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Cheese and biscuits and Vita-Weats

"If ever an area of life encapsulated the tyranny of choice, it is cheese biscuits. Olive oil and sea salt; chive and rosemary; poppy seed; roast onion and sesame; cheese melts; oat and thyme squares; charcoal biscuits; smoked biscuits; kibbled wheat and rye. This bewildering, nay oppressive, ever-expanding selection is, literally and figuratively, crackers."

Tony Naylor

This is one of those rabbit hole kind of posts. I was just going to write about Vita-Weats but of course, once I started my investigations I was weaving this way and that all around the net. So what follows is all a bit random, but hopefully marginally interesting.

I often have a biscuit and cheese in the evening after dinner. I suspect this habit may well go back to my childhood, when my father, when he was at home, would make us all cream cracker and cheese 'sandwiches' with a cup of cocoa before we went to bed. There are some who say that cheese before bed will give you nightmares, but apparently not true. They have investigated and the most interesting thing they found was that Stilton gave unusual dreams. No evidence of cheese being bad before bed - or good either come to that. Anyway my biscuit of choice is Ryvita but Ryvita were absent from supermarket shelves for a few weeks - it must have been one of those shipment delays. One envisages a container ship stacked high with Ryvita and Ikea furniture (it's Swedish isn't it?) languishing off the coast somewhere. So I decided to try something else, and having perused all the above available fancy choices - there are heaps of them, I plunked for Vita-Weats - the original - none of the fancier versions that now exist.

To my surprise I was very impressed. I loved them. They were thin, mildly tasty but not too much and very, very crisp. Mind you I see that I could be alone in this delight. I found one review site that only gave them a score of 2.1 out of 5 and featured this very damning review:

"Bought Arnott's Vita-Wheat because woollies had run out of Ryvita, unfortunately purchased 5 packets of the different types of Vita-Wheat. What a MISTAKE, I thought I was going to BREAK MY TEETH on them they were SO HARD. When you eventually bite through them they shatter into sharp pointed shards so you risk impaling the roof of your mouth, if your teeth haven't broken first. Arnott's seriously need to get some new product taste testers, how anybody would repeat buy this product is beyond belief. Can't wait for Ryvita to be back on the shelves, Vita-Wheat NEVER AGAIN"

Well obviously you can't please all the people all the time. And I definitely didn't buy five packets. I mean if you're testing something new you don't buy lots of it do you? So - hard, or crisp. For me it was just the right amount of crunchiness. And they are still crunchy even though I only eat one every now and then and there is more than half of the packet left. It will be interesting to compare with Ryvita which is now back on the shelves, and when my Vita-Weats are finished.

First minor thing about Vita-Weats. Have you noticed the spelling? I confess I didn't for quite a while. I tried to find out why it's spelt like that, but could not find the answer. Maybe somebody just thought it was cute - a sort of play on wheat and eat?

So history. Well Vita-Weats were first made by Peek Freans in England. Peek Freans was founded by two men - James Peek and George Hender Frean in 1857. James Peek came from a family who had a big tea importing business. His sons did not want to go into this, and so they were encouraged to start a biscuit making business. However, one of them died and the other emigrated, and so James decided to take it over with George Hender Frean the husband of a niece. The firm prospered, building a large factory in Bermondsey in London, and one of their products was Vita-Weats.

Nobody really knows when they came into the firm's repertoire, but they were certainly around by 1927. By 1932 they were being made in Australia. I think it was even known as the Vita-Weat building. Nowadays it's a Bunnings.

Eventually the company was sold off bit by bit - some of it is now owned by multinational Mondelez, and Vita-Weats were sold to Arnott's here in Australia. Initially they were square and larger than the current slimline biscuits. And they became one of those Australian icon foods.

Initially they had been marketed as a health food, but later, in the fifties, this changed to a slimming message. These days - well it's just all the usual stuff.

The icon thing though came about because of the uniquely Australian habit of making a sandwich with two biscuits which were first slathered with butter and vegemite. When squeezed firmly together the butter and vegemite would ooze through the holes making worms. It was a much beloved lunch box snack for school kids, though I don't think I quite remember my own boys doing this. But then again when I saw the photograph of an old packet - see below - I wondered whether, in fact they did, because I do remember those packets.

But then - shock-horror in 2016 it seems that the holes closed up so the worms could no longer be made. There was general outrage and all the news media jumped on to it, causing the firm to say ruefully that it must be a 'slow news day'. However they provided this statement:

“Vita-Weat has been made to the same recipe and using the same processes and the same baking oven for over 10 years. We use premium quality wholegrain wheat from farms across Australia including the Darling Downs, Moree, the Riverina and South Australia. Due to natural variation in wheat from season to season and farm to farm and the effect that the wheat has on the baking of the crispbread, the size of the holes in the biscuits can change. This can affect how easy it is to make Vita-Weat worms”.

They were either right, or they remodified their machinery, because I just checked. I took one out of the packet, held it up to the light and the light did indeed shine through, so I suppose that it is now possible to make worms. Oh the power of public outrage.

As to biscuits and cheese - I put butter on my biscuits before I add the cheese - well mostly - and certainly when bread is involved. I have learnt from my Australian family and friends that this is weird, so I tried to find out if it was a purely English thing. Without much joy I have to say. I think so but I don't know. I know the French don't do it. But they do put butter on salami. So go figure.

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