Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Some Regency Biscuits

Some Regency period biscuits. In the foreground are millefruit biscuits, sweetmeat biscuits, filbert biscuits and rolled wafers. The round biscuits on the plate in the middle printed with the feathers emblem are Prince of Wales biscuit. In the background can be seen some spice biscuits and more rolled wafers. I made these for the dessert served after the supper in the BBC production Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball. Other than the Prince of Wales Biscuits, these were all made from recipes in Frederick Nutt's The Complete Confectioner (London: 1789).
Nowadays, we tend to eat biscuits with beverages like tea and coffee. But in the past they were an important element of the dessert course and were dipped into sweet wine. Particularly popular for this purpose were various sponge biscuits, often made in long thin shapes so they fitted easily into the narrow wineglasses of the eighteenth century. Thus the elongated form that sponge fingers, boudoirs, champagne biscuits and langue de chat continue to have to this day, though most of us have forgotten why they are this shape. Other kinds of biscuits printed with patriotic motifs were particularly popular and some were designed to commemorate a special event, such as 'Union Biscuits', which celebrated the Acts of Union of 1800. Biscuits with royal connections were particularly widespread. Prince of Wales Biscuit was a hard, unsweetened biscuit stamped with the emblem of the prince's feathers. These were made commercially by professional biscuit bakers like Werringtons of Oxford Street and a number of other city confectioners. The Yorkshire confectioner and tea dealer Joseph Bell, who claims to have worked for George, Prince of Wales, published a recipe in 1817 -

Prince of Wale's Biscuit

1 lb butter, and 3lb 8ozs of flour. To be mixed the same as hollow biscuits; and to be stamped with the princes feather; they must be pricked with a fork; and baked in rather a slower oven than the others.

From Joseph Bell, A Treatise of Confectionery (Newcastle upon Tyne: 1817).

Prince of Wales Biscuit are listed on this late eighteenth century trade card.
This fine stucco Prince of Wales Feathers adorns the space above the back entrance to the prince's kitchen wing at Brighton Pavilion. This emblem was the motif printed on the Prince of Wales biscuits. I also own a number of early nineteenth century kitchen moulds in this design used for sugar paste, butter, ice cream, jelly and flummery.
The Prince of Wales was well known for his gustatory inclinations. Here he is depicted living it up in the Brighton Pavilion kitchen with his servants. The cook on the left is probably meant to be Antonin Câreme.
A Prince of Wales biscuit print.
In this advertisement from The Leeds Intelligencer, Tuesday 23 May 1786, Joseph Bell mentions the 'vast, large Assortment of different Kinds of Biscuits' he stocked in his newly-opened confectionery shop in Boar-Lane, Leeds. I would imagine that his Prince of Wales biscuit was among them.
Biscuits were an important element of the dessert. In this plate from J. Caird, The Complete Confectioner (Edinburgh: 1809), there are two plates filled with 'biscuits various' in the corners of the table.
After the second course of the meal was cleared, the table was sometimes laid out with a dessert, including biscuits for eating with dessert wine. The food items here are waiting on a sideboard to be delivered to the table. Fresh cherries and figs are garnished with myrtle. The 'dessert tree' hung with glass baskets of sweetmeats has a top glass filled with cherries in brandy. Around it set out on the salver are glasses of raspberry jelly. Pistachio and filbert prawlongs are arranged on porcelain plates with orange chips.
Three boxwood biscuit dockers from the Regency period and a common biscuit docker. Every kitchen drawer once housed a docker for punching the tiny holes in biscuits to stop them being spoilt by bubbling up. Many biscuit prints, like those discussed below incorporated their own little docking nails. These little tools were used for stamping biscuits with printed motifs by hand before mechanised processes took over during the course of the nineteenth century.
The biscuit in the centre has not been 'docked' correctly and has blown up into a bubble. It will therefore easily flake and fragment, making it no good for keeping.
York biscuits were invented to commemorate the wedding of the Duke of York and Princess Frederica in 1790.
There were also biscuits associated with two of Prince George's brothers - Prince Frederick, Duke of Albany and York (1763-1827) and Prince William, Duke of Clarence (1765-1837), who succeeded George to the throne in 1830. York biscuits, invented to commemorate the marriage of the Duke to Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia in 1790 continued to be made well into the twentieth century. The earliest recipe I have found dates from 1817 and again is from Joseph Bell's marvellous collection. 

