Lift the lid of a biscuit tin and you enter a world of chocolate Bourbons, understated, knobbly Lincolns, crumbly digestives and Jammie Dodgers. A secret place where there are lemon puffs, gingernuts, Jaffa Cakes and, if you are lucky, the occasional chocolate finger. No other country whose grocers' shelves I have encountered offers the punter and his purse such a display of sugar-sprinkled flour and butter, blobs of jam and drizzles of chocolate, crème fillings and white icing. We are the everyday biscuit capital of the world (the Dutch hold sway at the top end of the cookie market). 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.
But there is more to it than that. While some of our biscuits, such as the custard cream and the Bourbon, have become icons of our time, there are others whose everlasting success must always remain something of a mystery. What sort of person chooses a pale, dry Rich Tea when there are so many other more interesting biscuits to choose from? Why would anyone want to eat a wafer that sticks to their lips like glue, or hurt their tongue on the sharp little point of an iced gem? Does anyone honestly like the pink wafer anyway? And who took the last of the chocolate ones? Welcome to the British biscuit tin.
The British biscuit tin is central to my memories of childhood visits to English grandparents.
(The Penguin biscuit! And indeed Slater is quite right about the unfortunate repackaging of this sort of chocolate biscuit more generally--I think I grew out of the taste for Penguin biscuits in any case, but really, who would want one once they were no longer wrapped in that alluring foil?!? I will have to dispute, though, his position on the Rich Tea--that is a very perfect biscuit, in a minimalist way. And as a small child I had a truly obsessive fondness for iced gems, they really are the most dry and pellet-like biscuit but oh, the allure of that strange rock-hard icing in its lurid colors...)
For those who have never experienced them, some more information on iced gems (actually I am going to paste in the text, because it includes the wonderful phrase "small shrunken biscuit"--very apt, too...):
These little biscuits began life as a biscuit called "gems". They were produced when Huntley and Palmers were experimenting with biscuit technology in 1850. They use the ingredients wheat flour, sugar, vegetable oil, salt, milk protein, citric acid and flavourings. A small shrunken biscuit about 1.5cm in diameter was produced. They sold well. The biscuit is a hard bland sweet tasting biscuit.
In 1910 Icing was put on one surface standing up in little pointy stars by a 10-point nozzle. The icing colours are white, yellow, red and purple.
These biscuits were available in small 30g packs as multi packs of 6. These retail for about a pound. The packets are blue with a picture of a polar bear offering an iced gem.
The icing is a variant on royal icing, made with sugar and egg whites, whisked together with water, and coloured five ways - shades perhaps optimistically referred to as raspberry, blackcurrant, orange, lemon and white.
Here's another good iced gems link.