“Would you like a biscuit?” Twice a day, mid-morning and mid-afternoon, Veronica pushed her trolley down the corridor and around the various departments serving tea, coffee and biscuits. Along with the boardroom drinks cabinet and stationery cupboard, Veronica was the best thing about Dad’s work. Despite manoeuvring a not-small trolley covered with warm cups and pots of boiling water, she seemed to move with more ease than anyone else in the building. Welcome everywhere, she knew everyone and what they needed, be that strong tea with milk and one sugar, or black with two pills of sweetener and a chocolate digestive.
While it was communal, the small kitchen was Veronica’s, and immaculate. She took the tea towels home, and made sure the biscuit tins were always full. When we visited as kids, those tins were hugely important. Like my grandma’s tin, they were filled with different combinations of the good ones: chocolate digestives, plain digestives, custard creams, bourbons, ginger nuts (Dad’s favourite, and not only because he, too, was ginger). I want to remember Hobnobs, too, which launched in 1985, the same year as EastEnders and the Anglo-Irish agreement. And then there was the delicious story about someone in accounts who, working late, would eat the contents of an entire tin.
Our own biscuit tin fell off the top of the fridge a few weeks ago, but the dent means it now closes better. Decades later, and 2,000 miles from Hemel Hempstead, I keep it filled with a good selection of Italian and English biscuits. They are usually bought, but occasionally homemade, in which case there is a good chance they will be from Biscotti: Recipes from the Kitchen of the American Academy in Rome, written by the head chef at the time, Mona Talbott, and the Sicilian pastry chef Mirella Misenti. Each of the 62 recipes begins with a short introduction, often mentioning where the biscuit fits into academy life: suitable for breakfast; a pleasing bite with coffee; as part of afternoon tea (the afternoon biscuit plate is a serious business); for scooping up pudding.
Then there are several biscuits with specific roles: the iced ginger biscuits served after the Christmas play; the chocolate meringues that get whipped up for someone’s birthday; Friday night chocolate cookies; and these oat-and-raisin biscuits “often packed in picnics for a fellow to take to their studio when working intently on a project, or visits to archaeological sites”.
Quite the recipe note, or maybe I am too easily influenced, but I fully believe that oat-and-raisin biscuits will help me work more intently, or sustain me when I do eventually visit an archaeological site. Until then, they sustain me through the morning; a cross between a flapjack, Hobnob and Mulino Bianco multi-cereal, and dead easy to make. Now, I’ll be Veronica and put the kettle on. “Would you like a biscuit?”
100g raisins, soaked in 100ml warm tea (any will do – I use Yorkshire) for 15 minutes
100g butter, at room temperature
100g caster sugar
1 tbsp golden syrup
1 tbsp treacle
120g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
100g rolled oats
1 tsp cinnamon
While the raisins are soaking, cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl, then beat in the egg, syrup and treacle. Drain and squeeze the raisins, then add them to the bowl with the flour, oats, a pinch of salt and the cinnamon and work the mixture until it comes together into a sticky ball.
With floury hands, break the dough mixture in two and roll each half into a log about 10cm long and the radius of a small biscuit. Wrap and chill for at least two hours (and up to a month).
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4 and line a baking tray. Using a sharp knife, cut the logs into 5mm-thick rounds and arrange these on the tray, spacing them well apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the edges are golden, then remove and leave to cool on the tray before lifting.