While it’s not unusual for Radio 4’s Today programme to spoil my day before it’s even started, finding out recently that the venerable Bath Oliver biscuit had ceased production was more than ordinarily dispiriting. Suddenly, all I could think about was that plainest of biscuits, the salty yin to the Rich Tea’s yang.
I did not grieve alone as I furiously kneaded butter into dough to try to satisfy my sudden craving. The Telegraph called the news “a national tragedy”, thundering that Bath Olivers were no mere biscuit, but “a symbol of decency and old-fashioned values” (which, frankly, seems a lot of weight to put on an 11g cracker), while Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for Bath-adjacent North East Somerset, promptly took to Twitter to declare the deceased the “best British biscuit”.
Indeed, for a biscuit, they tick a lot of jingoistic boxes. The Crown Jewels spent the war in a Bath Oliver tin under Windsor Castle in case of Nazi invasion. The biscuit features in the work of Tory favourites Rudyard Kipling and Evelyn Waugh (though they also get a mention in the Paddington books – and a biscuit can’t help the company it keeps).
One old-fashioned value the Bath Oliver might be said to exemplify is modesty: they’ve always reminded me of a ship’s biscuit with fewer weevils. But, originally designed to aid the digestion of wealthy visitors to the Regency spa town, the Oliver is luxuriously buttery in comparison to the flour-and-water tooth-breakers handed out to ordinary sailors.
In fact, biscuits, according to Lizzie Collingham’s new book The Biscuit: The History of a Very British Indulgence, were considered good for the digestion long before fashionable Bath physician William Oliver doled them out to his patients – Samuel Pepys, troubled by wind on his way home from the Admiralty in 1665, stops for a biscuit in the same way we might reach for an indigestion tablet.
The popularity of Oliver’s, as they were known, outlived the good doctor himself: as a rare yeasted biscuit, they found a new audience in the 19th century, when they were held to be “good for invalids suffering from acidity of the stomach, for which yeast is a corrective”. By 1907 many versions were produced in Bath, but only the Green Street bakery set up by Oliver’s former coachman could claim to use his original recipe.
In 1869, this bakery was bought by one James Fortt, whose name still appears on the packaging today. The Fortt family rebranded them as Original Bath Olivers and, in 1909, began to print the doctor’s face on them as a stamp of authenticity. The business was bought by Huntley & Palmers in 1962, which moved production to Reading, then Liverpool and then, under new American owners Nabisco, to London. In 1984, under the dramatic headline, “Nation Pleads, ‘Come Back Bath Olivers’”, the New York Times reported that production had stalled because Bath Olivers included ingredients “almost unheard of in modern commercial bakeries”, such as fresh milk and eggs.
As today, panic ensued – yet, also like today, reports of the Bath Oliver’s demise had been much exaggerated. Current owner Pladis has blamed Covid-19 for the pause in production and the resulting shortage of stock, reassuring fans baking will resume “shortly” – but having belatedly realised that they now contain palm oil, I’ll carry on making my own instead.
This article appears in the 28 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning