She is as everyday and seems as inconsequential and undervalued as the air we breathe in, yet she is indispensable for the morning cup of tea or as a quick solution to a sudden hunger pang. She is neither too sweet nor salty, she is simple, yet she is beautiful with a neat pattern and a round shape. The most common pack in grocery racks around the world, she is an egalitarian food, the need and love for her cuts across borders, age, religion, culture and tastes. I cannot do without her in the mornings, and this has been a habit since childhood. The accompaniments changed but she remained constant. Years ago I used to dip her in my morning cup of milk before rushing off to school and now I dip it in my cup of Second Flush or Earl Grey.
The she I am referring to is a biscuit, the common Marie biscuit. Even if it is inanimate by standards, I feel the need to breath life in her, as she succors souls for years. I feel Marie is a woman…. constant, unchanging yet full of life and with lot of potentials. The idea of writing about Marie biscuits came to my mind last morning when I was angry, frustrated and sad in finding that my stock of Marie biscuits were over. Even during the prolonged Lockdown I ensured I had a steady supply of her. The emotion in finding my tea tray without the Marie was akin to finding one’s lover cheating and that too with a close friend- angry, frustrated and sad at the realisation that the bond was never as strong in reality, only in a figment of thought. I thought I had betrayed the Marie in not restocking it in time.
Amends to be done, apart from buying stocks, I thought of paying a tribute to this humble yet indispensable element in my life. An ode to my favourite Marie would be the best amend. Marie biscuits are dunkable biscuits and they are best served with tea or a glass of milk. Another way to enjoy these biscuits is by making a sandwich out of two biscuits with either marmalade or butter spread in between- a childhood nostalgia for most of us. A marmalade sandwiched Marie is still the comfort food for many . Marie biscuits are also given to infants and toddlers as the first solid food. The biscuit universally has one shape and is called by the same name irrespective of language. Round in shape with the name embossed on the top surface with the edges embossed with an intricate design as well. It is made from wheat flour sugar, palm oil or sunflower seed oil and is usually vanilla flavored in comparison to the rich tea biscuits.
How the Marie came into being
Marie Biscuits were originally called Maria. In 1874 Queen Victoria’s second son, the Duke of Edinburgh, married a Russian princess, Maria Alexandrovna. She was the fifth child and only surviving daughter of Emperor Alexander II of Russia . To celebrate the duke’s wedding to Maria, a London based pastry chef from the biscuit company Peek Freans made a simple round biscuit of flour, oil, sugar and vanilla extract, with the name Maria stamped in the middle, and around the edge a Greek key pattern, which was very popular in Russia. The biscuit became very popular throughout Europe, specifically in Spain where it became the country’s symbol of economic recovery after the Civil War. Marie biscuits have been produced in mass quantities in Spanish bakeries during that time due to wheat surplus. The first Peek Freans factory outside of England was set up in Kolkata as the biscuit travelled from high teas in British countryside to ordinary homes and roadside tea shops assimilating into the “chaa ae adda culture of Bengal .
Marie and History
The reason why Marie biscuits had a global acceptance has a historical underpinning. It was the high curve of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and biscuits became one of the unexpected products of it. Biscuits had existed mostly as nibblers for consumption in ships- a hard, plain one, often without salt, made on a large scale and meant to serve as long-lasting rations on ships. Bakers did make sweet biscuits called Fancies, but only on a small scale and for local consumption, since they were too perishable to sell widely. Margaret Forster describes in Rich Desserts and Captain’s Thins, a fascinating history of Carr’s of Carlisle, one of the first big biscuit manufacturers.
New technologies like airtight metal boxes for packing and transport by canals and then the railways, which reduced breakages from bumpy roads gave a shelf life to biscuits. Long train trips also required food for the traveller as Forster wrote “this new method of travel actually fuelled the need for biscuits.” The new industrialized world as well needed new foods. “Biscuits were the perfect form of snack, and snacks instead of proper meals were becoming more and more usual as working hours changed,” writes Forster. As the British spread their empire across the world, they took their need for biscuit breaks with them. Tightly packed tins of biscuits were easy to transport by ship and as a result they became among the first global brands, with names that are still familiar like Huntley & Palmer or McVities (Peek Frean is available only in Pakistan now).
