Or Why John Would Dunk a Biscuit in His Tea and Not Cover it With Gravy
A reprint of the Reminiscences of enigmaticpenguinofdeath, a Tea-Drinking Englishwoman (who has never knowingly turned down the offer of a biscuit with her cuppa).
I was lacking in Sherlock screencaps involving biscuits, alright?
So from the popularity of my previous post, it seems that there were many Sherlock fans out there across the world who were clearly baffled about how British people drink tea and thus flailing around and having characters get up to all sorts of nonsense with microwaved teabags, sweetened iced tea and goodness knows what other affronts to nature. Hopefully you have now been shamed/educated into how to include tea drinking in your fics more accurately, and may even apply the common sense rules to your own beverage choices in real life – your tea-drinking souls could still be salvageable.
However, I don’t feel that I can leave you all only half way along this journey, for there is another side to the great British love affair with tea. I speak of biscuits.
This guide will follow the pattern of my tea ramblings; being an initial introduction to how the British view biscuits, and then moving on to look at some examples of how biscuits may be correctly and incorrectly included in Sherlock fics. The first section is likely to be primarily written with US readers in mind since you guys are the weird ones with the deliberately obtuse and incorrect language around biscuits/cookies, and I have a solid understanding of where you are going wrong. Other countries have their own ishoos but I’m not as au fait with them. There are other guides on the interweb from ex-pats and biscuit specialists that can probably clear up specific confusion with other locales – get thee to Google!
Biscuits vs Cookies
Let’s get this straight US readers – you can call trousers “pants”, pavements “sidewalks” and bottoms “fannies” *cue involuntary giggles from British readers* all you like amongst other Americans, but if you are trying to use British-English vocab in your British-set fandom fics then you need to know the difference between biscuits and cookies.
You lot think biscuits are little floury bread roll-like things and, as I understand it, slather creamy gravy over them with “grits” and bizarre-looking sausage and other strange Southern US breakfast items. We don’t. (If you care, we consider something very similar to your “biscuits” to be scones and eat them with butter, or perhaps jam and clotted cream as part of a specific “cream tea” version of afternoon tea.) In British-English, Wikipedia defines biscuits as “small and generally sweet baked products”. That is a marvellous example of under-selling. Biscuits are actually what the UK runs on. They are, in my experience, the go-to sweet snack for most people with around 12kg a year being munched down per person – usually accompanied by a nice cup of tea. Biscuits are a genre of sweet, baked products covering a multitude of delights ranging from buttery crisp shortbread, chocolate-loaded digestives, fudgey chewy cookies, icing-covered colourful party rings, moreish Jammie Dodgers and Hobnobs and the austere, self-denying rich tea. In short, we like our biscuits.
In the US these sorts of products are all what you would call “cookies”. No. In the UK cookies are a specific sub-type of biscuit; a sometimes crisp but often softer, chewy sweet biscuit that usually come with chocolate chips/chunks as a default, so would be called in-full a “chocolate chip cookie”. In specialist cookie shops like Miss Millies or Ben’s Cookies, or the bakery section of supermarkets, you get large chewy cookies with flavours like triple chocolate, or lemon meringue, or white chocolate and raspberry, but in the biscuit aisle there will be packets with smaller, crisper cookies, usually just choc chip or maybe choc chip and nuts, that have a much longer shelf life. If you refer to a digestive biscuit or a Hobnob as a cookie we will tut at you, and if you ask someone holding a packet of custard cream biscuits if you can have one of their cookies, they will quite rightly look you in the eye and say “sorry, I don’t have any cookies” even as they reach for another custard cream and feel smugly satisfied with themselves. (We all secretly enjoy doing this to Americans.)
