According to tradition, biscuits first appeared 10.000 years ago in China, where dry rice pies with sesame and fruits were made. Other old stories mention that the Assyrians used to prepare thin rusks made of barley and wheat dough, which they placed then in clay vases and baked them on embers.
Thousands of years later, in an Egyptian tomb dating back to 2.500 BC, we find depictions of workers stirring an oven’s fire, in which biscuits are being baked.Biscuits were initially thought of as a practical, concentrated food, similar to bread, which had the advantages of staying well preserved for a long period of time. It was the hardtack of prehistoric ages. Along the course of its existence, honey was added to its recipe and it became a special pastry, presenting an impressive variety of kinds and ingredients.
In the Greek kitchen of antiquity, we come across pastries made of flour, oil, milk and honey. This same dietary habit was preserved in the Roman Empire.During the Roman times, bakeries, among other kinds of breads, produced a special kind called “the soldier’s bread” or “the sailor’s bread”. This bread was made of flour, left into water for thirty days, without adding salt or yeast and then baked twice, so that it stayed preserved for long. For long journeys, the dough was baked even up to four times. The important nutritious value of this mixture, concentrated in a relatively small volume, made the army’s provisioning easier during the World War I. Three hardtacks of bread-biscuit constituted the daily food of soldiers. They would stay preserved for about a year, on the condition that they were kept safe from humidity inside metal boxes.
The name “biscuit” for all these pastries was established during the Middle Ages. Etymologically this word derives from Latin; bis-cuit, meaning baked twice. The oldest reference to biscuits -at least in the Anglo-Saxon world- is found in the narration of the explorer Sir Martin Frobisher, during his stay on the Atlantic shores of North America in 1577. Among others, he mentioned that his sailors’ daily food consisted of a pound of biscuits and a gallon of beer. In Greek cooking books and advertisements of late 19th and early 20th century we come across the term “dipyron” (baked twice), while in earlier texts we find the term “dipyrites artos” (bread baked twice) and “plakounta” (cake).
Biscuits’ malleable dough, whose shape does not change when baked, was used as a means of creative expression, ever since the first years of biscuits’ existence. Pastry making, from its early stages, was related to the celebration of important events, religious feasts, the change of seasons, social events etc. With the advent of Christianity, the first “symbolic moulds” appeared, such as the Star of Bethlehem, while after the 16th century with the creation of wooden utensils from cedar or chestnut, the moulds were multiplied and a galore of ephemeral, folklore, artistic creations was developed. Biscuits, specially decorated for birthdays, marriages and christenings were included in the respective rituals. In Europe, the engaged couple had to give their first kiss over a biscuit! Even today, small biscuits are hanged on Christmas trees, while cookies are always found on the Easter table.
After the 15th century, sugar begins to gradually replace honey, as society becomes attracted to luxury. Until the 17th century, honey was the most important sweetening and gave to any kind of biscuit its distinctive taste and flavor. Chocolate became part of nutritious habits at the end of the 17th century and was used both as flavor and as main ingredient in many confections. Biscuits were not an exception to the rule, and that is how we came to today’s biscuits with chocolate coating and cookies.
The Century Changes
The 18th century of the Enlightenment was characterized by many as “the gourmand century”. It was at that time when the “art of the confectioner with the small oven” was created, an art which made French confectionary renowned throughout the world. “Petit four” pastries made their first appearance. “Petit fours” are a kind of small cookies that are placed in the oven, in dead fire (after regular pastries were baked).They were made of a mixture of eggs, flour and sugar. These small, delicate, crunchy pastries, plain or garnished with cream, jelly or fruits became the new version of biscuits and were given original, elegant names.
During the 19th century, with the spreading of the English habit of afternoon tea, the chances to enjoy small, dry pastries with a cup of a hot, flavored tea were multiplied. It was at that time when the industrialization of biscuit production begun with the English biscuit industry leading the way. According to many the industrialized biscuit production first appears in Great Britain.
The “English biscuit” flourished and was massively produced. The English biscuit industry exported its products not only to English colonies but to the entire world from as early as 1840. At that time, Roman Lefèvre, confectioner of eastern origin, along with his wife Utile, settled close to the biscuit makers, the bakers and flour producers of Nantes, in the area, Quai de la Fosse, where they created the first “petit beurre” ever.
The rest of the European nations such as Italy, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland etc, followed the “trend” and developed their own biscuit industry.
During the World War I, the biscuit industry served the needs of the battling people and oriented itself to the production of complete and healthy foods. The biggest biscuits factories produced “war bread”, essential to soldiers, wounded and imprisoned. In the 20’s, when industries returned to normal operations, biscuit became a complete, easy to consume food, and started to gain its contemporary nutritional dimension. Two biscuits, keep together a layer of chocolate, cream, strawberry, apricot etc. It was at that time when the first sandwich biscuits made their appearance replacing small lunches and winning the hearts of the young and the old.
The period from World War II until the beginning of the 60’s was characterized by the establishment of large, international industrial units. Their activities and specialized operation played an important role in the variety of biscuit’s forms. Tradition and modern ideas came together. Tea biscuit recipes, dating back to the confectioners of Catherine de Médicis, are still today and are used for production in modern technical facilities.Since 1953 and during the 60’s, the technological progress in the field of traditional techniques for dough cutting and folding gave birth to new products.