This Side of the Pond – April 25

By Sarah Pridgeon


I’ve made an offensive move in the Battle of the Biscuit and I think my new tactics might have worked. After baking and distributing the evidence, at least a dozen members of this community are now aware that those things you eat with gravy are definitely not biscuits – they’re scones.
The biscuit conundrum has foxed me for a number of years. To an English native, a biscuit is a hard, crunchy cookie such as an Oreo. Gravy, meanwhile, is of the brown variety and seldom includes sausage or mushrooms.
It’s a circular sort of problem that goes as follows:
A biscuit in England is called a cookie in America.
A biscuit in America is a scone in England.
A scone in England is called shortcake in America.
Shortcake, in England, is a type of biscuit.
I cannot fathom what possessed people to start swapping the names about. Americans now stare at the jam on a scone in horror, while the Brits are perplexed at what could be possibly be short about a scone.
More upsettingly, when I first heard about the local delicacy known as “biscuits and gravy,” I was imagining a plate of cookies covered in brown gravy. It sounded more horrific than it turned out to taste and thus the naming war kept me at arm’s length of a dinnertime indulgence for far too long.
But, while I’m now happy to admit that “biscuits and gravy” is a delicious treat, I am not willing to concede that it has anything to do with biscuits. They are definitely scones, which theoretically means they have no business being anywhere near a gravy boat.
Scones are supposed to be smothered with clotted cream and strawberry jam and served with a Nice Cup of Tea, as a mid-afternoon treat. The sweet, sticky toppings contrast with the subtle saltiness of the scone itself – it’s quite the unique experience.
Scones are a tradition still very much alive in country tearooms and up-market hotels, enjoyed in the summer sunshine before a stroll through the rolling hills. And so I set about making a batch and quickly discovered that my mother hadn’t been kidding when she said, “don’t fuss with them too much.”
The recipe calls for an ounce and a half of butter to be rubbed into eight ounces of sieved self-raising flour. Stir in a tablespoon and a half of sugar and a pinch of salt and then use a knife to mix in four fluid ounces of milk.
The trick is to then knead the mixture into a soft dough, roll it out to a thickness of just over an inch and use a pastry cutter to tap sharply through the dough without twisting (or cut them into triangles if, like me, you can’t locate the cutter). You’re supposed to be able to do all this while barely touching the mixture because, the more you fiddle with the dough, the less likely the scones are to rise.
Having performed said wizardry, your scones should be baked for 12-15 minutes at 425 degrees on the top shelf of the oven. You’ll know they’re done when they’re golden brown on top and have risen to double the height – not, it turns out, when you’ve poked the one at the front eight times and caused it to collapse from the trauma.
My mother has requested I interrupt my baking instructions at this point to alert you that you may need extra flour during high-altitude scone creation. Having never baked above sea level, she attempted to make a batch for our wedding breakfast and the first out of the oven resembled soggy, hot batter.
“Imagine if it had been the other way round, though,” she said. “They would have come out less ‘scone’ and more ‘Stone of Scone’.”
Once you’ve allowed them to cool, there’s a specific ritual that must be adhered to before you’re allowed to eat your scones. Each must be sliced in half and a layer of strawberry jam spread across both parts.
The whole shebang should then be topped with a spoonful of whipped cream, gently coaxed across the surface of the jam so as to keep the two neatly separated. The better you are able to achieve this, and the less you get on your fingers and down the front of your shirt, the more likely you are to be accepted into the echelons of England’s upper classes.
Rather bossily, I insisted on performing this ritual for every victim of my scone offensive (to varying degrees of success). The final product went down so well that I was all set to include an order form in this column, should any reader be interested in trying out the realities of a biscuit. Until, that is, I made a stunning discovery.
While watching an old episode of the television show Lost, during which one character is trapped in a cage where polar bears were once experimented on, I watched him press buttons on a machine in the hope he’d be rewarded by bear food. That sentence is probably incomprehensible if you’ve never watched the show (and not much better even if you have), but my point is as follows: when food finally came, he referred to it as a “fish biscuit.”
A little bell in my memory began to jangle as I suddenly recalled that the treats we give to the canine member of our family are sometimes called “dog biscuits.” Not “dog cookies.”
The cat suddenly leaped from the proverbial bag: you buggers have known exactly what proper biscuits are all along. All I want to know now is why the animals are allowed biscuits, but humans have to have cookies.