I get asked questions all the time, here’s one from little Mandy of Manchester, UK:
Dear Lord Devotea, do you condone biscuit-dunking in tea?
It’s a vexed question, Mandy, and I’ll try to answer it succinctly:
As succinct as that is, I’ll have to add a few qualifiers. About nine pages’ worth, if I’m on my usual form.
Firstly, it has to be your tea and your biscuit, or between consenting adults. Random dunkage can be a social faux pas. You might be the best friend I ever had, but slip the tip of your jaffa cake* into my silver needle and you may get a very stern talking to, or even a hint of violence. If you are at a garden party with the Queen and you choose to graze the top of Her Maj’s Puttabong with your Pfeffernüsse** , you may be shown the door.
SIDEBAR: As a large portion of my readership is American, I may have to just mention once more that: (a) a biscuit is a small, usually sweet baked good, not the odd scone-like things Americans put gravy on at breakfast (b) ‘cookie’ is a word that sounds to my sensibilities like a word for four-year-olds. If you could just all fix that, it would be grand. Thanks.
The next point is, there are some times when you ought to not do it. Here’s a list:
- When your biscuit is coffee flavoured
- When your biscuit is so dry and crumbly that it will not survive the dunk
- When you are being offered tea as a professional taster
- If the tea is made from a teab*g (as you should be throwing it on the ground and storming out, taking your biscuit with you)
- If you think it might cause cultural offence
An example of the last one is this: If you are in a bamboo hut, sitting on a mat, admiring a stick in a jug with a single blossom on it and there’s lots of bowing, you may be partaking in a Japanese tea ceremony. Chances are that some form of thin, grassy unpleasant tea will be placed in front of you. Now, you and I know that slipping an almond biscotti out of your pocket and giving it a dunk is going to improve the experience for you, but your host is trying to impress you with quality of the tranquillity and the zen-ness of the rush matting. The crunching sound of the almonds will carry like a rifle shot across a serene lake, and everyone will be looking at you instead of admiring the teapot. Best to fake a seizure and then head home for a cuppa.
So, our next point, is technical biscuit selection. You just have to get this right.
I’ve added a pictorial guide down the side of this blog for your reference.
Timing is also of utmost importance. Basically, the scientific formula for dunking is this:
Where T is the optimal length of time to dunk. It is the time you are aiming for.
C is the crumbling point. It is the moment the biscuit subsides into your tea.
A is A bit of time. That is, a short interval of time before the crumbling point, where your biscuit should be pulled.
Finally, P is the Post- dunk subsidence allowance. That’s where you subtract a little more time, to avoid subsidence after you remove the biscuit.
And, believe me, post-dunk subsidence is to be avoided at all costs.
Imagine the scene:
You are visiting your fiancée’s spinster aunt, who made a fortune in bouclé and chenille futures ahead of the great knitting yarn shortages of the late 1970s. She is deciding upon whom to bestow her millions: your beloved other half, the Macramé Museum of Montana or a Shelter for Incontinent Cats in Santa Cruz de la sierra, Bolivia.
You are introduced, and the aunt sees you as a nice young man. Out comes the tea, and some Garibaldis****.
Halfway through the aunt’s recollection of meeting Andy Warhol in a public bathroom in New York***** in 1968, you idly dunk. You are so captivated by the Aunt’s tearful recollection of this major life event, you let your biscuit linger a little too long.
You extract it hurriedly, and to your amazement, the biscuit is still whole. Your move it toward your mouth, but suddenly time seems to slow down, and you watch in horror as a slight downward movement of the far corner of the biscuit becomes a wobble, becomes a trickle, becomes an avalanche of crumbs and dried fruit into your lap.
Instinctively, you leap up, and this action projects the assortment of wet clumps and sultanas across the coffee table and pure white linen settee, and before you know it, your partner is offered the whole lot, on condition that she marry that nice chap Crispin from down the road, and security is escorting you from the building.
Yes, post-dunk subsidence. It’s a major issue, and unlike the silent crime of a cup full of biscuit, it’s as plain as the nose on your face and the shortbread on your trousers.
My short summary here is just an overview, there is obviously a lot more to be said on the topic.
I haven’t even mention tea slamming with Tim Tams******. But that is for another day.
* A Jaffa Cake is a badly-named biscuit
** A Pfeffernüsse is well-named biscuit (if you speak German)
*** Almond Biscotti is also a well-named biscuit, if you mix English and Italian
**** Garibaldi biscuits are named after an Italian revolutionary. Who knew? In Australia they are called by the more evocative but less exotic “Full’o’Fruit’
***** Obviously the aunt has lost her marbles. There are NO public bathrooms in New York City.
****** Tim Tams are called Penguins in the UK. Actually, Arnotts nicked the idea from Penguins. And named them after a Kentucky Derby Winner.