months of English living, complete with a Guardian subscription, I fancied myself a proper Anglophile and tried to live up to the ideal.

    Except that I had made the horrifying discovery that I do not like tea. Not black tea, not white tea, not tea with sugar, not in its herbal form. I loathed the awkward moment upon entering someone house when the requisite cuppa is offered, and I would stammer, ashamed, ‘a coffee, please?’

    My first strategy was to force myself to drink as much tea as possible. Surely, like any acquired taste, it might just take time. In fact, despite a life-long penchant for beer in various forms, it had taken me more than a few pints of ale before I truly appreciated a real English bitter. So I plodded on. Circumstance provided me with the need for frequent infusions of caffeine, so my mug of cheap black PG Tips tea was bottomless for that first year. I dressed it up, of course: sugar gave way to honey, milky gave way to black, and then back to milk again. Unsatisfied, I finished the box of PG Tips and moved to Earl Grey, dabbled with Red Bush, tried a few Green teas, and finally tried some high end, organic leaves of unknown provenance. All only to elicit the same reaction: dislike. Each one of those hundreds of mugs of tea I had consumed in the previous year was a small exercise in character-building, an unpleasant sensation on the taste buds and discomfort in the stomach. It was hopeless. One summer day, unable to countenance my morning tea, I made a realisation. I didn’t like tea and I would never like tea. There was nothing to be done.

    Now, each morning, I dissemble my ancient espresso maker and begin my ten-minute coffee-making routine. The kettle drowns out the radio voices until it clicks, the scent of the beans wafts across the kitchen, and then the steam trickles out of the small Italian cannister on the hob and the roasted blackness bubbles up. The ritual, as so many tea-drinkers know, is beautiful.

    I have mostly reconciled myself to my affliction, but still, I am left with a host of questions. Is love for the cuppa a genetic phenomenon? Is it a mark of good character? What would happen if I had children with an Englishman and they inherited my dislike for tea? Would they be refused citizenship? Surely there must be hordes of closet tea haters littered across the Queen’s lands, hiding behind claims of caffeine intolerance or a love of juice. But mostly, what am I missing?

  • Having seen the Hobbit only yesterday, I’m minded to comment that there’s nothing more English – or Oxfordian – than the tea biscuits combo, and moreover that it is our major international export, culturally speaking. Imagine if Bilbo had offered Gandalf a latte! Or worse, some kind of herbal drink. Americans would have been horrified, too. They look to us to maintain traditions, and the tradition of tea and biscuits is older than America, surely. (Mind you, they do have a certain edge in the cookie department.)

  • I’m wondering about Garibaldis here, after Philip’s fact (thanks for the info, Philip, I didn’t know any of the history of said biscuit!)…small enough not to give the game away (unlike Hobnobs, as you say), but deep with vinegary dried fruit and that lovely glaze. When I was a child they were always the booby prize of my grandmother’s biscuit tin – I was much more a fan of the lemon puffs – but as with olives, butterbeans and sourdough bread, I have grown into them as an adult.

  • I would not want a dunkable biscuit as I never dunk, nor do I need something that could perch on the edge of a saucer since I use a proper plate with room for several biscuits. I was brought up on digestives, and it was many years before it even occurred to me that their name might imply any medical virtue; I just liked the taste and texture. My mother in her old age switched to hobnobs, and I humoured her by following her new habit. That broke my devotion to digestives and set me free to discover the pleasure of fruity biscuits, namely fig rolls and Garibaldis. My love of the latter was heightened when I learned that Arthur Hugh Clough was given a passport by Garibaldi when he was in Rome during the French siege of 1849. In fact a friend of mine picked up the said passport in an auction. The Garibaldi biscuit is the ideal combination of raisins and crunchy substance, the perfect reinforcement for anybody besieged by the world and its troubles,