Duchess of York's Biscuits

1lb butter, 8 oz. of sugar, 3 lb of flour. Rub the butter into the flour; then add the sugar, and mix it up into a stiff paste with milk; rolle the paste out about a quarter of an inch thick, they must be cut square and stamped with a proper stamp of the happy union and baked in a good oven.

From Joseph Bell,  A Treatise of Confectionery (Newcastle upon Tyne: 1817).

A boxwood York biscuit print. Photo: courtesy of Gillian Riley.
After the biscuit dough has been kneaded with a biscuit break, it is rolled out and cut into strips using the rolling pin as a ruler. 
This diagram from Frederick Vine, Saleable Shop Goods, (London: 1898) illustrates how these biscuit prints were used.

A baked York biscuit.
I recently acquired a boxwood print used to make a biscuit commemorating George's brother William, who succeeded him to the throne. As well as a crown and William's cipher it is decorated with an anchor, a reference to William's strong connection to the British Navy. In fact he was often known as 'Sailor Bill'.

A very rare print or docker to make a biscuit commemorating King William IV.  Note the six nails.
In this anonymous satirical woodcut, Queen Adelaide is spanking King William IV with a birch whip. He has an anchor tatooed on his scarred backside. He is being carried by the Duke of Wellington. 1832

An uncooked biscuit printed with the docker above. Note the six nail holes.
William IV in the uniform of a naval officer enjoying a glass of wine. Mezzotint by William Say after a painting by Michael Sharp. 1830. Perhaps his biscuit would have been served with wine.

Another recent acquisition has been a biscuit print with a strong connection to George III, father to all three brothers - the Prince Regent, the Duke of York and the Duke of Clarence. It is carved with a royal crown and engraved with the words Royal Volunteers Biscuit. The use of the long s - rather like an f, dates this print at some time before 1810. Volunteer militias were raised throughout Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Perhaps these were enjoyed in the officers' mess with a glass of wine, though probably not of French vintage!

An extremely rare biscuit docker from the time of the Napoleonic wars. The words 'Royal Volunteers Biscuit' surround a royal crown. Note the 'long s' in 'biscuit'.

An unbaked Royal Volunteers Biscuit - note again the holes made by the docking nails.
King George III mounted on a horse to left,  saluting marching volunteers. After R. K. Porter. 1800
Mezzotint and etching.

Royal Volunteer Biscuits c. 1800 and King William Biscuits c. 1832. I have never managed to find any specific recipes in the literature for these particular biscuits. So I made them both using Bell's recipe for Duchess of York's Biscuits. Verdict - rather dry and not as sweet as modern British biscuits. 
Watch Ivan make Frederick Nutt's 1789 Spice Biscuits


  1. Who would have thought biscuits could be so fascinating? I love this website! I must try out the Duchess of York biscuits some time.

  2. I absolutely adore your posts. In the South, in the USA, buttermilk biscuits are eaten, usually with butter and jam, or cream gravy.

    1. Hi Donna,

      I have enjoyed biscuits and gravy many times on visits to the Southern States. But those biscuits are very different to what are called biscuits in the UK. Southern biscuits are very similar to what we call scones in Britain, which sometimes are also made with buttermilk. What we call biscuits here, are close to what you would call cookies in the US. I am glad you enjoy reading my posts and thank you for the kind words.


  3. would you please explain and describe the "biscuit break" used for kneading the biscuits? Is there a picture somewhere online?

    1. Elise, to answer your question, I have posted a brief article - see next post!

      best regards


  4. As a professional baker and antique dealer I found this article very interesting. Love all the old biscuit stamps.

  5. I just found this blog and it is so awesome. I've been researching the difference between biscuits and cookies and this is perfect.

  6. I just found this blog and it is so awesome. I've been researching the difference between biscuits and cookies and this is perfect.

  7. I am a bikky barrel biddy ! A cup of good strong tea W/ milk or cream & wee bit of Demerara, sugar & a Bikky or two & I am happy. I don't really need to have a fancy or expensive tea, either. It can be a pinch o' this or that (Asam, McGraths, Typhoo,...)My Gram made me a 'tea drinking person' & I loved her little sandwiches & homemade chips & egg. She baked her own bread & made lovely pies, like her Mum. I am said to be very like them both, Headstrong, fiercely independent, bookish & a charmer of animals, great & small. Literally, Horses to bees ! Time for a cuppa W/ the cats! TTFN! Martha~