After the cup of tea, biscuits (which are basically an edible extension of tea) are the most important commodity in Britain. Many of these discs and rectangles of loveliness were created up north, in Scotland, and by Huntley & Palmers in Reading. But London has its fair share of biscuit history too, not least at Peek Freans in Bermondsey. Between 1866 and 1989 the confections, jobs, and sweet odours created by this factory earned Bermondsey the nickname 'Biscuit Town'. Here's Peek Freans going hammer and tongs in 1906:
In its 123 years in Bermondsey, Peek Freans created some of the biscuits we know and love today, along with many others that have crumbled into obscurity.
"A complete one off", "unlike any other", and "commands a unique position in the biscuit world" are three compliments that nicecupofteaandasitdown.com pays to the garibaldi, and rightly so. This slim, glazed currant-y number — often known as the 'squashed fly' biscuit — was first manufactured in Bermondsey (at Peek Freans, from 1861), although it was Carlisle-born biccy maestro John Carr who invented it. As for its odd name, that comes from the Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi — the man who fought for a united Italy. Garibaldi was a well-liked figure in Britain, and during a three-week visit here, including a stay in London where he met Gladstone, the Italian was greeted with open arms, as this account recalls:
The crowds that greeted him at Vauxhall were so enormous that he required six hours to reach his lodgings on the Mall. His speech at Crystal Palace drew 25,000 supporters. "A wave of republicanism swept our country," HM Hyndman wrote later.
This — the height of Garibaldi mania — was in 1854, and the occasion must have stuck in Carr's mind, because he named the biscuit seven years later.
The chocolate-covered digestive
Two Scottish doctors invented the digestive in 1839 (the biscuits were indeed intended as a digestive aid), and soon manufacturers across Britain were churning out their own versions. But for the next 60 years, they were all missing a trick. Fast-forward to 1899, and someone at Peek Freans was hit with another world-changing brainwave; the company started making something called the Chocolate Table biscuit; it was a digestive dipped in chocolate, and the first ever chocolate-coated biscuit to be manufactured. It would later come to be known as the chocolate digestive.
In the beginning there was the Creola. Created by Peek Freans in 1910, this was an indulgent chocolate sandwich with a chocolate cream filling, which the biscuit munching masses went for in a big way. But something wasn't quite right; Creola sounded more like something you'd treat your shed with than what you'd scoff down at elevenses. At some point in the 1930s (alas, we don't have an exact date), a product manager at Peek Freans made the clever move to rebrand the biscuit as the bourbon. Now named after a royal dynasty from Le Bourbonnais (although some claim it's a portmanteau of 'Bourneville' and 'Bonn'), the bourbon had the same French connotations as the Creola, but sounded a thousand times better. Apparently £80m is spent on bourbons every year. Peek Freans knew what they were doing.
The ones that crumbled into obscurity
For every classic biscuit it dreamed up, Peek Freans churned out a dud, or at least one that wasn't to stand the test of time. Just a year before the invention of the Creola, the Golden Puff was first manufactured. The biscuit (which pretty much describes itself with its name) must have existed for a good few decades, because we found people on message boards reminiscing about it. These days, however, if you search Golden Puff, the closest you'll get is the Sainsbury's version of Honey Monster Puffs.
Other Bermondsey biscuits, such as the Glaxo, and the Pat-a-Cake shortbread have also gone for good. But there are a couple of rarities you can still find if you seek hard enough.
The Pearl, created in 1865, was famous for its soft, crumbly texture, making dunking a dangerous occupation. According to Will Pavia, in A Peek at Peek Freans, the Pearl was "a great leap forward for biscuit making". Texture aside, the biscuit was also void of 'docker-holes', the pin holes punched in the biscuit "to stop it blowing up like a football in the oven." Pearl biscuits aren't widely available now, although you can get posh ones at Fortnum & Mason, or you make your own.
Another Peek Freans biscuit that (sort of) got away is the Marie, first made at the factory in 1875. If you're to travel to countries including Australia, Canada and Norway today, you won't have any trouble finding a Marie. Over here, the recipe was slightly modified, and became what we know as the rich tea biscuit. Marie or rich tea — we do wonder who's still buying and eating this drab denomination of biccy.
The Peak Freans factory — which is now housing — will be remembered for one more very British comestible. With the coming of the cocktail era in the 1930s, the factory branched out into snacks, creating a brand that would prove even more divisive than the garibaldi. That's right, it gave birth to Twiglets.
Read more about London's lost food manufacturers, including Peek Freans, in London made: Food, and find out about funeral biscuits in London's Death Cafes Are Continuing An Ancient Tradition.