Nicola here with a classic post from a few years ago that I originally posted on the UK Historical Romance Authors Blog. It got such an interesting response then that I thought I would update it and share it here because I was keen to hear what the Wenches and Wench readers thought of it.
So here goes. Do you dunk? I’m using the word “dunk” in the British sense of the word which means “to dip a biscuit or some other food, usually baked goods, into a drink, especially tea, coffee, or milk." Dunking releases more flavour from confections by dissolving the sugars, while also softening their texture. With the UK/US differences in language I had no idea about the basketball definition of dunking until I looked it up!
It turns out that dunking is an ancient tradition but it’s also a divisive one. Apparently in a recent survey done by the Great British Bake-Off TV Programme, 52% of people said they wouldn’t dream of dunking a biscuit – they never had and they never would!
It was the Romans who started the dunking tradition, like they did so many things. They dipped their hard, unleavened wafers in wine in order to soften them. These wafers were known as “bis cotum” meaning “twice baked.” The French word “bis qui” derived from that, and the English biscuit from bis qui. The Roman biscuit was more what we would think of as a rusk, very hard and very dry. It kept for longer than plain bread which was useful when you were travelling and also for soldiers’ rations. You can imagine, though, that a bis cotum might be rather unpalatable and so dipping them in wine would be one way of making them more edible – or if there was enough wine with them, maybe you didn’t notice the taste!
By the 14th century the word biscuit had entered the English language to describe not only twice-baked rusks but also sweet wafers made of batter which were a particular treat. However, the hard biscuit was still a staple of many diets and by the 16th century it was also a staple food of the Navy. Ship’s biscuits, a flour and water mixture also known as “hard tack” was baked and used for sailors’ rations. These incredibly unappealing biscuits were also known as “tooth dullers” and “molar breakers” making the need for dunking very clear. Hard tack was routinely dipped in beer or even in seawater brine if sailors were desperate, it was the only way to soften it and make it remotely edible. The fact that the one in the picture has survived since 1784 proves just how tough they must have been!
The 17th and 18th centuries saw new ingredients and many new styles of biscuit take over from the original plain twice baked ones. However the tradition of dunking continued more for fun than necessity. Savoys and ratafias, baked in long tins and cut into slices, were served at the end of the meal and dipped into wine or other alcoholic beverages. They are the ancestors of the trifle.
From that time on, a number of biscuit recipes proliferated until in the Victorian period, biscuits, cake and tea were partaken mid-afternoon as the formal afternoon tea. Dunking, however, was discouraged in the later 19th century as it was considered unrefined. The Victorians disapproved of public biscuit dipping, feeling that if you had to do it, it was best done in the privacy of one’s own home! The fact that Queen Victoria was a fan, though, ensured that the practise didn’t die out.
Along the way, dunking has evolved into the pastime it is today, with sweet biscuits generally dipped in tea, coffee or milk rather than alcohol. This change occurred when afternoon tea was introduced in the 19th century, though with the caveat of privacy (see above!)
Dunking is also an international occupation; I read about something called the “Tim Tam Slam” in Australia, that New Zealand prefers the ginger nut and that the Brits’ favourite is the chocolate digestive biscuit. It’s also an art form. Too long in the liquid and the biscuit will disintegrate leaving you with nothing but mush at the bottom of your cup.
Not everyone enjoys dunking and the choice of a dunking biscuit is still a very personal matter. So here is the all-important question. Do you dunk? And if so, what is your biscuit, and your liquid, of choice?