They say a picture tells a thousand words but when I get stuck on how to describe a character I give them a biscuit. Biscuits are central to British culture; and are really as important a talking point as the weather. If you can come to London and talk to a complete stranger at a bus stop about it being a bit drizzly today and how you’re dying for a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive, you will be getting that Real British Experience the travel agent told you about – especially if the person you’re talking to turns out to be an exchange student from Valencia.
Understand biscuits and you’ve got us bang to rights. Stay-at-home mums eat Viennese Fingers, pensioners will have a Rich Tea, comedian Victoria Wood made her name with jokes about Gypsy Creams, and talk show host Jonathan Ross arouses deep suspicion and a palpable sense of embarrassment in some Hollywood stars when he offers them his chocolate Hob Nobs.
In fact, we only drink tea as an excuse to eat biscuits. There are entire aisles in our supermarkets devoted to bikkies, which are not, by the way, to be confused with cookies. According to Linda Stradley of What’s cooking America, cookies are small cakes, and were invented in 7th century Persia to test oven temperature. Who knew?
As far as I am concerned, cookies are hard crumbly dollops of stuff, embedded with chocolate chips or raisins. Biscuits, on the other hand, are everything you can possibly imagine; from hard, flat, shiny Garibaldis, which I’m sure Tolkien was thinking of when he wrote about elven bread (‘We’ll have a nice cup of tea and a packet of Garibaldis, and then we’ll go and vanquish the dark lord.’), to Tunnocks tea cakes (the making of which practically destroyed the contestants on The Great British Bake Off last year).
And then there are the names of the biscuit manufacturers themselves. There is a story, in an advert for the Imperial War Museum, that a captured World War Two pilot, questioned by the Germans, said he had been flying a Huntley and Palmer bomber with a Peak Frean engine. Sweet.