Explaining digestives to those who didn’t grow up eating them quickly becomes tedious. I have long abandoned my standard impassioned defense; if someone questions this noble biscuit’s plainness, it’s austere looks, its quasi medicinal benefits, I nod politely and continue eating. I suppose my only question for those who do not understand digestives is: what unadorned, neutral thing do you eat on a dreary Tuesday afternoon?
While the celebration of plainness rarely goes well, more mileage can be had from an interesting history. First mentions of similar biscuits can be found in cookbooks dating to the first half of the 19th Century, but the digestive did not gain wide acceptance until the late Victorian era. In addition to a voracious appetite for culture and urbanity, Victorians had a curious obsession with digestion, or, more accurately, indigestion. The digestive biscuit, with its wholemeal content and hefty dose of sodium bicarbonate (baking powder) was claimed as an aid for everything from bloating to heartburn. Of course these claims were as spurious then as they seem today—the culmination of which is the persistent rumor that it is illegal to sell digestives in the US under the suggestion of having medicinal properties.
If you are new to digestives, start with that other contribution of Empire: strong black tea, enriched with whole milk and sweetened to taste. I can identify a handful of other well-matched unions, but perhaps none with so mutual a goal. Whether it is a stomach that has grown hungry between meals, or a mood which has sharply turned, a heart that has been wounded or some other scenario that balances its participants precariously before tragedy: tea with a biscuit is the universal mend. These are rounded and gentle flavors that calibrate the senses rather than jar them—more salve than smelling salts.
I like digestives in their other role too. I serve them along with aged cheese following a meal. This can be even more confounding to the uninitiated; cookies with blue cheese? But the neutrality of a good digestive makes a perfect foil to the strong, lactic punch of an old cheddar or the pungency of Stilton. This neutrality is a result of carefully balanced ingredients: both white and wheat flour, both sugar and salt, both fat and its dearth. One might say the perfect digestive is a friendly debate between richness and austerity.
I do not have a preferred brand, although I often find the more commonly available names possess some character that digestives from fancier brands lack. And attempts at making the biscuits fancy themselves, with the addition of filbert flour, or, forgive me, chocolate, are disingenuous and upsetting to the harmony of the unadulterated real article. If you have your own Victorian obsession with digestion, you might give the following recipe a try at home, making slight adjustments as you deem necessary. Remember though: the neutrality is what counts.
1 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour
1/2 cup of white flour
1/2 cup of castor sugar
1/2 cup of unsalted butter
1/4 cup of whole milk
1teaspoon of baking powder
1 teaspoon of salt
Add the dry ingredients to a stainless steel bowl and whisk to blend. Using your fingers, incorporate the butter until the mixture resembles course bread crumbs. Add the milk and fold until mixture can pack. Turn out onto floured surface and knead until smooth, taking care not to overwork. Roll to 1/4 of an inch, punch out rounds, prick with fork and bake on greased sheet pan for 15 minutes in 350 oven. Let cool on a wire rack. Make a pot of tea.