We all have our favourites, whether it’s chocolate, custard creams, oatmeal, ginger snaps or shortbread. And we are in good company! Millions of people enjoy biscuits, and this has been the case for more years than you might have expected.
Back in 1338, when the Gilbertine monk Robert Mannyng was writing his Chronicles of Robert de Brunne (known today as Bourne), he included the sentence:
Armour þei had plente, & god besquite.
(Armour they had plenty, and good biscuit.)
This probably referred to a type of flat cake that seamen tended to use, although the word was also sometimes used for unleavened bread. As you can see, in this example of Middle English, the spelling was besquite. But this was by no means universal at that time. Besides besquite, it appears in Middle English as bisquit, bysquyte, biscute and biscocte.
But where did it come from? The answer is from Old French bescuit. This literally means “twice cooked”, and in some languages that use cognates of the word, this meaning is still obvious, such as with Italian biscotto and Modern French biscuit.
This can be traced back to Medieval Latin biscoctum, which consists of two elements: bis + coctum. The first part, bis, means “twice, in two ways”, while the second, coctum, is the past participle of coquere, which meant “cook”. And in fact, the Modern English verb cook also comes from this source.
So why were they named “twice-cooked”? Perhaps unsurprisingly, because they were cooked twice! Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one. Biscuits would have been baked first, and then placed in another oven to cook again more slowly, so that they would dry out and keep for longer without going mouldy.