A large cup of hot tea and a couple of digestive biscuits have always felt pretty medicinal to me: a moment in the day to breathe and a small sugar injection, but one wrapped up in wholemeal flour and oats, giving it an appearance of health and virtue.
But, even though I know I’m kidding myself, once upon a time, medical improvement was the origin of the humble digestive biscuit. The idea was that the bicarbonate of soda used in the biscuit acted as an antacid and aided the digestive, hence the name.
While sweet, wholemeal biscuits almost certainly existed beforehand in various guises, the term ‘digestive biscuit’ can first be found in an 1829 advert in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser taken out by J. Hutchinson, ‘the original introducer and sole proprietor of Abernethy’s celebrated Digestive Biscuits’. Hutchinson cautioned against biscuity imposters and advised in the advert “These biscuits, when genuine, and taken regularly by families, have the good property of keeping the body in a regular state, and in a great measure supersedes the necessity of having recourse to medicine.”
The bold wellness claims didn’t stop there: in 1836, Buss’s Digestive Biscuits declared that they contained “the greatest amount of farinaceous nutriment that can possibly be concentrated into a biscuit.”
The digestive aid has been pretty much debunked – baking the biscuit alters the chemical structure of the bicarb, and the carbon dioxide which could neutralise stomach acid is lost – but the name stuck, and in 1892 McVities began to manufacture their version of the biscuit, based on a recipe devised by Alexander Grant, who worked for the company. 6 million digestive biscuits are eaten each day in the UK, which means a whopping 70 biscuits consumed a second (even more than I can manage).
Grant’s recipe remains a secret to this day, but it’s a pretty easy one to reverse engineer: a mixture of wholemeal flour and blitzed oats is key to the naturally sweet wholegrain taste, complimented by a little dark brown sugar, for deep, caramelly tones. The perfect digestive should hover right in the middle of sweet and salty, so needs a good dose of fine salt.
It’s a very straightforward biscuit to make; all the ingredients save for the milk are pulsed in a food processor until they resemble breadcrumbs, then the milk is added just until the mixture comes together as a dough. If you don’t have a food processor, you can bring the biscuit dough together by hand, first by rubbing the butter into the dry ingredients with your fingertips, and then using a spoon or knife to stir through the milk and bring the dough together.
I find that the dark brown sugar has a tendency to clump, so it’s helpful to rub the sugar between your fingers, or even through a sieve before you add it to the other ingredients, for a more even appearance. That said, I can’t help but enjoy the little caramelly swirls that appear in the biscuit if you fail at this particular step. The rest in the fridge isn’t just a chance for you to put the kettle on (although it is also an excellent excuse for just that): letting the dough chill for a while allows the gluten to relax and the flour to hydrate, both of which mean that the dough is much easier to handle – it won’t crumble as easily, or spring back when you roll it – and less likely to shrink on baking.
Some (heathens!) dismiss the digestive as boring or bland, but it is the simplicity of the biscuit that is its strength. A digestive biscuit is terribly versatile: it will stand up as happily to sweet and savoury. Of course, it can be dunked in your tea, but it is also perfect when spread (thickly) with butter and topped with cheese, preferably an eye-wateringly strong cheddar.
If you feel the need to add an extra something, you can always sweep your digestive through melted chocolate and leave it to set. But beware of courting controversy: McVities turned the biscuit world upside down in 2014 when they contradicted public opinion by stating that the chocolate on a McVities digestive is administered by a reservoir of chocolate, meaning that the chocolatey side is the bottom of the biscuit, rather than the top.
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: 15 minutes
150g cold butter
175g wholemeal plain flour
175g fine or medium oatmeal
¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp baking powder
75g soft dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon fine salt
1 to 2 tablespoons of milk
- Place the butter, flour, oats, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, sugar and salt into a food processor, and pulse until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add a tablespoon of the milk and pulse again, to bring the dough together; if it is still very crumbly, add the second tablespoon of milk.
- Remove from the food processor, and bring the dough together with your hands; divide the dough into two, wrap in clingfilm, flatten into a disc, and refrigerate for at least an hour.
- Preheat the oven to 170°C, and line two baking trays with greaseproof paper or a silpat mat. Roll one batch of biscuit dough out to the thickness of a pound coin; stamp out rounds 7-9cm wide, and space out on the baking trays – don’t worry, they won’t spread too much. Prick each biscuit three times with a fork. Repeat until you have used up both batches of biscuit dough.
- Bake for 10-15 minutes until the biscuits are golden-brown, and slightly puffed. Leave to cool for ten minutes before transferring to a rack, and leaving until completely cold.