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Coffee, biscuit and chocolate

I hold no truck with the absurd idea, originally propounded by the cornflakes and cereals industry, that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

As modern medicine has told us, you can happily skip breakfast if you want to. In fact, with the popularity of intermittent fasting increasing, more people are giving up breakfast with no adverse effects to their health.


But, if you have to take medicine in the morning for things like blood pressure (as, sadly, many people of my generation now have to) then doctors suggest that you eat something first. As a concession to their advice, I take two slices of Bungla bread (sold at the bakery at Delhi Hyatt Regency, this is delicious but wheat-free and therefore gluten-free) with dark coffee or Darjeeling tea (no milk).


   This works well enough, but over the last few years, I have increasingly found myself cheating. When the bread runs out, I don’t order a fresh loaf immediately, but find excuses to delay. And then, on the grounds that we have no bread at home, I treat myself to a chocolate biscuit (two sometimes) with my coffee.


   The chocolate biscuit, as some of you may know, has been my weakness ever since I was a child. It is not as healthy as Bungla bread; in fact it is full of sugar and gluten. But I argue (to fool myself, mainly) that as I drink a strong cup of coffee (made in a machine from Fresh Brew capsules of local Indian coffees), the sweetness of the biscuit serves as a counterpoint to the smooth but powerful black coffee.


   Even when I drink Darjeeling tea, as I often do, I find myself reaching for a chocolate biscuit though the sweetness of the biscuit completely overpowers the delicate flavour of the tea.


   I can’t help it. I just love the taste of chocolate biscuits.


   Most Americans will assume that chocolate biscuit is a synonym for Oreo, one of the US’s most popular cookies. The Oreo is what the trade calls a sandwich cookie, which is to say that it consists of two round biscuits with a chocolate-type cream in the centre. The Oreo is such an important part of Americana, that it is traditional for kids to take apart the Oreo, to scrape or lick off the cream and to enjoy it and the cookies themselves with a glass of cold milk. (Yuck, yuck, and more yuck.)


   I have no great objection to the Oreo, which finally made its way to India only after many local versions had already hit the market. There are, I gather, many Oreo flavours so if you don’t like the chocolate version, you can try something else.


   For those of us who grew up in India, however, the Oreo is not part of our tradition. Our own chocolate sandwich-biscuit is much loved. It is called the Bourbon and I have had a lifelong love affair with it. The original Bourbon was created in the early years of the 20th Century (probably by a British company called Peek Freans, though this is disputed) and quickly became popular all over the UK. I imagine that it was difficult to patent biscuits in those days, so many different companies produced their own versions of the Bourbon.


   In India, Britannia produced the local Bourbon and it has remained a firm favourite with many people (not just me) even though other companies now make their own Bourbons too. Britannia is proud of its Bourbon, though attempts at repackaging the biscuit have been accompanied by a certain amount of controversy. Two years ago, I tweeted to ask if the company had reduced the size of the biscuit. The Bourbon I remembered was bigger. Was this because everything seems bigger in our memory? Or had there been a resizing?


"I believe that if you are having tea, the dunking biscuit has to be Bourbon. It does not spoil the flavour of the liquid and it holds its shape well after a quick dunk."

   To my surprise, the tweet set off a debate and the subject was covered in many newspapers and magazines. Britannia’s position was that the size had not changed. But ex-employees and Bourbon enthusiasts assured me that as part of its repackaging (and in the pursuit of economies), the company had in fact reduced the size.


   I don’t have any old packets of Bourbon lying around and can’t contest Britannia’s claim, so we will have to pretend that this is the biscuit of my childhood. And yes, it’s still pretty good.


   But it is not as good as the dark-chocolate digestive. Though it never really caught on in India, the original digestive biscuit was introduced in the UK also during the early part of the 20th Century. It was believed then that the biscuit, which has a coarser texture than the average biscuit, was made from wholewheat and had very little refined flour. Further, it was suggested that it would “help with digestion”, a polite way of saying that it would stop you from farting.


   All such claims turned out to be bogus. The biscuit contains lots of refined flour (maida) and very little wholewheat. And no, it won’t make any difference to your farting.


   The digestive has its fans. But it only achieved greatness when they decided to coat one side of the biscuit with chocolate. The process by which you could add chocolate to a biscuit had been invented by Cadbury’s in the late 19th Century. Cadbury’s then introduced its own chocolate-coated biscuit but it seems to have been marketed badly or to have not tasted very good.


   The product failed, leaving the field clear for the firm of McVitie’s, which covered one side of the digestive biscuit with chocolate. Thus was born the chocolate digestive, the biscuit I find new excuses to eat every morning. There are two versions: milk-chocolate (don’t bother) and dark chocolate (yes!).


   In the UK, the chocolate digestive is the country’s most popular biscuit, and McVitie’s keeps it in the news by encouraging discussions about it. Is the side with chocolate the top or bottom? Do you know that the biscuit passes through a chocolate reservoir? Wow! A chocolate reservoir! What’s that? And so on.


  Another debate concerns the correct way to dunk your chocolate digestive into your tea or coffee. According to food researchers, it has to go in at a certain angle to get the right amount of liquid on the chocolate.


   Most of this is nonsense, of course. But it does remind us of the defining quality of a chocolate biscuit: To taste at its best, it must be dunked into tea or coffee. According to me, you can’t dip it into tea without milk (which is how I drink my Darjeeling) because when the chocolate melts into the tea, it destroys the flavour of the liquid. Brits drink tea with milk and argue that chocolate and milk go quite well together.


   This is not a view I accept. I believe that if you are having tea (with or without milk) the dunking biscuit has to be Bourbon. It does not spoil the flavour of the liquid and it holds its shape well after a quick dunk.


   If however, you are drinking strong black coffee of the sort I have most mornings then a dark- chocolate digestive works best. It doesn’t hold its shape for as long as a Bourbon when it is dunked, so you have to be quick. But as the dark chocolate melts into the dark coffee, the two darknesses merge to create a wonderful (and classic) chocolate-coffee combination. The biscuit will taste delicious. But so will the coffee once the chocolate has melted into it.


   Is it as healthy as a nice piece of wheat-free Bungla bread? Of course not. Apart from anything else, the Bungla bread is artisanal and made fresh, in small batches. Both Bourbon and the chocolate digestive are industrial products that can’t be very good for you if they are consumed in large quantities.


   But there are times when you want the combination of coffee, biscuit and chocolate. As it fills your mouth it makes the morning sing.



Posted On: 04 Aug 2023 11:20 AM
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