I’m robust. I have a certain steel. I can take quite a lot of things thrown at me; 10pm curfews, no standing at the bar, a run on the Joe Malone pomegranate and fig scented candle. But the world just got serious – and it was a read of The Daily Telegraph who broke the news that has broken me.
Scrambling around his local supermarkets and then trawling the internet, Peter Stitch was at a loss for what had happened to his beloved Bath Oliver biscuits. Not on the shelves, not on Ocado, not nowhere.
So he put in a call to their makers, United Biscuits, and was told the irredeemably bad news: that production of Bath Olivers – the making of which has lasted some 250 years – has ceased.
Is it possible that Bath Olivers can be cancelled without warning? Isn’t there legislation to prevent national tragedies like this. It’s as if Big Ben had toppled over and no one spotted it. Except of course, we have. I have.
The Bath Oliver is – he wipes a tear… – was a biscuit that brought together two cultural icons of the 18th century: the beautiful city of Bath, with its fashionable health resort; and a genius physician, one Dr William Oliver.
It was to his treatment rooms that patients flocked. Having introduced inoculations for smallpox in Plymouth, he moved to Bath where he raised money for the construction of the then General Hospital, which, it was said, he more ruled over than ran. Indeed, Dr Oliver was a controversial figure, described by one of his critics as “a most inveterate infidel till a short time before his death”. But he was rated for his cures of stomach ailments – and his invention of a Regency diet biscuit.
The Bath Oliver was a successor to the less popular Bath Bun. Oliver developed the latter to sustain patients, but it was regarded as too heavy an item. So he invented the Bath Oliver – a hard, dry 3in wheel of lightly baked wheatflour, raised only slightly with yeast, and covered with prick marks. He apparently divulged the recipe on his deathbed to his coachman, along with a bundle of £100 and a sack of fine wheatflour so his comestible might continue after his demise.
The coachman made a fortune from making them and, after various bakers competed for their production in the 19th century, the recipe was passed to a James Fortt. When United Biscuits took over the business in the mid-20th century, Fortt’s named remained on the packaging, and did so until United Biscuits thought that in a global pandemic few would notice that they had ceased production.
Fat chance. You don’t hold in your possession a British cultural icon and think it can disappear without anyone blinking. It would be like a Beefeater discovering the Crown Jewels had gone missing from the Tower of London one morning, and shrugging his shoulders.
But, of course, readers of The Telegraph noticed – and I’ve noticed. And we should not allow this biscuit to die without a fight.
United Biscuits may have met on some tedious Zoom call as they ran through the numbers on Twiglets, Jacob’s Cream Crackers, Hob Nobs and Mini Cheddars. Then an accountant, distracted by their cat walking across their keyboard, blithely mentions poor numbers for Bath Olivers and so, keen to get back to the telly and watch the French Open, there’s muted approval for their cancellation. But these aren’t just biscuits.
For a start, it’s not just me that needs them. Cheese needs them. My esteemed mother-in-law, with whom we currently reside, asked me the other day if I wanted “anything else” from Waitrose. “Just some Bath Olivers, please,” I asked. “OK,” she replied, “and what cheese would you like to go with them.” “It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Anything.”
Because that’s the point. The story of the UK growth of artisanal cheese is vital and fabulous, but sometimes their vessel to your mouth that’s more important. When it comes to a Bath Oliver, cheese is a mere sidekick, a conduit to its consumption.
And only the confused eat cheese naked – that is to say without bread or biscuits. And today, with so many varieties out there, the Bath Oliver provides clarity in the fog of “biscuits for cheese”.
Yes, there are crackers with thyme and black garlic and peppercorns and coriander and five spice and infused, smoked Jasmine tea. But I want the flavour of my cheese to shine, unobscured by a flavoured biscuit. And the Bath Oliver is a modicum of decency, of old-fashioned British values, even; reliable, modest and true.
The Bath Oliver is large, proud, straightforward and handsome. I see them on the shelves, shy among the vulgar newbies, like treasure beneath the sand. Never too dry, not too coarse, and with a hint of creaminess. And they are not a wretched oatcake, which is just gruel pretending to be a biscuit.
And what of its sexy sister, the chocolate Bath Oliver? A visit to the room of Jacob Rees-Mogg at school and he would greet one with the offer of black coffee and a chocolate Bath Oliver. He disparaged school food. Those biscuits were literally all he ate.
Children have been named after them, the Leader of the House would not be alive without them and the quiet decent majority of this nation need them to get through this crisis. United Biscuits should hop back on Zoom, start baking them again and unite our fractious nation.