McVitie's History, Digestive Biscuits, and Jaffa Cakes
McVitie's biscuits have been popular in Britain since the nineteenth century. I've loved the company's digestive biscuits and Jaffa cakes since my childhood. The digestives are semi-sweet and crumbly. Their wholemeal flour component gives them a distinctive taste. The Jaffa cakes consist of three layers—a chocolate topping, orange flavoured jelly, and a layer of sponge. According to an interesting court case, the delicious treats are indeed cakes. To me they seem half way between biscuits and cakes, though.
McVitie's products are available in some stores in North America, but they may be hard to find. They can also be ordered online. Some translations may be useful for North Americans when they're reading about the products. For example, a biscuit is the same thing as a cookie and wholemeal flour is the same as whole wheat flour.
A Brief History of McVitie's
Robert McVitie was the founder of the company known today as McVitie's (spelled with the apostrophe, according to the company's website). He was born in Scotland in 1809 and became a baker. In 1830, Robert and his father opened a provision shop in Edinburgh. The shop did so well that others were opened. When Robert died he left his business to his son, who continued to expand it.
The first biscuit factory was opened in 1888 after it became obvious that baking in shops was no longer sufficient to meet the demand. Additional factories were opened later.
Some highlights of the company's history include the creation of the following:
- the first McVitie's digestive biscuit in 1892 (made by Alexander Grant)
- the wedding cake for the future King George V and Queen Mary in 1893
- the chocolate digestive biscuit in 1925
- Jaffa cakes in 1927
- the wedding cake for the future Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947
- the first fully automated biscuit factory in the world in 1948 (located in Harlesden, an area in London)
McVitie's is now part of United Biscuits. As its name suggests, this company consists of several biscuit makers. Recently, United Biscuits has become part of Pladis, a global biscuit and confectionary company. Pladis is a subsidiary of a Turkish food group called Yildiz Holding.
McVitie's digestive biscuits, or digestives, come in four versions—plain, or coated with milk chocolate, dark chocolate, or milk chocolate plus caramel. The plain version is my favourite. I sometimes buy digestives coated with milk chocolate, however. They are nice right out of the packet and after dunking in tea.
Digestives get their name from their sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) content. It's known that drinking a small quantity of sodium bicarbonate dissolved in water can relieve some types of upset stomach. It's highly unlikely that the chemical in a cooked product can do the same thing, but the creation of the name "digestive" biscuit was probably a good marketing strategy.
The plain biscuits can't be classified as a health food, but they aren't a nutritional disaster. They are made from wheat flour and a smaller quantity of wholemeal flour. The term "wheat flour" generally means the same as white flour. One biscuit contains 2 grams of sugar and 2.5 grams of fat. There are no artificial flavours or colours added to either the plain or the coated biscuits.
Some people like to eat cheese with digestive biscuits. Others like to crumble the biscuits and then mix them with a little butter to make a base for a cheesecake or the topping for an apple crumble.
Cheesecake With a Digestive Biscuit Base
Dunking Biscuits in Tea
Dunking biscuits in hot tea is a fine art. I love the taste of warm, soft biscuit, but I hate eating soggy bits that have fallen to the bottom of the cup. The length of the dunking time is important. Too little and the biscuit is still hard; too much and it disintegrates.
Several researchers have tried to find the best biscuit for dunking. The rich tea biscuit—including the McVitie's version—has been the winner in every case. It's a relatively hard and dense product that stays intact for the longest time when placed in hot tea. Despite the fact that the chocolate digestive disintegrates faster in hot liquid, it's a popular item for dunking. The heat creates a warm biscuit with soft chocolate, which tastes delicious.
Some people like to dunk their biscuits in coffee or milk, but tea is my beverage of choice for dunking.
I currently live in Canada. McVitie's has a Canadian distribution centre that distributes nine varieties of their biscuits to other parts of the country. The products are made in Britain and have the same ingredients as the British ones, which pleases me. When prepared foods are produced or sold in countries other than their original one, they are sometimes made from a slightly different recipe.
The biscuit selection that I find in my local stores is limited and variable. It probably depends on what a store orders or on what is currently available in the distribution centre. Getting the product that I want is often a hit-and-miss affair.
Buying biscuits online allows people to get a specific variety. Good packaging helps to prevent breakage during shipping. It's hard to completely avoid breakage in the plain version of digestive biscuits, however, since they're quite fragile. I often find that the first ones in a packet are crumbled at the edges. They taste just as good whether they're intact or broken, though. The chocolate-coated varieties are stronger than the plain one. Amazon sells a six-pack collection of that were made in Britain. McVitie's digestive biscuits
Jaffa cakes get their name from Jaffa oranges. The name is a reference to the orange flavoured jelly inside the cakes. The "J" in the name is capitalized because it refers to the city of Jaffa. One cake contains 6.4 grams of sugar and 1 gram of fat.
The base of a cake is made of genoise sponge. The sponge is named after the Italian city of Genoa, where it was first created. It's made from whole eggs, sugar, and flour. Air is added to the batter to produce the spongy texture.
The jelly in the cakes contains concentrated orange juice and natural orange flavouring. The gel is produced by the addition of pectin. A cake has to be cut open to see the jelly, which is located under the raised area of the dark chocolate topping.
All of McVitie's Jaffa cakes are made in a factory at Stockport. 2,000 cakes are produced every minute. Each one goes on a journey of nearly a mile in length and about eighteen minutes in time as it's assembled.
How Jaffa Cakes Are Made
Cake or Biscuit?
According to U.K. law, biscuits are considered to be a luxury item and are subject to VAT (Value Added Tax). For some strange reason, cakes are considered to be a staple food and are not subject to VAT. In 1991, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise decided that Jaffa cakes were biscuits and that consumers should pay the tax when they purchased them. McVitie's disagreed and took the case to court.
Arguments for Jaffa cakes being classified as biscuits included the fact that they are sold with other biscuits instead of with cakes and that they are packaged in the same way as biscuits. They are also small and are eaten as a snack with the fingers instead of with a fork. This argument seems a bit weak to me, since I can think of quite a few types of small cakes as well as cakes that are eaten with the fingers instead of a fork.
The argument for Jaffa cakes being classified as cakes (which won the case) was that cakes become hard when they get stale while biscuits become soft. When Jaffa cakes become stale, they harden. Therefore they must be a cake.
Why Cakes Harden as They Become Stale
Buying Jaffa Cakes
Until quite recently, I could find McVitie's Jaffa cakes in nearby stores. Unfortunately I no longer see them there. There is a wonderful British import store in my area that sells the cakes, however. It takes me quite a long time to drive to the store so I don't go there regularly, but when I do visit I always find the journey very worthwhile. It's like a trip into my past as I view the once-familiar foods and drinks for sale.
Amazon sells a pack of thirty-six from Britain. It might be wise to avoid getting them during the hottest part of the year in order to reduce the chance of the chocolate melting during transport. I think it's worth ordering them online at least once if they can't be found locally, though, especially if someone enjoys the taste of chocolate combined with orange. The cakes may become an individual or family favourite, as they have for me. Jaffa cakes
McVitie's still sells a few cakes, which are provided in the form of small, packaged loaves. The company's main emphasis is on biscuits, bars, and sweet snacks, however. It's interesting that some products that the company created 90 to 125 years ago are still very popular. Digestive biscuits and Jaffa cakes have stood the test of time and have remained favourites with the public.
© 2017 Linda Crampton