Friday, August 1, 2014

The Great Baked Good Debate, UK vs US

The very first week of my internship with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, one of the horticulture students asked me to name one iconic dish from the Southeast United States.  Without missing a step I said, "Biscuits n' gravy."  Blank faces.  Then I was asked twice to confirm that yes, those two words are "biscuit" and "gravy".  The interest in the conversation increased.  I was quizzed about the gravy and whether it means the same thing in Tennessee as it does in London.  When I described the gravy as made from sausage grease, flour, milk and pepper, curiosity turned into open disgust.  I didn't understand. 

Just look at this and tell me that it's not a cookie.
That looks nothing like a proper biscuit!
That week I picked up some McVitie's Digestive Biscuits for my first "British treat of the week".  I basically inhaled the package without pausing to wonder why the word "biscuit" was on a package of cookies.  

It was another week or so before someone explained that biscuits in the UK are completely different from the ones I grew up with.  That opened a whole Pandora's box, and made everyone involved question, not only what culinary qualities constitute a biscuit versus a cookie, but also in defining scones, crackers and cakes.  I expected some cultural differences, but this was a bit more than I had anticipated.  I mean, these folks actually thought that I ate cookies with sausage gravy.

American Biscuits n' Gravy
Last week, I brought in some fresh, homemade sausage biscuits and gravy before a hardy display section meeting.  The biscuits were so-so because people use different metrics for baking here (weight vs. volume), and I didn't think to pack any measuring cups.  They were warm, buttery, and okay overall.  There was only one biscuit left over, and when I threw the sad thing away at afternoon tea it was as hard as a hockey puck.  

The gravy was definitely the finest sausage gravy I've ever made.  Good flavor, color, consistency.  I had worried at first that nobody would eat it if it went gray and unappetizing.  Thankfully it was a nice white with bits of sausage and pepper floating around.

People kept calling these biscuits "scones".  No.
It's biscuits n' gravy, not scones n' gravy.
But probably the most popular part of the dish was the sausage patties.  Most of the sausages you see over here are in casings, so several people stopped to ask me what they were eating.  The idea of ground sausage formed into a patty is a bit too foreign for some folks to wrap their heads around.  The sausage was gone first though.

I had also prepared some sausage biscuits.  You know, like the ones you pick up from the McDonald's drive-thru for $1 when you overslept and didn't have time to make breakfast.  One person remarked that it looked like a hamburger, and because it resembles a burger it shouldn't be eaten without "salad" (toppings) and "tomato sauce" (ketchup).

As I was washing the dishes, I overheard a somewhat heated conversation from the dining area.  There were two folks, each with a biscuit, arguing over the pronunciation of scone.  One pronounced it skh-ON (rhymes with John) and the other skh-OWN (rhymes with Joan).  When I took the dish away to wash, one stopped me and verified that I had brought in the food.  When I affirmed, they asked me to clear it up.  "How do you pronounce the name of this? Skh-ON or skh-OWN?"  I paused, then replied, "Neither.  These are biscuits."  One kind of rolled their eyes, the other scoffed and threw up their hands, and as they walked away I think I heard someone mutter something about Americans.

But is a scone a biscuit?
UT students argue that scones are not equivalent
to biscuits.  Rather, scones are a type of biscuit.
When the University of Tennessee's Glorious Gardens of England mini-term group came to visit, I picked up some scones for the students to enjoy on the bus ride from Kew to Hampton Court Palace.  I also packed some clotted cream and jam, and told a few students about the controversy about which should be applied first (see end of "Week Three").  Apparently they were tasty, and I hope that they weren't awfully stale. 

A couple days later, we were on the bus to Sissinghurst, when one of the students thanked me for the treat.  "Those were good!" she said, "What kind of biscuits were they?"  Here we go again... I thought.  So the Tennesseans decided that scones are a type of sweet biscuit, but not all biscuits are scones.  Okay, I can go with that.  Except my fellow intern Daisy explained to me that there can be quite bland or savory.  That confused the issue again. 

And a biscuit... is... a cookie?
As soon as the UT students walked through the entrance to Kew and gathered by Victoria Gate entrance, I informed them that they had arrived just after morning tea.  In celebration of that, they each got to try a chocolate covered Hobnob biscuit.  After all, I'd had cake and cookies at every other morning tea that week.  Why should that day be any different?  

In the UK, "biscuits" may be
dunked in tea or coffee.  This is
coffee -- not tea.  There are just
some things I will not do.
I informed the group that Hobnobs and Digestive biscuits are pretty good on their own, but they're transcendent when dunked in coffee.  Some people I work with dunk them in tea, but as a red-blooded American there are some things I just won't do.  

There were murmurs of enjoyment, then I heard something to the effect of, "These cookies are good!"  No.  Here in the UK, these cookies are biscuits.  Yet they still have "cookies".  So what is a cookie?  There are varying definitions.  One Kew student believes that cookies are soft and biscuits are hard.  Okay, I can accept that.  Another friend of mine said that if they're hard, but still have chocolate chips in them, then they're cookies.  


This is all a bit too much for me to wrap my head around, which is why the matter deserved a post unto itself.  I'm opening the discussion up to let the people decide.  What do you think?  What constitutes a scone, biscuit, or cookie?  

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please feel welcome to leave a comment or send me an email.

To see more photos from this week, be sure to check out the album "The Great Baked Good Debate" on the Plante on Plants Facebook page.  "Likes", shares and comments are appreciated.

All photos were taken by Amanda Plante at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew unless otherwise stated in the caption.

Don't even get me started on crumpets...

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