How England’s oldest biscuit was saved from extinction

The English love their biscuits. And let’s be honest: the ritual of sitting down with a warm mug of tea and a pack of crunchy biscuits is one of those small pleasures in life. The question is of course, to dip or not to dip – but that’s a story for a different blog post.

Whilst there’s an endless array of famous and popular English biscuits – from Jaffa cakes to Digestives – England’s oldest biscuit is actually a little-known treasure. In fact, it would have almost vanished into the history books if it wasn’t for one man who saved its recipe.

How a mix-up led to mixing things up

The biscuit we’re talking about is Grantham Gingerbread. Born in the 1740s, it’s England’s oldest commercially traded biscuit. As so often, this culinary creation was the result of a recipe gone wrong. It was William Eggleston, a local baker from the Lincolnshire town of Grantham, who invented this little biscuit. One day, William was making Grantham Whetstone biscuits, a hard and flat biscuit that was popular at the time. However, he accidentally used a wrong ingredient and his biscuits came out tasting of ginger. Nevertheless, William’s mistake turned into an unexpected success as locals loved his new creation. The biscuit came to be known as Grantham Gingerbread. Soon, William was travelling the country to sell his Grantham Gingerbread.

stacked Grantham gingerbread biscuits                          Vintage box for Grantham gingerbread

William’s recipe caught on and several other bakers in Grantham started making the biscuits. In the decades and centuries that followed, Grantham Gingerbread became an iconic local confection, made and sold by bakeries across town. Up until the 1970s, Grantham Gingerbread could be found in many a local bakery in Lincolnshire. However, things started to change towards the end of the 1990s. As the number of independent bakeries in Grantham declined, so did the sales of the town’s famous ginger biscuits. By the turn of the century, Grantham Gingerbread was no longer being made or sold within the town. It looked like the biscuit was going to die a quiet death…

The return of the Grantham Gingerbread

Fortunately, it didn’t come to this. In 2009, local baker Alastair Hawken discovered the fate of Grantham Gingerbread and decided to take matters into his own hands. Wanting to preserve this piece of local heritage, he set about experimenting. Without a recipe he managed to recreate the legendary Grantham Gingerbread biscuits. Later, at a chance meeting with a fourth-generation relative of William Eggleston, Alastair discovered that his version of the recipe was identical to the original. This was a sign.

Grantham gingerbread biscuits in package          Alastair Hawken with a baking tray of gingerbread biscuits

Within months, Alastair had set up a small production line and started selling the biscuits. And so it happened that, after a short hiatus, Grantham Gingerbread was once again being made and sold in Grantham. 

Now, more than 280 years after they were first created, Grantham Gingerbread biscuits have returned to the tea and coffee tables of Lincolnshire and beyond. Thanks to Alastair, the country’s oldest biscuit was brought back to flourish, so now all of us can get a taste of local English heritage.

Images credit: Hawkens Gingerbread