Not only has it been a long time since Britannia ruled the waves, it has also been many years since Britannia ruled the Indian biscuit shelves. In my youth, Britannia and biscuits were synonymous. You had the Parle Gluco biscuit of course (apparently the largest-selling biscuit in India in that era), but the ones that ordinary middle class families like ours chose to buy were Britannia’s versions of such British favourites as Bourbon, Marie, Thin Arrowroot and Nice (pronounced, we were told, like the city in France – not that it mattered as long as we got to eat the layer of sugar on the outside.)
I discovered later that this had to do with Britannia’s original corporate parentage (British companies with such reassuringly dated names as Huntley-Palmer) and the colonial desire to export great British brands to each corner of the empire.
Then, the Brits got taken over by Americans. Such giant conglomerates as RJR Nabisco (maker of the mighty Oreo which is to the US biscuit – sorry, cookie! – market what Coca Cola is to its soft drink sector) were placed firmly in control and the sweet old colonial brands started vanishing. Eventually, it all got very complicated with Nabisco being taken over by Wall Street bankers, Indian Britannia being sold, its new owners fighting with its new French partners etc. etc.
In any case, I am assured now that this avatar of Britannia, part of Nusli Wadia’s empire, has its own Indian identity and is so successful that foreigners try and steal its brands (Tiger biscuits, for instance). Fair enough. But two points are worth making. One: it is not the Britannia I grew up with. (But then, this is not the India I grew up in either so I guess that’s only to be expected.) And two: that the relaxation of food imports means that the shelves at my local grocer’s groan under the weight of so many imported biscuits and cookies from all over the world that the biscuits of my childhood (the great Britannia varieties) end up being relegated to the back of the shop while fancy expensive biscuits with French and German packaging occupy pride of place.
As readers of this column will know (and I’ve written on this subject before) I am a bit of a reactionary when it comes to biscuits. They are not – at least as far as I am concerned – same fancy gourmet food for great chefs and corporate focus groups to experiment with. They must be tasty. They must be simple. And above all, they must give you the reassuring feeling of sitting at home with a nice cup of tea (or coffee) into which you can (if your manners are as bad as mine) dunk your favourite biscuit. As for the great German and French brands that now clog our supermarket shelves, I have only one thing to say: if you can’t pronounce the name, then don’t bother eating the biscuit.
A previous Rude Food column on this subject lamented the longtime absence of a great British biscuit from our shores. This was the digestive, the biscuit that, in my prejudiced view, made Britain great. We never got it in India because Britannia couldn’t be bothered or because it was too closely associated with another British biscuit company McVitie’s.Nowadays, however, you can buy digestives from every conceivable foreign manufacturer in Indian shops though, to my mind, the McVitie’s version is still clearly superior to all of the competition. My belief that the digestive is truly the king of the biscuit world (gosh, I feel like a traitor to Bourbon when I say things like that!) is based on several factors.
First of all, there’s size. (No jokes about how it doesn’t matter, please). A digestive is a clunking great thing, a large diameter biscuit that leaves you satisfied rather than hungering for more. Then, there’s the texture. They sell you digestives these days by focusing on the wholewheat element. A digestive biscuit, some manufacturers suggest, is made with whole grain not maida. This is not entirely true – there’s an awful lot of maida in each digestive. Even the health claims originally made for the biscuit (why it is called a digestive) have now been exploded. In the old days, they said that because digestives used lots of sodium bicarbonate, this released carbon dioxide during the baking process, making the biscuit an aid to digestion. (To wind, more likely). McVitie’s does not bother to make this claim any longer, which is just as well.
But even if all the health stuff is rubbish, what is true is that a digestive has a wonderful, slightly crumbly texture unlike the one-dimensional hard wheatiness of say, Thin Arrowroot or Marie. This gives it a completely different mouth-feel from most other biscuits and contributes to its distinctive taste.
As brilliant as the digestive is however, it is its cousin that is probably better known. This is the chocolate digestive (either in milk or dark chocolate avatars), so popular in England that it is often simply referred to as a chocolate biscuit, its distinctiveness making it a generic biscuit. (Remember Hugh Grant, the Prime Minister in Love, Actually, asking at Number Ten, “who does one have to sleep with to get a chocolate biscuit here?” at which stage the heroine appears with a plate of chocolate digestives?)
I like the dark chocolate version though apparently, the original was created many years before its cousin. A young Scottish baker called Alexander Grant invented the original digestive at the end of the 19th century. Around 1925, the McVitie’s bakery in Edinburgh came up with the milk chocolate version which is exactly the same biscuit with a thin layer of milk chocolate on top. Eventually, the dark chocolate version was created and so, the world’s best biscuit was born.
You don’t get chocolate digestives easily in India. I suspect that this is because the chocolate melts easily in our climate, causing the biscuits to fuse together when the chocolate solidifies again. But you do get a huge variety of European chocolate biscuits.
I’ve tried the German Choco Leibniz which is essentially a Petit Beurre biscuit (though I doubt if they call it that in Germany) with a lump of good quality chocolate. (You know the Petit Beurre, of course? It’s the buttery biscuit that they now make in India as well).
The same idea gets a French twist with the Petit Ecolier biscuit. This is also a version of the Petit Beurre with a thick slab of chocolate stuck on to it. It is expensively packaged (there is a detailed drawing of a little schoolboy on each biscuit) and looks suitably upmarket but it doesn’t work for me because it lacks the crumbly intensity of the digestive.
When I can’t get chocolate digestives (which, frankly, happens a lot of the time), then I fall back on the good, old-fashioned Bourbon of my childhood. Contrary to what we grew up thinking, Bourbon is not a Britannia brand. In England, for instance, the version I have most often come across is made by a company called Crawford’s.
Bourbon seems to be a generic term for a particular kind of sandwich biscuit. Within the biscuit industry, sandwich biscuits are regarded as a bit gimmicky. They consist of two separate biscuits with a sticky filling in the middle. My own opinion is that most sandwich biscuits are let down by their fillings: the so-called ‘custard’ in custard creams is uniformly disgusting; ditto for alleged jam fillings. And as for the stuff they put inside an Oreo, you have to be an American to love it (which of course they do.)
The reason the Bourbon works is because (a) even though the chocolate filling would not win any gourmet prizes, it is entirely acceptable. And (b) because the biscuit itself is so good. Take a cup of strong black coffee (the kind of thing they serve at Café Coffee Day or Barista or somewhere like that) and dip your Bourbon into it. Now, eat the Bourbon. The flavours of coffee, sugar, wheat and chocolate will have merged so perfectly that you will be conscious of enjoying a superior gastronomic experience.
There are problems with the Bourbon though. Unlike the digestive, it is less filling. So you’ll find it hard to stop eating them till you finish the packet. And, if you are at one of those office meetings where they place a plate of mixed biscuits in front of everyone, then you’ll have to move quickly because the Bourbons will always be the first to go. (Why do they bother with mixed biscuits when people only eat the Bourbons?)
So here’s my ranking. If you are feeling chocolatey, hold out for a dark chocolate digestive. If that’s not available, take the Bourbon. Never waste money on the fancy European stuff with unpronounceable names. And if you want something satisfying, then you can’t do better than a plain digestive. It’ll fill your stomach and more important, it’ll make you feel good.
- From HT Brunch, Januray 9
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