Homesickness comes in strange guises. When I moved to the USA, in 1964, to spend four years in Upstate New York, I pined a little for English drizzle, for my cold, draughty parental home and for important British things like zebra crossings, red telephone boxes and policemen with phallic hats. But in the long dark hours, I wept and quaked in an orgy of self-pity because of the agony of biscuit deprivation. There were obscenely large, slightly bendy things called ‘cookies,’ at my new home, and startlingly dark, double-decked confections which resembled sunburnt Custard Creams, and called, I believe, Oreos.
But could I get hold of a firm, crisp, evenly baked Petit Beurre? No! Was there, anywhere, a shop which sold Crawford’s Shortbread fingers? Ha ha! Cadbury Chocolate FIngers? Nerts! Plain Chocolate Digestives? Nah! Lincolns? Bourbon? Osbornes? Small, rich teas? No way!
I thought of writing to my maiden great aunt, a much loved childhood confessor of mine who, with advantage of spinsterly ignorance, had talked me through the terrors of awakening sexuality in the same perfunctory way that she dealt with mice in the jam cupboard or a wasp that stung me on the shoulder during a picnic. She, you see, baked the only biscuit that, even as I write these words, bring tears of nostalgia to prickle my eyelids. No one – other than my grandmother, her sister, had the same recipe. And since Grandmother was as good at cooking as Caligula was at sane, stable government, her renditions of the same biscuits had the taste and texture of newly laid bitumen.
My great aunt’s biscuits were hard to describe. Thin, tapering to sharp edges, almost perfect discs and rich golden brown, just hovering on the edge of being ever so slightly over baked. Crisp, they were, but also yielding, so that they snapped and crumbled in exactly the right way when you bit into them. Once in the mouth, the blend of gingery honey-tinged molasses vapourised and invaded the tastebuds and olfactory thingummyjigs so that one experienced a immediate endorphine rush and swooned gently, almost incapable of taking the next bite but equally incapable of resisting the urge to scoff every one, and then to search, with licked fingers, for the crumbs beneath the cooling rack on her kitchen table.
But I didn’t write to the aunt. I got over the homesickness and discovered Reeses peanut butter cups, pancakes and crisp, streaky bacon, for breakfast, smoked salmon with bagels and hot New York pretzels.
The only manufactured biscuits that will ever come close to displacing my aunt’s golden perfections are Bahlsen plain Choco Leibnitz. There once was a thing called a Chocolate Oliver which came in an expensive, cylindrical tin and was also sublime – thick, hard, dark chocolate covering a smaller version of the familiar, slightly anaemic, savoury Bath Oliver which goes so superbly with Stilton or farmhouse Cheddar. But they gave up making original Chocolate Olivers a long time ago. Someone took over the brand, and a travesty of the originals turned up, chez nous, last Christmas. They evoked a cheer when unwrapped, but were a bitter, bitter disappointment.