BRITISH LIFE Obsessions Traditions

To Take The Biscuit


To (really) take the biscuit – when someone has done something that you find particularly annoyingly self-serving or surprisingly cheeky: when you have slaved over dinner for your family, they eat it happily and then skip off to the four corners of the house, leaving you to the washing up. That really takes the *&#@)$ biscuit.

Everyone knows that the British are obsessed with their tea. And although this might well be yet another statement that sounds just like a cliche, but it is also just plain true.  And perhaps then this explains our proclivity for having something to go with it.

Despite the pace of modern life, and the currently fashionable Fear-and-Loathing of sugary foods, some of us do still enjoy our ‘elevenses’ – put simply, a break, a cup of tea and a biscuit at about 11 am. The tradition of a mid-morning break is not unique to the UK, of course; countries all over the globe do it, but just call it something different. (In the US in the early 19th Century, elevenses also came with a shot of whisky, which seems terribly sensible to us).  And we all know how much Winnie the Pooh enjoyed a spot of elevenses with honey, and how Paddington Bear would bring buns to Mr Gruber’s shop to enjoy with their cocoa…and so all in all, elevenses is a great literary and cultural part of our lives.

However, it may well be exactly this association of elevenses with the characters from our childhood which could explain why we now like to think that ‘elevenses’ as something slightly homely and old-fashioned: suitable for young children or old ladies, but not really…for us. 

But come on. Who doesn’t like a biscuit? And who doesn’t like a biscuit in the UK, when we have so many of them? The names are often rather nursery-like, too. The Custard Cream, the Garibaldi (aka the Squashed Fly biscuit), the Ginger Nut, and the Jammy Dodger,  the absolute pinnacle of childish joy, one which has been around for over 50 years and is actually named after Roger the Dodger, a mischievous character in the classic British Comic, Beano.  Interestingly, the Jammy Dodger is the nation’s favourite “children’s biscuit”…and yet 40% of dodger-consumption is by adults.

And anyway, biscuits aren’t just for children. We British adults invent all manner of ways to justify our penchant for biscuits. A well-known coffee chain started selling giant custard creams and bourbons in 2012 and the country went mad for them. And we have competitions. The ‘World’s Largest Custard Cream’ is a hotly contested category in the Guinness Book of World records. Currently, the record is held by a Rotary club in Shropshire for their 68cm x 50cm x 6cm biscuit, which and weighed 16.3kg (2st 8lbs).¹ That is the size of the average 3-year-old child. A child-sized biscuit. Does it get much better?

We also like to get all scientific about dunking. Biscuit dunking has been around since the Romans baked their biscuits twice, specifically so they could dunk them in their wine. (The Latin biscotum meant “baked twice”. Hence the Italian biscotti. And then our ‘biscuit‘ ). In a similar way, but a thousand years later, sailors of the British navy dunked their ‘hard tack’ biscuits in their daily beer ration to soften the rock-hard lumps.

And we still love to dunk. The warm liquid intensifies the flavour of the biscuit, you see. Apparently, according to McVities, the most effective dunker is the Ginger Nut (made by – yes –  McVities) , where a post-dunked Ginger Nut is twice as flavourful as a dry one². [Kayte would not approve. She can’t bear them, so I have to selflessly help her out if people force them on her. That is what friends are for, you know.] *

It is a tricky and often dangerous occupation though, the Dunk. The balance between the perfect amount of squidge, but without leaving it too long, and ending up with a splash and a soggy lump of biscuit at the bottom of the cup, which is deeply unpleasant. Dunking takes practice, and skill, and so in 1998, when Dr Len Fisher from Bristol University wrote a paper on the perfect way to dunk, the British media went mad. ‘Washburn’s equation’ is a mathematical equation to measure the capillary flow in porous materials (i.e. how quickly your tea gets sucked up into the biscuit). According to Dr Fisher, the best way to dunk to avoid ‘the splash’ is to have a full cup, with a shallow enough angle to ensure the top surface of the biscuit remains dry. Then you twist the biscuit upwards, so the dry side supports the weaker, soaked side. 

Trouble is, when science gets involved, it removes the element of risk. And where is the fun in that? Just keep practising, daily…it’s the only way.


Can I just add here that as a child of ginger hair, “OI Ginger Nut” was a favourite playground insult. And when the boys had them in their lunch boxes they would say “OH YUCK I’m eating a Ginger Nut!” So I am deeply traumatised by them. But also, they’re disgusting. K




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