The original Arnott's factory.
The original Arnott's factory.

Larry Writer

From all reports Hugh Jackman is a congenial guy, but today he was miffed. He and Nicole Kidman were on Oprah in 2008 spruiking their new movie Australia, and to mark the occasion the actor gifted the host and each member of the studio audience with an Australian national treasure, the Tim Tam. All was going munchingly well … then disaster. Oprah thanked Hugh for the cookies. Cookies! ''Tim Tams are biscuits!'' Hugh put her straight. ''In Australia, we don't have cookies. We have bikkies!''

Indeed we do, and why do these crisp or crumbly, sweet, chocolate or savoury, square, round, oval or animal-shaped morsels inspire such feisty affection and lifelong loyalty? ''Stopping to dunk a cheap and delicious biscuit in a cuppa at home or in the office and factory is enshrined in the fabric of our society,'' folklorist and biscuit aficionado Warren Fahey says.

Susan Massasso, Asia-Pacific marketing director of Arnott's Biscuits, concurs: ''It's still a tradition to have a jar of biscuits at home to break out. If someone drops in and you click the kettle and put biscuits on a plate you are saying, 'Welcome … come, sit, share'.''

An assortment of Arnotts Biscuits. Styling: Tessa Kavanagh. Click for more photos

Australia's favourite bikkies

An assortment of Arnotts Biscuits. Styling: Tessa Kavanagh. Photo: Armelle Habib

At workplaces in these post-GFC days the rattle of a tea trolley is rarely heard, but count on there being a bikkie tin in the kitchen for elevenses or threes or whenever employees get the munchies. At one major bank, Friday has been enshrined as Tim Tam Day, when executives queue with juniors for their sweet fix.

''Since the late 1800s,'' Fahey says, ''biscuits have been a symbol of community spirit'', as loved ones, friends and workmates down tools to have a bite and a sip and natter about family intrigue, politics, sport and the price of fish: ''It's pleasant and it's calming.'' Kevin Rudd acknowledged the ritual on election victory night, 2007, when advising his wired and celebrating staff to settle down with a cup of tea and an Iced VoVo before the hard work of governing the nation began next day.

We're protective of our biscuits because we're proud of them, Massasso says. ''The last biscuits left in the bottom of any tin of Assorted Creams are usually orange creams but, even so, they've been part of so many people's lives for so long that when we considered discontinuing them, the public was in uproar.'' Arnott's, whose trademark since 1888 has been a vibrantly feathered parrot with crumbs tumbling from its beak, commands 61 per cent of the market thanks to the half-billion packets of Iced VoVos, Shapes, Tim Tams, SAOs, Spicy Fruit Rolls, Jatz, Mint Slices, Ginger Nuts, Milk Arrowroots, Nices, Scotch Fingers and Monte Carlos and more that it sells each year.

''Like Vegemite and sitting in the front seat of a taxi, the biscuits we eat define our nationality,'' Massasso says. When Campbell's took over Arnott's in 1992, the American conglomerate was told that it messed with the parrot at its peril. Australians would not stand for their biscuits being Americanised … they must be Australian-made to traditional recipes and never called cookies. ''Campbell's respected that and preserved the portfolio.''

The humble bikkie, it seems, salves the emotions as much as the taste buds. ''They're the ultimate comfort food,'' Massasso says.

Because Australia's iconic biscuits have remained unchanged for a lifetime or longer, to many, they evoke the past. ''Biscuits have a unique nostalgia factor and can connect us to older, perhaps happier days,'' Arnott's global communications and diversity director Toni Jones says. ''My brother and I would go to my beautiful nanna's house and she'd give us Honey Jumbles and I'd get the pink and he'd get the white, and today, all these years later, it takes just one bite of a Honey Jumble and I tear up.''

Milk Arrowroots were launched in 1888. Scotch Fingers, Iced VoVos and SAOs look and taste exactly as they did when introduced in 1906. Saladas are 61 years old. Tim Tams date from 1964 and were named after a racehorse that had impressed Arnott's scion Ross Arnott when he had a flutter at the 1958 Kentucky Derby.

''In an age of short-lived fads and virtual reality, we cherish the real and enduring,'' Massasso says. ''It's comforting to consume a product made from basic, timeless, unadulterated ingredients - eggs, milk, flour and sugar - that have been baked in an oven. Baking in itself is an ancient and generous act involving patience, skill and sharing the results.''

It is surprising how many Australians have vivid recall of growing up near a biscuit factory way back when manufacturers were ubiquitous all over Australia's capital cities, and savouring the aroma of biscuits being baked. One insists that even today, long after the Arnott's bakery at Sydney's North Strathfield has been turned into a shopping and office complex, he can drive by and find his senses suffused by that heady and delicious smell.

