‘We are the everyday biscuit capital of the world,’ says Nigel Slater in Eating for England: the Delights & Eccentricities of the British at Table. ‘What France is to cheese and Italy is to pasta, Britain is to the biscuit. The tin, with its tight lid and cute pictures, is a playground for those who like their snacks sweet and crisp and reeking of tradition. Welcome to the British biscuit tin.’
Armed with this knowledge, who could blame me for wanting to sample as many British biscuits – and, for that matter, other baked goods – as possible?! And, so I did. Among my favourites was a little packet of hand made Shrewsbury biscuits bought on a whim from a café in Port Isaac in Cornwall. The fluted edges and polka dot currants reminded me of biscuits from my childhood.
My mother’s biscuit tin was a 1960s WILLOW classic. A spray of cerise camellias adorned the white lid. The side panel was the colour of French rose. I saw a square version of it in an antique store-come-café in Boorowa last year and toyed with the idea of buying it, but then decided not to as I couldn’t open the lid.
Interestingly, Ralph and Richard Wilson – sons of a Durham-born draper who ran away to sea before settling in Melbourne – began producing biscuit and tea canisters from their back shed in 1889. Their grandfather was a lead miner who might well have worked alongside my Peter’s family members in the County! In 1995, more than 100 years on, Ralph V was appointed as CEO and Willow is still manufacturing kitchenware and other goods today.
There were always packets of store-bought biscuits inside mum’s tin. Butter Shortbreads, Milk Coffee, Arrowroots, Nice, Monte Carlos, Teddy Bears and Choc Wheatens, among them. Biscuits suited to dunking in mum's café au lait. One was never enough, and neither of my generous-hearted parents ever stopped me from helping myself to another. Curiously, even though she was an artisan baker, my mother never made biscuits – apart from continental wafers layered with her rich chocolate butter cream. Yeasted cakes, strudels and the like were more her thing.
I remember that my father had a biscuit tin, too. A rectangular Arnott’s FAMOUS BISCUITS box with sprays of wheat and a parrot eating a biscuit on the label. Incidentally, did you know that Mr William Arnot [single 'T'] founded Arnott’s in 1865. The captain of a Newcastle coal fleet gave him a Mexican parrot and hence Mr Arnot's daughter in law, Leslie, sketched the bird, which became synonymous with the brand. Dad kept important papers in his biscuit tin. The last time I saw it was in 1997, just after my mother died and my father moved back to Hungary. I wish I knew what happened to it – and mum’s WILLOW tin for that matter. They’d be shabby chic vintage collector’s item now, not that I’d part with them, mind.
Shrewsbury cakes, as they were once known, were first documented in the 1500s, according to Laura Mason and Catherine Brown in The Taste of Britain. Research tells me that they were often offered to visitors after a funeral. There is a 17th century recipe cited in Florence White’s Good Things in England, but the earliest online version I could find is from The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet by Hannah Woolley, 1672. It reads:
To make Shrewsbury Cakes. Take four pounds of flower, two pounds of butter, one pound and an half of fine sugar, four eggs, a little beaten cinnamon, a little rosewater, make a hole in the flower, and put the eggs into it when they are beaten, then mix the butter, sugar, cinnamon, and rosewater together, and then mix them with the eggs and flower, then make them into thin round cakes, and put them into an oven after the houshold bread is drawn; this quantity will make three dozen of cakes [sic].
I have yet to try that olde worlde version. The recipe I’m sharing here is adapted from one by Paul Hollywood in British Baking and is true to the biscuits I bought in Port Isaac. You can make them by hand, use a stand mixer or food processor.
100g unsalted butter, chopped, softened
100g vanilla infused caster sugar
finely chopped zest of a lemon
1 free-range egg
200g plain (AP) flour (gluten free plain flour works well too!)
extra caster sugar for sprinkling over the top
Combine the butter, caster sugar and lemon zest in a bowl and beat until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Add the egg, beat, then fold in the flour and currants. Mix until well combined.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured board, knead it gently, then wrap it in cling film and pop it into the fridge to chill for 30 minutes to an hour.
Preheat oven to 180 degrees C. Dust the board lightly with flour once again and roll out the dough to 5mm thickness. Working quickly, but with gentle hands, cut out the biscuits with a 6cm fluted cutter and place them onto a baking sheet lined with parchment. Sprinkle with the extra caster sugar and bake for 10-12 minutes until firm and just beginning to turn brown. Allow to cool and then store in an airtight container. Makes around 30 biscuits.
Please watch for more about our adventures in Port Isaac in a future Good Things article. Thank you for stopping by xxx
Tell me dear readers, do you have fond memories of your family's biscuit tin? Which biscuits were your favourites? And have you ever tasted Shrewsbury biscuits?
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
Join me as I share with you my favourite recipes, postcards and morsels from my adventures, conversations with cookery writers
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.