I’m randomly dipping into Elizabeth David’s “An Omelette and a Glass of Wine” – a collection of some of her journalism both published and not, the latter demonstrating that she was just as capable of writing rubbish as the rest of us, which is reassuring, and, as I’m about to relate, some of it actually got published.
In an article entitled Summer Holidays (originally published in The Spectator, August 24, 1962, though the narrative is clearly set in the past), David relates the discovery of a hitherto unsuspected regional Cornish speciality (unsuspected, that is, both by her and by the Cornish people, too, I shouldn’t wonder).
She says: “Shopping in Penzance we run to earth what we think is a Cornish regional speciality. At Woolworths. Gingery biscuits, bent and soft, delicious, much nicer than the teeth-breaking sort,” and “I suspect the recipe is secret to the Penzance Woolworths.”
I agree about the qualities of these biscuits 100%, but as to their origins, the poor, overly-sophisticated, soul – she couldn’t be more wrong.
In the late 40s, my maternal grandmother, who lived in the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash (no, folks, it’s not an invention of Ken Dodd, it really exists – Dodd, by the way, went to school with my mother and her siblings, and his family, who were coal merchants, supplied mine with fuel), always had a healthy supply of soft and squidgy ginger biscuits, and I loved the things.
It came as a massive disappointment, as I got older, to discover that this delightful confection was not something sought out for my personal delectation (though no-one else seemed to eat them, and therein lay a pretty obvious clue that I missed – hey, I was six, what do you want from me?), but simply plain, rock-hard Ginger Nuts that, in a paper bag, had been allowed to go stale, and had thus softened to a gorgeous squidginess.
For those of you not around in the late forties and fifties, in shops biscuits were stored in tins which, even if people replaced the lids, which they mostly seemed not to,** weren’t great at keeping them fresh, nor were the paper bags in which they were sold – plastic packaging that needed a sharp knife to get into had yet to evolve.
**A very few biscuit tin lids had glass inserts but, mostly, you had to remove the lid to see what, if anything, was in there.
It was, for a time, possible to replicate them with a paper bag and a little patience (a frequently steamy kitchen, which is where my grandmother kept hers, helped, too), but whatever they put into ginger nuts (Why nuts? I have no idea, they’re just biscuits.), these days resists the softening process pretty much indefinitely, even if you can track down paper bags in which to stash them (harder than you might think, and impermeable plastic doesn’t work, of course).
And at the risk of invoking the ire of Ms David’s shade, I have no doubt that this was the case at the Penzance Woolworths – not a secret Cornish recipe, simply stale – in a fortuitously nice way – biscuits.
Unless, of course, anyone out there knows different…