Reader, you may well ask, as for centuries this culinary creation has proved notoriously difficult to define. The first biscuit to crawl out of the oven must have been barely distinguishable from a breadstick to modern eyes and had a name derived from the Latin bis coctum, meaning twice-baked. ‘A kind of crisp dry bread more or less hard, prepared generally in thin flat cakes’ is how the OED describes it and this is about the last historical definition everyone agrees on.
The Medieval Biscuit
Richard I is supposed to have taken ‘biskit of muslin’ with him on the Third Crusade, although the OED’s first sample of the word in English dates from Robert Manning’s Chronicle of 1330 (‘Armour þei had plente, & god besquite to mete’, ‘mete’ in Middle English meaning food in general and ‘besquite’ evidently inspired by the Old French biscoit). It’s interesting that these first references occur in a military context and the medieval biscuit does seem to have been the equivalent of convenience food back then: plain, tough, non-perishable fare for soldiers, sailors and other long distance travellers. This is the kind of biscuit Jill and Eustace are forced to eat when they’re holed up in a Narnian garrison in C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle:
Dinner was, however, a dull meal, for the best they could do was pound up some of the hard biscuit which they found in a locker and pour it into boiling water, with salt, so as to make a kind of porridge. And of course there was nothing to drink but water.
‘I wish we’d bought a packet of tea,’ said Jill.
‘Or a tin of cocoa,’ said Eustace.
If you’re tempted to knock the medieval biscuit, remember it has your back in fight. Still, the children are right: biscuits always taste better with tea or chocolate.
Sweetmeat or bisquite?
Aye, there’s the rub. The essential ingredients (the OED continues) are flour and water, or milk, without leaven; but confectionery and fancy biscuits are very variously composed and flavoured. Even the characteristic of hardness implied in the name is lost in the sense ‘A kind of small, baked cake, usually fermented, made of flour, milk, etc.’ used, according to Webster, in U.S.
To be fair to the New Worlders, I suspect the semantic rot began in Britain with the addition of more sugary stuff to the mix when some enterprising cook attempted to cross a biscuit with a bon-bon. After the delicious-pernicious association with confectionery had set in it was only a matter of time before someone actually mistook one for a cake, which brings us to the strange trial of the Jaffa Cake (United Biscuits, 1991), the most recent test case in essaying the crumbling borders between them. The Jaffa Cake is the true centaur of the biscuit world. Tucked away among the biscuits in most supermarket aisles, it is not completely biscuity or spongy in the same way the centaur is not 100% human or 100% horse. For tax purposes it remains a cake but those who persist in regarding it as a biscuit are in a respectable minority. True, its lack of density makes it something of a light-weight on the biscuit scene, but in practice it performs the same duties at the tea-table.
A biscuit by any other name…
As no less an authority than Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has it, there is now no generally accepted definition of either cake or biscuit. In practice, however, a quick survey of ingredients, shape, size, density and presentation is usually enough to decide on a solid classification – at least in Britain (if you’re from the New World you may like to read this handy summary of the differences between the British biscuit and the American cookie, which are roughly, though not exactly, the same thing).
At the end of the day, though, the name is far less important than the biscuity nature of the sample before you and may even be a complete misnomer (see future entries on ‘gingerbread’, ‘shortbread’, and ‘the American biscuit’)