Biscuit manufacture was not always so sublime. ''The colony's first biscuits were 'hard tack', comprised of flour, water and salt,'' Fahey says. ''They were hard as rocks and tasted awful.'' It took pioneering ingenuity to render them digestible. The biscuit was pulverised into powder, which was mixed with water and whatever else was handy to provide taste. Fahey says: ''A popular method was to mix the powder with pig's blood, egg powder, more flour and salt, and then fashion them into large pancakes which were fried in pig's fat. These were called 'blood pancakes'. If there was nothing to mix with the powder, water was simply added and it became a gruel known as 'cracker hash'. Biscuits were stored in a barrel, and were prone to weevil infestation … which could only have improved the taste.''

Biscuits changed from leaden monstrosities to delicacies when, about the end of the 19th century, they began to be home-baked by mothers and daughters. Fahey says: ''It was unheard of, and a matter of shame, if a woman didn't have a full tin of fresh biscuits to offer guests.'' Soon Arnott's, Weston's, Swallow & Ariell's, Peek Frean and the like were flooding corner stores, and, later, supermarkets, with their products. They became a staple of most Australians' day and, Fahey says, ''unions won prescribed tea and biscuit breaks for workers''.

Nobody knows why some biscuits become beloved stayers. Massasso suspects that ''sometimes a little something extra in a biscuit can create its unique character and help it endure''. One wonders, then, would plain Vita-Weats have survived so long if they didn't have tiny holes through which generations have had fun squeezing ''worms'' of butter or Vegemite? Flat, round, hard Ginger Snaps function as ninja-star knives. A chunk of the enjoyment of Tiny Teddies, chocolate Mint Slices and Monte Carlos is said to be, respectively, chomping off the animal's limbs, sucking the chocolate coating to gradually arrive at the peppermint tang, and prising the nobbly biscuit in two and scraping off the jammy cream with your teeth. And what would Tim Tams be without the Tim Tam Slam? You nibble the diagonal corners of the Tim Tam - chocolate-coated layers of chocolate malt bikkie with chocolate cream filling - dip the bottom corner in hot tea or coffee and suck up, holus bolus, the beverage and melted filling through the gap in the top corner.

Seems you can do just about anything with a biscuit … just don't let Hugh Jackman hear you call it a cookie.

All that Jatz: a biscuit history

ANZAC BISCUITS

They were devoured with grateful gusto by our troops during World War I and have been a classic ever since. Comprising rolled oats, golden syrup, flour, salt, desiccated coconut, butter and sugar, Anzac biscuits were baked by women on the home front because it was felt the Diggers needed something sweet from home made with loving care. They were round and flat and wrapped in grease-proof paper so they could be mailed to Gallipoli or Fromelles in billy cans. Because they contained no eggs, they stayed crisp for months. Warren Fahey believes mass-produced Anzac biscuits can't compare with the home-made variety. ''I've never had a commercially made Anzac biscuit as good as the ones my mum made, or anybody else's mum made!''

MILK ARROWROOTS

Writer Peter Luck calls the humble Milk Arrowroot - 125 years old this year - ''a biscuit you could trust … a good, solid biscuit you could fight a war on, win a footy grand final on, get married on and raise another whole generation of babies on''. In an early ad for the oval-shaped, eminently dunkable, starch-rich bikkie made from flour and the arrowroot vegetable, the manufacturer spruiked that they had the power to help babies grow: ''How doth the busy little boy get bigger every hour? Arnott's Milk Arrowroot Biscuits gave him health and power!''

SAOS

The SAO, first sold in 1906, is a dry cracker, better enjoyed with butter, Vegemite or tomato, than unadorned. Perhaps more interesting than the biscuit itself is the genesis of its name. Theories abound: that ''SAO'' is an acronym for Salvation Army Officer, because founder William Arnott's son Arthur was a Salvo; that it was the name of a sailing boat moored at Sydney's Royal Yacht Squadron; that it was in honour of a woman named Catherine Sao, whose claim to fame seems to have been lost to time. Another theory goes that Samuel Arnott was doodling his initials on a pad … and added an ''O''.

SALADAS

Produced by Brockhoff Biscuits before that Victoria-based company was swallowed by Arnott's, Salada crackers - the name is said to be a bastardisation of ''See-ya-layta'' - are arguably Victorians' favourite snack biscuit. There was a slight blip when production was moved to other states. Arnott's' Susan Massasso says: ''If you move house, your food may taste slightly different because it's being cooked in a new oven. Well, that seems to be what happened when we began baking Saladas away from Victoria. Customers complained … [and] talkback radio went ballistic. It took us months to get the baking right. We often say our brands are not ours … they're Australia's.''

 

This means gnaw …

To be more efficient, cost-effective, increase production and ward off US predators such as Nabisco, which were greedily eyeing the biscuit-ravenous Australian market in 1964, Australia's major biscuit manufacturers pooled resources, sharing factories, equipment and distribution networks. Swallow & Ariell's (founded in Port Melbourne in 1854 and reputed supplier of ''meat biscuits'' to Burke and Wills), Brockhoff (established in 1880), Peek Frean (1857), Guest's (1856), Menz (1850), Mills & Ware's (1898), Morrow (1875), Motteram (1892) and Arnott's - banded together as the Australian Biscuit Company. The Company became known as Arnott's Biscuits Pty Ltd when Arnott's acquired the member companies and parrot-presided on all brands.