Not only is 2011 the 150th Anniversary of the Unification of Italy – it is also the 150th birthday of the Garibaldi Biscuit.
Giuseppe Garibaldi probably never ate a Garibaldi Biscuit (although there is one dubious story about dry bread smeared with a mixture of berries and horse blood consumed by his starving troops as they conquered the Kingdom of Two Sicilies to unify Italy).
It was after Garibaldi won worldwide fame as a military strategist that an understated British biscuit (redundant, I know) was given his name. This dry, barely sweet Victorian relic was wildly popular in 1861 when biscuit king John Carr invented it and it still has a faithful following today.
Despite the name, Italians are not among the aficionados who break off strip after strip of the parching crackers layered with the thinnest smear of crushed currants. Like Marmite, Garibaldi Biscuits are solely a English delicacy today. Maybe that has to do with the sobriquets – fly sandwiches, fly cemeteries, dead fly biscuits or squashed fly biscuits – the tasty treat has earned because of the appearance of the semi-dried currants.
Garibaldi made a celebrated visit to Tynemouth, England in 1854, but it wasn’t until his great victories in 1860, that he was deserving of an honorary cookie.
John Carr was one of the great biscuit-making Carr’s of Scotland (of water-biscuit fame), but he abandoned the family business to work for the Peek Frean in Bermondsey. John Carr’s first biscuit, the Pearl – a crumbly plain thing, probably similar to a tea biscuit, launched in 1860 – did not survive. (Neither did Peek Frean – the brand is owned by United Biscuit in the U.K. and Kraft Foods in the U.S.)
History does not relate how Carr came up with his magic formula: the dry, not too sweet dough, the shiny glazed top, the squashed currants and the clever device of leaving strips of five biscuits joined together, like perforated cardboard. A single Garibaldi section has only about 35 to 40 calories, but for fans it is hard to eat just one.
In the U.S., the Sunshine Biscuit Company made a popular version of the Garibaldi Bisquit, bigger, if not better, with raisins, which it called “Golden Fruit”. Sunshine was bought out by the Keebler Company, which tried chocolate filling, of course, but, like Golden Fruit, that didn’t last. Today, Garibaldi Biscuits are marketed only in the U.K. as Crawfords Garibaldi Biscuits distributed by United Biscuits. Some British supermarket chains, such as Waitrose, also have their own branded Garibaldi Biscuit.
If you are in Florence, you may find Crawfords Garibaldi Biscuits at the Old England Store, Via de’ Vecchietti, 28r, for two euro per packet.