Oreos may be the world-leader in biscuit terms but here in the UK we like a variety – indeed you will always find a variety pack of biscuits with four or five different types at the supermarket, and at Christmas it is quite common to buy a biscuit selection tin with several different types of thick chocolate-topped or “luxury” biscuits to share around with family and friends. If you encounter a named biscuit it may be either a generic name or a brand name. There are many classic biscuits that British people enjoy that are not made by any particular manufacturer, so a variety of different versions crop up made by the big biscuit companies such as McVities/Burton’s Foods/Fox’s while the supermarkets also make their own cheaper versions to sell alongside. These would include biscuits such as the digestive, the custard cream, the bourbon, the ginger nut or the rich tea. They may be considered to be “everyday biscuits” Then there are some proprietary branded biscuits, such as the Hobnob and the Jammie Dodger. Note the capitalisation. These are made by specific biscuit companies. You get other biscuits which claim to be similar; crunchy oaty biscuits that some people may mistake for a Hobnob if they meet one on a dark night, and a whole shelf full of two-biscuits-sandwiched-together-with-jam that dream of one day rivalling the mighty Dodger, but they are mere pale imitations of the Proper Stuff. If you are going to make wild claims about offering someone a Hobnob, it better be an actual Hobnob – otherwise just be honest, spare your blushes and say it’s an oaty biscuit.
Individually wrapped chocolate biscuits
I am not going to venture into this group at length, but they are worth a mention. Generally, biscuits are a bulk-buy thing rather than something you pop into a shop to buy as a snack on the go. They usually come in packets with numerous biscuits loose in a plastic wrapper; so once you have opened the pack and eaten three digestives you have maybe another 20-odd biscuits left (depending on the size of the biscuit itself, whether it’s a bumper family packet and so on). I honestly haven’t been auditing biscuits lately so that’s a very rough estimate – the point is that unless you scoff the lot in one go the biscuits are now open, there will be many left, and you normally decant them into a purpose-labelled biscuit tin, biscuit barrel or if you must a Tupperware box, or otherwise at least seal the packet so they don’t go soft as the air gets to them. However there is a sub-group of biscuits that are probably most generally known as “chocolate biscuits” that you buy either individually or in larger packs of individually-wrapped one-serving biscuits.
They are often entirely covered in chocolate as the name suggests, and are something you eat by yourself rather than sharing as you may with a communal packet of 30-odd biscuits. This includes your KitKat, your Twix, your Penguin, your Taxi, your Viscount, your Blue Riband, and many, many more; generations of schoolchildren often had a chocolate biscuit in their packed lunch as a treat so there is nostalgia for long-established brands. They are distinguished from “chocolate bars” by the fact that they are primarily biscuit in nature – a Twix is a biscuit with caramel on top covered in chocolate so it is a chocolate biscuit, while something like a Mars Bar is nougat and caramel covered in chocolate, no biscuit involved, so it’s not the same animal. However, you do sometimes find chocolate bars and biscuits sharing the same natural habitat – the confectionary shelf of a corner shop, say, or a snack vending machine.
How to eat biscuits
There are a variety of biscuit-eating opportunities in your average day; they will vary about as much as your tea drinking habits, and are particularly dependant on factors such as whether you are watching your weight and your opinions on snacking between meals. If you are on a diet and were brought up not to snack then your biscuit-intake is likely to be significantly lower than someone with a sweet tooth who works in an office that has a communal biscuit budget paid for by the boss. This second type has little chance of escaping the day without finding their hand drifting towards the biscuit tin… Anyway, despite this I am happy to make a few sweeping generalisations and explain some common biscuit-scenarios for you.
Elevensies/Mid-afternoon slump: this is the classic biscuit eating time, when your blood sugar is a bit low and you have a rumbling stomach. Whether you are at home, at work or at play now is the time to take a break and have a cup of tea and a biscuit. This may be an individual chocolate biscuit such as a KitKat, or if you have access to your own supply of biscuits hidden in your desk drawer or are at home then it may be something from the larger supplies of a biscuit tin. It is very difficult – some may say impossible – to restrict yourself to just one biscuit. Equally, scarfing down half a packet is really quite gluttonous behaviour unless you haven’t eaten that day and aren’t having your next meal for some time. I find that three is a nice compromise, and you may come across little packs of three biscuits in hotel rooms and other such environments, suggesting that it is a widely accepted “portion” of biscuits for one person. Obviously if your chosen biscuit is a massive great chewy cookie, scale down your portion accordingly.
