Tea and Biscuits

One has always associated the typical English cuppa with a snack of biscuits. A recent news item reported that the new trend in England, especially among the younger generation, is the popularity of samosas as the preferred snack with tea. This is indeed a total reversal of the traditional colonial notion of appropriate accompaniments to tea.

The English connection between biscuits and tea saw two different aspects during the two World Wars. Huntley & Palmers, the first officially designated biscuit manufacturers in England set up a factory in Reading in 1846. By 1874 it was producing tens of thousands of tonnes of biscuits, becoming the world’s largest biscuit manufacturer. When World War I started in 1914 it received a substantial order from the War Office to manufacture biscuits for the British army. The company manufactured Army Biscuits Number 4 and 9. The ‘Service’ biscuits as they were called, were about four inches square, and were made of whole wheat flour, without sugar. The biscuits provided sustenance, but were very hard and could only be eaten when soaked in tea or water. The fact that some of the biscuits survived intact for a hundred years attests to their durability!

Biscuits and tea found a different connection during World War II in England. By then sweet tea was favoured by the British working class. During the war, tea as well as sugar were severely rationed; there were complaints that tea was not sweet enough. So biscuit manufacturers stepped in by supplying the canteens for civilian war volunteers and other services with biscuits which would add a touch of sweetness with the tea. By the end of the war, it became a reflex for many to have biscuits with their tea. This English tea habit also took roots in what were then colonies of the British Empire.

In India, for many of a certain generation, the words ‘Britannia biscuits’ were almost synonymous. The history of these is interesting. Britannia Industries is one of India’s oldest existing companies. It was founded as a small operation in 1892 by a British businessman, with an investment of Rs 295/-.The first biscuits were manufactured in a small house in what was then central Calcutta. In 1897, the outfit was acquired by four Indian brothers, the Gupta brothers, and was called VS Brothers. In 1918 Charles Holmes, an English building contractor and friend of the Gupta family became a partner in the business. Holmes had a construction firm called Britannia Construction Co. and thus VS Brothers the biscuit manufacturer was renamed by him as Britannia Biscuit Company Ltd.

World War 1 (1914-1919) provided a huge boost for the newly-named company Britannia which was contracted by British colonial government in India to supply specially made biscuits for its soldiers on the frontlines. Thus Britannia joined Huntley & Palmer as suppliers of Service biscuits.

Britannia became the first biscuit maker in India to mechanize production, and the first one east of the Suez Canal to use gas ovens, which it imported in 1921.

In the early 1920s the two most successful biscuit manufacturers in the UK Peek Freens and Huntley & Palmers merged to create a company called Associated Biscuit Manufacturer’s Ltd. This led to world-wide expansion. Britannia merged with this larger company in 1924, and set up a factory in Bombay to meet with the growing demand. The company began establishing a reputation for quality and value. It further strengthened its position by expanding the factories at Calcutta and Mumbai.

During the Second World War, once again the company was contracted to produce Service biscuits, and from 1939-45 almost 95% of its total production capacity was used for this war-time effort. 

In 1952 the Calcutta Factory was shifted to spacious grounds at Taratola Road in the suburbs of Calcutta. During the same year automatic plants were installed there, and later in Mumbai in 1954. The same year the company began production of high-quality sliced and wrapped bread in India. This was first manufactured in a new factory set up in Delhi and first sold there. In 1955 the company launched the all-time favourite Bourbon biscuit in India, followed by Britannia cakes in 1963. In 1978, the Indian shareholding in the company crossed 60%. The Company was re-christened from Britannia Biscuit Company Limited to Britannia Industries Limited with effect from 3rd October 1979. By 1994 the annual production crossed one lakh tonne of biscuits. In 1995 Britannia made it a mission to make every third Indian a Britannia consumer and changed its corporate identity to “Eat Healthy, Think Better”. Since then the company has grown from strength to strength, introducing new brands that rapidly became household names. The company sells its Britannia and Tiger brands of biscuits, breads and dairy products throughout India and in more than 60 countries across the world.

While Britannia is one of the oldest biscuit manufacturing companies in India, today there are several companies that offer choices of sweet or salty biscuits. From Parle G, the world’s largest selling biscuit brand in 2021, to the cream or chocolate-filled cookies, to a host of “healthy, low-carb hi-fibre” options. These are not necessarily ‘tea biscuits’. They are multi-place, multi-use snacks, easy to carry, quick to unwrap and fun to savour even on their own. Even while crunching and munching on biscuits, Indians also continue to enjoy the traditional teatime snacks and savouries of which every state and even every household have their own specialties and favourites—from ganthiya in Gujarat, to murukku in south India, to regional varieties of vadas and pakoras. And of course, the transnational favourite samosa. 

Now it looks like we have come full circle—from Indians adopting English biscuits with chai, to the English adopting samosa with tea!

–Mamata

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