The Vintage Chef Olivia Potts

The surprising history of Garibaldi biscuits

The surprising history of Garibaldi biscuits
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I’m not sure that many people would choose the unassuming garibaldi as their favourite biscuit. Garibaldis aren’t flashy: there’s no luxury chocolate, no pretty, brightly-coloured icing, no fancy-pants shapes. They aren’t squidgy, trendy cookies, or wholesome buttery shortbread. In fact, they’re often called squashed-fly biscuits because the currants baked into the dough resemble, well, squashed flies. And yet, they persist. Garibaldi biscuits have stuck around for 150 years, outseeing fads and fickle consumers, keeping their place on supermarket shelves for longer than almost any other biscuit.

The biscuits have an unlikely namesake: Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian General, who fought for Italian unification. By the time Garibaldi sailed to the UK in 1854, he was already a celebrity, and his popularity only grew with time. By the 1860s he was a superstar and a household name; historian AJP Taylor grandly declared him ‘the only wholly admirable figure in modern history.’ Britain was obsessed by the Italian hero: a flurry of homeware items were made depicting him, from figurines to tankards, and his name was used for pubs and streets. Nottingham Forest football club named the colour of their strip ‘Garibaldi red’. The majority of these have fallen by the wayside, but the biscuit prevails.

The biscuit was first made in 1861 by Peek Freans, a Bermondsey biscuit company who had begun by making hard tack biscuits for sailors. Keen to expand their repertoire towards more universally attractive (and therefore more palatable) biscuits, they brought in Jonathan Dodgson Carr. Carr – perhaps more famously known now for his eponymous water biscuits – was the first person in Britain to successfully produce biscuits on an industrial scale. And he worked his magic by creating the Garibaldi biscuit.

The biscuits haven’t really changed since their inception: they are made of two layers of crisp, golden sweet dough, with a layer of currants between them, and glazed on top with a little sugar. They’re an easy biscuit to make, and an even easier one to shape: traditionally, they are in simple, rectangular shapes. They shouldn’t distort in the oven, or crumble in the hand, and they keep well in a biscuit tin.

Garibaldi biscuits

Makes: 12 biscuits

Takes: 10 minutes

Bakes: 25 minutes

60g butter, cold and cubed

140g self raising flour

40g caster sugar, plus sprinkling

¼ teaspoon fine salt

40ml milk

100g currants

1 egg white

  1. Preheat your oven to 160°C and line two trays with baking parchment.
  2. Rub together the butter and self raising flour until it resembles breadcrumbs.Stir through first the sugar and salt, and then the milk, and bring it together into a dough.
  3. Divide the dough in two. Dust your work surface with a little flour, and roll one half of the mix out into a rough rectangle a couple of millimeters thick.
  4. Scatter the currants across the dough. Roll out the second half of the dough to a rectangle about the same size and thickness as the first. Roll the dough up onto your rolling pin and drape over the currants and dough; press gently so that the two layers of dough stick together.
  5. Trim the edges of the dough so that they’re straight, then cut the dough into rectangles about 5cm by 10cm. Lift carefully onto the lined trays. Brush the cut biscuits with a little egg white, and sprinkle caster sugar over the top. Bake for 25 minutes, then leave to cool completely before removing from the trays.

Written byThe Vintage Chef Olivia Potts

Olivia Potts writes Spectator Life's The Vintage Chef column. A chef and food writer, she was winner of the Fortnum and Mason's debut food book award in 2020 for her memoir A Half Baked Idea.

Topics in this articleWine and Food