Garibaldi biscuits – An illustrious Italian heritage for a quintessentially British biscuit

In 2011, there were 4,247 streets and squares named after Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), out of 7,904 Italian municipalities; I have never been to an Italian city, town, hamlet that does not have a piazza or a via or a viale (a boulevard), named after him. The whole country is dotted with statues and busts of the bearded general, often on a horse, sporting a poncho and brandishing a sword, or with a kerchief tied around his neck and an exotic smoking cap covering his medium-long hair – an ageing dandy, who could now easily grace the cover of Vogue.

Garibaldi is one of the godfathers of the Italian nation, generally revered but now also increasingly questioned. In a nutshell, he was one of the key players in the 1860-61 unificazione d’Italia, the unification of the country, until then divided into many independent kingdoms. You too must have heard the story: Garibaldi, heading an army of volunteers, called i garibaldini (there is an air of a boy band about the name, I have always thought), all wearing flamboyant red shirts, landed in Sicily, took control of the island and then of the whole South of Italy and consequently offered the newly liberated territories to Vittorio Emanuele II di Savoia, king of Piedmont and Sardinia, who became the first king of the newly formed regno d’Italia, the kingdom of Italy. History is far more complex of course: unification of North and South Italy or a brutal military annexation? The debate on this critical moment of Italian history still rages.

Garibaldi was a celebrity for most of his life, not just in Italy but around the world. His persona fitted perfectly the romantic hero ideal: fighting against tyrants alongside the destitute masses and the underdogs, he spent years taking part in revolutions in Europe and South America and thus earning the nickname of “the hero of the two worlds”, always making the headlines. As this article says, he was “the Che Guevara of his day, but with even wider appeal”.

When not at war, he was a professional sailor, but he also earned a living as a tutor of Italian, as an importer of dry pasta in South America and he even had a stint in a factory producing candles in New York – an all round character. His first visit to the UK was in 1853 and it was a huge success. The 1860 expedition of the thousand cemented his status as a world hero and by the time of his second visit, in 1864, he had gained an almost mythical status. There was a Garibaldi craze: he was cheered by thousands wherever he went and was invited by the most distinguished houses as well as by working class clubs.

This is the Spectator, 16 April 1864: “General Garibaldi arrived in London… and was welcomed by a concourse of people as large as that which witnessed the entrance of the Princess of Wales. The enthusiasm manifested was extreme, and as there were no soldiers out, the carriage was five hours making its way from Nine Elms Station to Stafford House.”
And this is New York Times’ correspondent in London, writing on 3 May 1864 (by now the old general had decided to leave the UK): “The visit of Garibaldi to England and his abrupt determination to return to Italy, are among the notable episodes of the times. There is no instance in which the appearance of a public personage in Great Britain, native or foreign, has produced deeper or more universal enthusiasm. Even the loyal demonstrations made on great occasions in honor of Her Majesty, have been surpassed by that in honor of this poor foreigner. The aristocracy vied with the populace, and men of the highest official station were proud to welcome the red-shirted Revolutionist. Suddenly, after being but a few days in England, and before he had proceeded beyond the precincts of London upon his grand tour, his departure from the country was announced.”

In the UK, the fame of the man was such that the Victorians even dedicated a biscuit to him, the Garibaldi biscuit – considering the pivotal role biscuits have in British culture, this is no mean feat.The consensus is that “the Garibaldi” was invented in 1861 by Jonathan Dodgson Carr, of Carr cheese biscuits fame: in fact, his stroke of genius was to give this grand name to an already existing biscuit, two thin layers of crisp, lightly glazed pastry, enclosing a filling of squashed currants (hence also its less formal name of “dead fly biscuits”). It is a wonderful tea biscuit, neither too sweet nor too rich, and one that gets better as it sits in the tin. One can still buy them from supermarkets, but the homemade version is far superior. An illustrious Italian heritage for a quintessentially British biscuit – now, that really does take the biscuit.