At someone else’s house or in a work meeting: if you are good friends or it is something quite informal, you may be offered a cup of tea and have a half-opened packet of biscuits or the entire tin waved in your direction to help yourself from. If it is something a bit more formal, you may be offered a cup of tea and a small plate of biscuits. A good host will have more than one type of biscuit to allow for personal preferences – so it may be a plate with a few chocolate digestives, custard creams and ginger nuts on. There should never be just one of a particular biscuit or you may end up exchanging death glares with a former-friend over the solitary Hobnob. (Side note - where I work we used to have little baskets with those individually-wrapped packets containing three biscuits to help ourselves to during meetings or training, but since civil service budget cuts we’ve lost them. It is a crushing blow to morale during boring meetings where the only highlight was the chance of a free biscuit.)
To recover from DIY/a shopping trip/other strenuous activities: you collapse into a comfortable chair, make puppy dog eyes at anyone else in the vicinity and try to persuade them to make you a cup of tea and bring you it to you with a few biscuits on the side. You eat, drink and magically feel restored.
Anytime you feel peckish: just raid the biscuit tin in passing and stuff one into your mouth before anyone spots you and tells you off because lunch will be ready in five minutes.
It is worth noting that the US tradition of sitting down with a stack of still-warm chocolate chip cookies and a large glass of milk is not a common one in this country; that may be how some people like to eat cookies, but beyond childhood drinking glasses of milk in itself doesn’t seem to be that widespread a habit, and some people enjoy baking cookies but the supermarket is still where most biscuits come from.
If you are still curious about dunking biscuits in your tea after its mention in the tea post, Wikipedia can tell you more about this biscuit-sullying habit here.
A few fun exceptions to the rules or bizarre biscuit facts that may catch you out, for we do love to be contrary.
Squashed Flies – there is a biscuit known technically as a Garibaldi, that resembles a sheet of scored plywood you have to break up into sections yourself, dotted all over with raisins. They are known by most British people as squashed or dead fly biscuits. This from the people who also brought you toad in the hole and spotted dick. We know how to name our food!
Jaffa Cakes – as the name suggests, these are actually little sponge cakes topped with orange jelly “jammy bits” and a chocolate coating. They are however eaten in the same way as biscuits. There was a legal case a few years ago where the manufacturer was arguing with the taxman over whether it was a biscuit or a cake as this impacted on the amount of tax charged on each pack, and it was legally ruled they are a cake, so that is final.
Digestive biscuits – they may sound strangely medical, but the idea once was that a small amount of sodium bicarbonate in the recipe would help settle your digestive system. Now they are just eaten as a tasty biscuit, with McVities plain chocolate-topped digestives being one of the most popular brands of biscuit in the UK. Other versions include dark or milk chocolate, or ones with a caramel layer under the chocolate, for those unafraid of sticking their teeth together with chewy caramel.
Just to really confuse you, some people like to put butter on the top of plain digestives and eat them with cheese. When you buy boxes of mixed crackers to eat with cheese there is a special loaf-of-bread-shaped digestive biscuit amongst them for these oddballs.
Shortbread tins – this baffles me let alone non-British people, but it is common to find large tins of shortbread being exchanged at Christmas as gifts (John might get given some by patients, for example, or he might get one for Mrs Hudson). The tins are often in a tartan design due to the Scottish heritage of shortbread. Shortbread is all well and good but homogeneously plain; I get bored after about two bites and it has a very dry texture that needs lots of tea to wash it down. These tins can be huge – often all just plain shortbread, in a variety of different shapes such as fingers, circles or “petticoat tails”. If you are very lucky there might be some choc chip shortbread in there too, lightening the monotony.
Mince Pies – not a biscuit, so sidetracking slightly, but it was pointed out to me by ibelieveinmycroft that apparently non-British fans were quite confused when Sherlock ate what we called a mince pie in Scandal, in Mrs Hudson’s kitchen, post incident-with-the-Americans. So for any other confused people, mince pies don’t have minced meat in them anymore, but they did once. Now they are just a little sweet pie containing a mixture of dried fruit, spices and suet, eaten almost solely at Christmas. They are delish.
