Travelling through Britain as a child, I always thought the term “digestive” before biscuit was hilarious.
But today it got me thinking. What exactly is the history of the biscuit?
The etymology of the word is a combination of bis (twice) coquere (cooked). Originally, biscuits were first baked and then slow cooked in an oven. This resulted in their notorious characteristic of being hard (unlike the soft, flaky American version).
In its infancy, most foods consumed by highly mobile populations (sailors and armies) were either foraged or live killed. This undoubtedly helped lend countenance to the medical belief that most of mans ills were related to poor digestion.
The addition of a baked product to the diet was believed to help resolve many of these issues. Contrary to recent fad diets (Atkins, Paleo to name two) a little carb/baked good was seen as not only additional calories for hungry travellers, but also as a source of what we now default to fiber for. They also had the benefit, as hardtack, of lasting a long period of time and could be softened by dunking in coffee, ale, or soup (a tradition still carried out in England today with a little dip of biscuits into tea).
The main “digestive” ingredient in biscuits was/is sodium bicarbonate (baking soda to us Yanks). As an antacid, there probably was some benefit to adding that to the diet. And either sweet or savory, they could make a welcome addition to most meals.
The digestive biscuit as we know it today was not available until 1892 when commercially produced by McVities. However, in a culture already concerned with digestion (see post on breath mints) no doubt it was available everywhere from below deck to the drawing room in some form or another.
And thus the mystery is solved.
Now I really want a biscuit!