For about 16-18 biscuits

110 g currants
2 strips each of orange and lemon zest, finely chopped
half a teaspoon cinnamon
170 g plain flour
50 g gluten free flour or rice flour – this will give the biscuits a shorter finish
a pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon baking ammonia (you can use baking powder, but the finish will be less crisp)
80 g diced, cold butter
50 g caster sugar
2 yolks mixed with with 1 teaspoon vanilla and 3 tablespoon wine/water
1 tablespoon Demerara sugar mixed with half a teaspoon of cinnamon

Barely cover the currants with water and simmer until they have plumped up. Drain, cool and pat them dry, using some kitchen paper. Add the zest. Add a little spicing if you like it: cinnamon for instance or mixed spices, about half a spoon.

Put the flours, the salt and the baking ammonia in the food processor, whiz to blend and remove one third.
Add the butter, the caster sugar and whiz until crumbs have formed; add the flour kept aside and whizz again until fine crumbs have formed.

Pour the yolk mix over and whizz, using on/off, until clamps of dough start forming.Transfer onto your working surface and knead lightly, adding a little water if the dough seems on the dry side – it must be soft but not sticky by the end.

Roll out the dough in between two sheets of parchment paper, aiming at a rectangle of about 40 cm x 30 cm. Do not stress if the rectangle looks in fact more like an oval or if it is a little longer or shorter.
Spread currants on the top half. Fold the bottom over.
Press the edges to seal. Press with the palms of your hands to have the two layers of pastry adhere one to the other. Straighten the sides as neatly as you can (I use a bench scraper) and refrigerate for 30 minutes, covered

Roll out into a rather long and thin rectangle again, about 32 cm x 22 cm.
Brush with some of the leftover whites, whisked to a light froth (I shake them in a jar) and sprinkle on the granulated or Demerara sugar, mixed with half a teaspoon of cinnamon

Divide into 16-18 biscuits and bake at 160-170 C for about 30 minutes or until lightly golden. If you use two trays, swap them halfway through: top and bottom, back and front.
Chill and keep them in a tin. The Garibaldis, I find, get better as they sit in the tin and I have kept them for up to three weeks.

7 thoughts on “Garibaldi biscuits – An illustrious Italian heritage for a quintessentially British biscuit

  1. what a wonderful article! the British are not known for sudden wild passions, so a visit by a foreign celebrity that could inspire such instant mass fervour in a stiff-upper-lipped nation is remarkable.

    however, i’ll likely have to give the Garibaldi biscuit recipe a pass, for the simple reason that true currants – as we used to know them – are no longer sold in this part of canada.

    “currants” of childhood memory were tiny black dried grapes of a particular variety whose fruit had a wild, strong, tart taste. It was that sparkling tartness which married so well with lemon zest to produce unforgettable sugar cookies.

    alas, now only a distant memory. All we can buy nowadays as “currants” are tame, boring little things which look & taste like small raisins. It’s a different variety of grape or possibly berry, Gone are the wild, sweet zingers of yesteryear … although you do seem able to source them still in london, judging by the reference to squashed currants as dead-fly-biscuit.

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    1. interesting! here in the uk they are still on the tart side actually… what I find here pretty boring are sultanas and Co… no real flavour, just sweet.

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  2. Brilliant and what an interesting man – thanks for enlightening me! I’ve always seen the biscuits as being quite grown up – they are not as sweet as most children’s favourites.

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  3. This is a fascinating history – and while I have undoubtedly noticed all the piazze and vie named for Garibaldi, I had no idea he was so prominent in the UK – nor that he made candles in NYC! I love this and am forwarding to Mark, as I know he will enjoy it, too (though he probably knows a bit of it already, being the history nerd that he is…). The biscuits sound wonderful and as soon as I can get my hands on some currants, I will make these. Lately, a biscuit like this is all I really want post dinner.

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    1. ciao David, before reading about him for this and because I am into mid 19th century Italian history at the moment, I knew little, apart from the inconography. He comes through as really special. The biscuits are excellent, especially as they sit and become softer and somehow fruitier
      s

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