If you are looking for detailed descriptions of any of the biscuits I have mentioned so far there is an excellent (if now rather mothballed) website called Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down. This has reviews of just about every biscuit ever eaten and has substantially more detail than I am able to cover here. I would definitely recommend taking a look if you want to learn more about tea, biscuits and the English attitudes towards both.
Right, if you got through all that, let’s move on to how you might include biscuits in a fic. Sadly there is little concrete evidence of biscuit consumption in the episodes produced so far, except for the “special biscuit” from the aeroplane in the corpse-in-the-car’s pocket (which no one even ate, but then to be honest I don’t think they’re that nice even before they’ve been in a corpse’s pocket) however based on UK biscuit consumption rates we can safely assume that some of characters would have been eating biscuits off-screen. I’m going to focus on John and Mycroft this time around, since I think Greg’s biscuit-horoscope would read in much the same way as John’s, and Sherlock is a special category of his own when it comes to food so it’s difficult to apply regular standards to him – he might be a biscuit snob or he might scarf down entire packs of Jammie Dodgers if the fancy took him, he wasn’t on a case and John had some in the kitchen cupboard; just go with the flow and your headcanon!
Also, you may just be wondering at this point why anyone should care about whether John is shown to eat digestives or party ring biscuits, as long as you’ve got it straight now that we’re not talking about the scone-like things you eat with gravy. But biscuits do give off signals to your readers. If you have John eating Hobnobs, that is sending out a different message to if Mycroft has a packet of the same thing tucked away in his desk. To people outside of British culture a biscuit may just look like a biscuit, but in the same way that we’ll judge you from your tea habits, we are also judging you on your biscuits. Supermarket own brand, big name brand, luxury Christmas selection tin with its foil wrapped special biscuits, a box of “broken biscuits” sold at a discount store – offer someone the “wrong” sort of biscuit and you can have tongues wagging the minute they’re out of your door. I joke, but seriously there are whole British sitcoms based on this sort of class-consciousness! (see Keeping Up Appearances et al)
Anyway, back to the subject at hand: John eating a whole-wheat organic lemon crunch biscuit from Fortnum’s is going to raise eyebrows. Mycroft eating a party ring biscuit better be a crack fic set around a child’s birthday party, or I’d be looking for an explanation of why his biscuit tastes match up with your average sugar-high four year old. And yes, you could just say “John dunked a biscuit into his tea thoughtfully”, or “Mycroft resisted the siren call of the half-empty packet of biscuits he kept in his sock drawer for emergencies”, that is fine. But you may want to be more descriptive and take the opportunity to use biscuits as a subtle form of characterisation – John ate a biscuit is much the same as John put on a jumper. But what sort of jumper? His new black and white striped jumper he thought he looked rather dashing in? His favourite threadbare oatmeal coloured jumper? Is the biscuit an indulgent chocolate cookie, an everyday old favourite Hobnob or a weirdly experimental homemade pistachio and nutmeg number Sherlock was given as a thank you gift from a client?
Basically you could just go back and refresh yourself on my repeated insistence re his tea drinking that John is a straightforward bloke with straightforward tastes at this point; it will be relevant again! The difference is that there isn’t a commonly accepted default biscuit choice – as I’ve said we like a variety of biscuits, so you have a lot more room for personal preference. However, there are some biscuits he probably wouldn’t regularly buy/choose himself – particularly childish biscuits like party rings and pink wafers that are associated with children’s parties and the very young at heart (who can take all that sugar!) as well as anything marketed as diet/low fat, for the particularly health conscious and dieters – I would say 90% of those are bought by women who are more commonly watching their waistlines than men. He also doesn’t seem particularly indulgent in his tastes; you never see him seeking out luxurious, sensual products in terms of clothes or furniture, or eating/drinking anything that stands out in a foodie way, so particularly fancy, messed-about-with or “gourmet” biscuits are unlikely to be a regular purchase. The idea of John lounging around, perhaps in a bubble bath, eating luxury, thickly-chocolate-coated biscuits for the sensual pleasure of it all is an amusing mental image but not your usual no-nonsense Watson!
