Cookies: small trip approach to its history
Apart from chocolate, I don’t believe there is any other sweet which sparks off more passions. However, its sweet history is nowhere near as well known as that of the “food of the gods”. So between the crunchy bites that you will remember when you have savoured them, take the chance to find out more.
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The closest thing in antiquity to our modern biscuits, as far as we are aware, are sorts of wafers (obalia) and waffles (eucharyte) which Greeks served very hot and soaked in wine. Thanks to the remains of Pompeii, closely guarded by the ashes of Vesuvius since 79 AD, we know about Roman ovens and the tools used to make bread and sweets with wine and honey, as documented by Pliny in his writings. These mention a soldier bread (panis militaris) known as a sea bread (panis nauticus) which kept for a long time thanks to its characteristics.
We will talk about the flat and rolled wafers at a later point, since the “suplicaciones”, the wafers immortalised by Cervantes, deserve a chapter all to themselves.
Eighteen centuries later, all the knowledge of the time gathered in the famous Encyclopédie de Diderot and D´Alembert only mentions “ship’s biscuit or cake” as the sole ancestor of the family of our biscuits, and describes it as a dry crumby spongy torte resistant to mould. Hence its use in the ships making long journeys as well as in times of war when supplies were short. This happened in Spain at the time of the French Invasion of 1808, when in order to supply the troops with non perishable foodstuffs, the bakers of Bayonne started making biscuits six months in advance.
Originally, before the arrival of mixers these were made by hand and by foot. Although this may sound odd, please let me explain. So little water was used in the mix that it was hard and difficult to knead, which meant that workers ended up going into the troughs treading on the dough in order to reach the right density. Shapes were then cut out using wood or metal cylinders with a 12 cm diameter and pierced with nails to help the water to evaporate. Once the desired shape had been obtained they were placed to desiccate at low temperatures on a sort of heater, and finally baked in “Moorish” ovens. This is how it gets it Spanish name bizcocho and the French and English biscuit, that is to say, cooked twice. Over time the same name has been given to many more products whose ingredients resemble those of our “ship’s biscuit”.
If we focus on Spain, after failed attempts to promote the establishment of factories, the English were tasked with the supply of “ship’s biscuit”. Given the serious strategic problems caused by such lunacy, it is worth noting the patriotic commercial vision of José de Zuloaga, a flour merchant and ship owner who set up the first ship’s biscuit factory in Spain in Santander in 1790. And in 1830, also in Santander, the first steam-powered factory was set up, followed by three more to meet the major supply demand caused by the Carlist War. Factories were subsequently set up in Burgos and Valladolid, but the most prominent factory was “La Castellana”, the largest in Spain, founded by Emilio Botín de Aguirre in Santander in 1854. The only factory in the south of Spain was that established by Francisco Mañero in Seville, using the steam-powered machinery from a former textile factory called “La Alianza” which had operated 300 looms and was the pride of the city. In 1845, inspired by the factory of the Hospice de Paris, he began to manufacture his famous “Seville biscuits”, sold in Madrid in the Confitería de los Andaluces and the Café del Turco “so that travellers and office workers may take their eleven o’clock break with wine, a delicacy that is as tasty as it is nutritional, and which can also be used in soup for the sick and purée for children”. We are pleased to have identified this biscuit factory as the first in Spain, and not Pedro Palay’s as previously thought.
From the late 1820s the demand for “ship bread” decreased. The use of steam in ships shortened voyages, making it no longer necessary to stockpile ship’s biscuits.
English production of this product, the highest in Europe, fell drastically and the ingenious solution was to add butter, cocoa, milk, spices and nuts (sugar had already been added by the Piedmontese in the 16th century, creating new types of biscuit). The size and shape were changed to make them more appealing to the European bourgeoisie and nobility, their only clients. Although prices had not soared thanks to mass production with the new machinery of the Industrial Revolution, not everyone could afford these biscuits.
The use of steam in the Industrial Revolution brought about the invention of a machine press for biscuit production patented by Carr, a small-scale biscuit manufacturer in Carlisle in England. This was followed by the invention of a kneading machine by Rolland in 1851 in France. Once the first continuous baking oven was built in Great Britain in 1870 it became possible to mass produce biscuits at lower prices, bringing about the disappearance of small-scale biscuit producers who were unable to compete.
Getting back to Spain in this fascinating era in which water -until then only bringing about changes in agriculture- was to also change workshops, transforming them into mass production industries thanks to steam power. In 1858 a biscuit factory was commissioned by Pedro Palay y Moré, who had returned from South America with ideas and wealth and put it into action with steam machinery from England. Four years later “La Colonial” was opened in Madrid. A later factory was commissioned in Badalona from Batllevell, a disciple of Gaudí.
But its beginnings were in no way easy. They appeared at the same time as the greatest biscuit manufacturer of all time: Huntley & Palmer, which at that point was already selling its biscuits in Spain. Joseph Huntley and George Palmer built their factory in 1846, where Palmer put into practice a system of his invention for manufacturing fancy biscuits. They opted for a wide range of biscuits and incredible presentation. In our Museum of Chocolate we tell our visitors to bow in respect before a small selection over 140 years old. These are simply real works of art. Excellent commercial acumen meant that twenty years later they could already be found in the best European and American establishments. Their breakthrough product was “L´Albert” the famous biscuit created in honour of Queen Victoria’s late husband, who died in 1861. This was the main reason why production from the three main factories in Great Britain increased from three million kg in 1859 to 12 million a mere eleven years later.
They thus managed to outdo their competitors worldwide and discourage new entrepreneurs wishing to follow in their footsteps and invent new biscuits. At the height of all this expansion, the Marie biscuit, created in London in 1874 by Peek Freans to commemorate the marriage of the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, son of Queen Victoria, provided an additional boost to the company’s place in the worldwide market.
Only the French grandeur managed to break the British monopoly with the foundation of Olibet in 1862 in Bordeaux. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, new factories sprang up in different countries, completely automatised and concentrating on presentation so that they could establish themselves as competition to the British biscuit manufacturers. Factories such as Viñas in 1876 in Spain, Beukelaer in Belgium, Delacre in Holland, Lazzaroni in Italy or Bhalsen in Germany all sprang up at the same time.
We’ll stop here at the golden age of the Spanish biscuit. We’ll leave these “Delights” for another breakfast, when we can tell the fascinating story of the biscuits made by Viñas and La Gloria in Catalonia, or Martinho and La Fortuna in Madrid, the biggest factories in Spain. At the end of the nineteenth century these biscuits graced the windows of Lhardy in Madrid, together with the “Padres Benedictinos” chocolates manufactured by Seville businessmen Nicolás and Fortunato Luca de Tena in the industrial area of Torreblanca on the outskirts of Seville from 1860 on.
Carmen Fernández Fernández
Tinned biscuit assortment
Wind-up musical box with an exquisite assortment of gianduja, lemon and chocolate biscuits
Assortment of crispy wafers filled with delicate hazelnut, praline and amaretto creams and coated in delicious chocolate