As biscuit manufacturing boomed, competition became intense. Most biscuits were similar and quickly copied, so companies were under pressure to come up with new types, shapes and names. Any major event was celebrated with its own biscuit as Forster that royal links were very popular: “The nibbler was thought to be seduced by visions of Queen Victoria eating the very same biscuit.” Making a biscuit for a marriage was easy, with a standard recipe for a semi-sweet biscuit being replicated with a machine to punch its circular shape, the pattern of holes and a design around the rim and ‘Marie’ in the centre.
Marie and Brands
When it comes to Marie biscuits, there are several brands to choose from and one of the most popular is the Britannia Marie from India. In Spain, one of the biggest brands of the Marie Biscuit is Maria Cookies. Another Spanish brand is the Rio Maria where the biscuits are thin, crisp and very sweet. In Spain, Natillas Custard is typically served with a Maria biscuit on top. In Mexico, the Pagasa Marias Cookies make crunchy Marie biscuits. In UK the biggest producer of Marie Biscuits is Crawford’s, the company that produces airy and light biscuits with vanilla flavor. These biscuits are great to be paired with tea. In the United States, Marias brand under Goya Foods is a popular Marie Biscuits brand, while the Maria Brand is well-known in Canada under the President’s Choice biscuit manufacturer. In the Philippines, Fibisco, the country’s top biscuit manufacturer, has popularized this biscuit variety as a great starting food for toddlers. There are three Fibisco made brands of this biscuit; Marie, Marie Time and Marie Munch.
Here and there Marie
The simplicity of Marie both in taste and design seems to appeal to many. It made them versatile, far more than the richer biscuits with fillings and fat. Maries are sweet, but not too much, so they complement other foods – we have all eaten them spread with jam or honey as kids, but Maries are good even when eaten like savoury crackers with cheese. Maries have less fat so they don’t crumble as fast. Though they lack a delicious melt-in-your-mouth feel, but it makes them better for dunking. This is where Maries really come into their own, their stiff dry structure absorbing more liquid as they go into milk, coffee or tea, but staying together long enough for that fraught journey from mug to mouth. Of course, even Maries fall apart if left in liquid for too long.
Marie and Politics
On 12th October, 1997 the Times of India reported in an article headed ‘Marie Biscuits and Mukhiya Mantris’ how chief minister Vasantdada Patil made use of the Maries served at Mantralaya press conferences to avoid giving answers-“Crucial questions skipped the chief minister’s attention as he would be too busy scooping out the details of the cup with a spoon.
Marie – the versatile one
To me the pleasure in carefully nibbling off the patterned rim first and then crunching the diminished centre is meditative peace. Faced with a cup with a mouth too small for a full Marie to go in, I then contemplate the geometry of how to break it into pieces small enough to go in, but not so small as to make dunking difficult. These are small but real pleasures of life. Parle failed in its attempt to sell Mary Long, introduced in 1987 as “the Square Shaped Marie.” Parle boasted that Mary Longs has won a gold medal at the Monde Selection Awards in Brussels, but Indian consumers evidently didn’t feel the way the Belgians did and the product is now forgotten.
Marie’s do have one use where the shape doesn’t matter. Crumbled or broken Maries are the foundation of some delicious puddings. Sri Lankans have a pudding made of layers of milk soaked Maries with chocolate and cashew nuts in between. Even easier is the recipe for Serradura that Fatima da Silva Gracias gives in her wonderful book Cozinha de Goa . The name Serradura means sawdust, which is exactly what pulverised Maries look like, and they are layered with a mixture of cream and condensed milk and frozen till solid.
1 Packet Marie biscuit
2 cups whipping Cream
1 Can Condensed Milk
1/2tsp Cinnamon Powder
In a food processor crush the Marie biscuits into fine crumbs resembling saw dust.
Beat the cream until medi soft peaks form
Add the condensed milk to the cream and whip for 4 minutes more.
In a tall glass alternate the cream and crumbs beginning and ending with cream.
Garnish with chocolate powder or chocolate gratings or sliced almonds.
Dust cinnamon powder.