The most popular biscuits in the UK are digestives, so I think he would quite possibly stick to that sort of area – maybe plain chocolate or dark chocolate if not the chocolate-less ordinary ones, since milk chocolate is a bit sweeter and men in the UK tend to have less of a sweet tooth than women. Hobnobs are another popular choice – with a bit more of an oaty substantialness to them which I think matches up well with his character. Even more straightforward is the rich tea, which I personally dislike and think tastes of nothing, though a more complimentary person may describe them as “cautiously flavourful”. They are very plain, simple and good for dunking if you want to have John go in for such biscuit-tea soggy action. Just to confuse matters if you want to look at things from a shopping point of view instead, then John might just be the sort of not-fussed man who looks for whatever is on special offer in the biscuit aisle and chucks a pack in the basket – in which case he could end up eating all sorts. Maybe even fig rolls (compressed fig coated in a thin crumbly pastry-like biscuit; not to everyone’s tastes).
On to someone who is likely to be quite a bit more discerning in his choice of biscuits; if he’s eating any at all. Now all for a throwaway remark to highlight how Mark Gatiss isn’t quite the “heavily built and massive” traditional ACD description of Mycroft, the poor dear has been saddled with a whole heap of fanon theories about diets, eating disorders and cake obsession. Canon-wise Sherlock enjoys teasing him about his diet and apparently there were diet pills on his desk in The Great Game, but it is still difficult to say whether Mycroft would be sworn-off biscuits entirely, whether he would indulge with restraint or if he’s prone to forgetting himself and scoffing down a whole packet of ginger nuts when little brother gets on his last nerve once too often and the Korean elections aren’t going quite to plan. Your overall headcanon about his diet will have to be considered before you can make an informed decision about giving him a biscuit habit.
Now, if you do want to have Mycroft eating biscuits, what sort might you pick? Again it would be best to steer clear of anything childish unless you are going for a humorous image – people who choose to wear three piece suits and pocket watches don’t generally eat things designed to be eaten at children’s parties. However, if you wanted to show that Mycroft’s eating patterns are influenced by a desire for comforting childhood nostalgia (sweet food = affection?) then you might deliberately have him indulge in a childish treat. Do remember that his childhood may well be a bit different to the standard – if, as is common in fics, the Holmes family had a cook and other servants then homemade biscuits would have been the norm for wee!Mycroft, and not pre-packaged Penguin chocolate biscuits.
If you aren’t deliberately harking back to a fondly recalled childhood treat then with Mycroft, look at what he is wearing – traditional, establishment, high-quality, an element of performance in the deliberate choice of a “costume”. He’s not going to eat cheap supermarket own brand biscuits by choice – go for something of higher quality, possibly more exclusive. Mainstream brands like Hobnobs may be that bit too mass-market, though it would hint a an element of down-to-earth tastes if you wanted to show him picking up a taste for them at boarding school or university. However if the Diogenes Club buy in their biscuits then it’s probably from somewhere like Fortnums, and Mycroft’s kitchen cupboard would no doubt look similar. And if he is dieting and watching what he eats, then that one permitted biscuit a day (or how ever many seems reasonable) is going to be something special – and he’s going to take time to enjoy it. Unlike Sherlock, Mycroft probably wouldn’t consider food to just be fuel for his “transport”. I’ve seen more than a few fics where Mycroft is shown as a keen cook as well as someone who appreciates his food, and I’d agree with that as my personal headcanon – the man is a sensualist. Or maybe that’s my Mycroft-crush showing. Anyway, he can come by my house and I’ll make him a batch of triple chocolate cookies anytime.
Oh, I’m sorry, did you not ask for 4,000 words about biscuits? I obviously misunderstood… or am just strangely obsessive on the subject.
Phew, I’m a bit knackered now – you know what time it is. Get that kettle on, pronto!