With the new series of the Great British Bake Off in full swing on the BBC there has already been controversy over whether or not it is appropriate to dunk Jaffa cakes in your tea or coffee. This led to a segment of the show giving the history of biscuit dunking, which, it turns out, is an ancient tradition. Apparently dunking, dipping or submerging a biscuit in a beverage releases more flavours by dissolving the sugar in it and also softening the texture. If you dunk a chocolate biscuit it is supposed to become even more chocolatey! But some people do not approve; in a survey 52% of people said they never dunked!
It was the Romans who started the tradition. They dunked their hard, unleavened wafers in wine in order to soften them. These wafers were known as “bis cotum” leading to the word biscuit. Modern day dunking, however, has it roots in the naval traditions of the 16th century when a flour and water mixture 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 routine dipped in beer or brine (!) to soften it before it was even remotely edible. The fact that the one in the picture below has survived from the 19th century proves just how tough they must have been!
By the 17th century the basic biscuit recipe had been developed into something much nicer that tasted like sponge fingers. These were originally 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. The Victorians disapproved of public biscuit dipping, feeling that it was something only to be done in the privacy of one’s own home.