The Moon Under Water is, according to George Orwell, the perfect public house. It has good beer and a good atmosphere; its décor is ‘uncompromisingly Victorian’ with ornamental mirrors, cast-iron fireplaces and stained yellow ceiling. It has numerous bars catering for various needs and all the barmaids know all their customers by name. The essay makes good reading if you are one of the many today hankering after a Traditional British Pub. So was George in 1946 because this pub did not exist.
However, what grabbed my attention in this piece was his mention of:
‘those large biscuits with caraway seeds in them which only seem to exist in public-houses‘.
Now just recently I have been rummaging through a recipe book written in 1923. May Byron’s Cake Book. There‘s a complete dearth of photos or illustrations throughout; just page after page of recipes. Ah they don’t write them like this any more. It is not a book for the feint hearted.
Interestingly for me, however, there is a whole section on what we, on this side of the pond, call biscuits. She reckons
“The great biscuit-manufactries of this realm have no parallel in other lands; whose inhabitants, I imagine, find our beloved Abernethys, Thin Captains, Arrowroots, Osbornes and Petits Beurres too simple, too naïve and babyish for their cultured tastes”
So there you have it. She goes on:
“The general test of biscuithood appears to be crispness and lack of moisture.”
Now I felt I was in the realms of the Gods. for within the pages of this vintage book was a recipe for the Abernethy. My interest and appetite for biscuits having been well and truly whetted, I discovered that the Abernethy was invented by a John Abernethy in the 18th century as a digestive improver; to this end it contained caraway seeds. This was obviously a biscuit with a purpose rather than a dunker to accompany the morning cuppa.
And it was probably falling a long way short of the Abernethy that you can buy in supermarkets which is crisp, buttery, sweet and probably extremely heavy on calories. I buy a packet every week. To Hell with the consequences.
So, back to the 1923 cake book. Could I replicate George Orwell’s biscuit? Was it going to be like the Abernethy of Wikipedia fame? Would it resemble the Simmers Abernethy biscuits I succumb to each week at Waitrose?
The recipe threw down the gauntlet immediately. The quantities were huge. How many did they bake for back in the 1920s? The entire nation? I know families were larger then but this was ridiculous. The ratio of fat to flour seemed rather strange too. Alarm bells were ringing but undaunted I carried on.
As Winston Churchill stated,“I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else”
As I look out of the window two days after this baking session, the resulting biscuits are still on the bird table. Even the scavenging squirrel has left them alone. Could these really have been the biscuits that George Orwell desired? They could have sunk the Titanic, let alone sent the British public house into decline. More importantly was I prepared to continue and try to emulate this biscuit?
“Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.” Oliver P Smith
May Byron was returned to her niche on the bookshelf and instead I found a good standard biscuit recipe, threw in a tablespoon of caraway seeds and the results are in the photo. They are not very photogenic but the flavour is wonderful (but only if you like caraway seeds). As for the first batch of biscuits, let’s just put it all down to experience and move on. I am still wondering, however, why on earth George Orwell was hankering after those other Abernethys. What a strange man.
Butter Biscuits (with caraway seeds)
9oz plain flour
3os caster sugar
6 oz butter
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
Mix flour and sugar in a bowl and rub in the butter. Knead well to form a smooth paste. Press out gently to about 1/2 thick and cut into rounds using a biscuit cutter. Place on greased baking tray and bake for 30mins at 160C until golden.