Back to school baon: the iced gem biscuit
August 26, 2019 10:59 AM   Subscribe

Originally created from a Huntley and Palmers biscuit experiment in Reading, England, iced gems started out as just tiny round biscuits, which gained their distinctive frosting a few decades later. They may be slightly less ubiquitous now, but generations of kids from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore (among others) remember snacking on these tiny, round biscuits with a dollop of hard icing that mostly tasted of sugar.

They weren’t…good, precisely? But they were weirdly addictive and not a bad way to round out a dinner even if you couldn't remember what they were called.
They’re still available, with perhaps more of a fruit flavor to the icing than there used to be. Or, you can make your own and flash back to stuffing a pack into your schoolbag before heading off to face the day. You can join a facebook group to discuss your nostalgia with others.

You can even rep your love with enamel pins or patches, If you’re truly hardcore, you can get an Iced gem haircut but you will likely be subject to internet mockery.
posted by PussKillian (35 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I grew up with Iced Gems but we were only rarely allowed to have them. My mother told us the frosting was made of wallpaper paste.
posted by Morpeth at 11:08 AM on August 26, 2019 [11 favorites]


Ace! What with this and the gaming thread below, I'm just here for the nostalgia. Also to find out about the popularity in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore - I had no idea - thanks!

Iced gems, in Scotland, in the eighties, were definitely a cut above most other sweets/biscuits imo. Generally found at birthday parties and school parties rather than at home or what you would buy from the sweet shop... Washed down with those weird 'juice' drinks that came in square plastic containers with a foil/plastic top.

Off to explore all the links now - definitely a chance to do the 'A Song of Fire and Iced Gems' joke, no?
posted by sedimentary_deer at 11:08 AM on August 26, 2019 [4 favorites]


I'm actually kind of offended that the McVities link ("still available") pops up a cookie policy, but the pop-up does absolutely nothing with the fact that they sell actual cookies. I realize that's probably because they call them biscuits, but it's still such a missed opportunity to make some puns or something.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:22 AM on August 26, 2019 [9 favorites]


eee i was one of those generations of kids in Malaysia in the 1970s who LOVED these
posted by Mrs Potato at 11:22 AM on August 26, 2019 [3 favorites]


Oh man, I spent 2 years in Puerto Rico as a very small child and have a Puerto Rican aunt, and the PR version of these (Florecitas) are near and dear to my heart. Maybe because I wasn't allowed much sugar at the time?! They are not the best cookie I've ever had or even in the top 20, but I yearned for them and still do. Anyway, I had no clue they were so popular elsewhere too, thanks for posting!
posted by Knicke at 11:27 AM on August 26, 2019 [3 favorites]


If they've made the icing taste of anything but sugar and chalk, they've broken them. They really weren't good, precisely … not even a patch on Party Rings [still available] or Café Noir [haven't seen in years]
posted by scruss at 11:29 AM on August 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


I had these as a kid, too! No idea they were originally of English origin (or what they were called, in any language.) I think they were something Grandma trotted out when we visited.

I remember liking them, but I wasn't a picky child (and still not a picky adult, today!) I remember their texture (that was pointy icing) more than their flavour.
posted by invokeuse at 11:38 AM on August 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


Iced Gems were probably the first food that made me realise the distinction between things that are brightly-coloured and sweet, and things that actually taste good. It's a good lesson for kids to learn.
posted by pipeski at 11:38 AM on August 26, 2019 [5 favorites]


Ice Gems were a top-grade party snack from my (British) childhood. Possibly only beaten by Party Rings.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 11:40 AM on August 26, 2019 [3 favorites]


Definitely a childhood snack, but I couldn't eat too much of it because it was so sugary. Still, it was one of the better mass-produced local sugary western stuff in my budget (compared to old timey cheap tropical climate chocolate). And they always look so cheerful too.
posted by cendawanita at 11:46 AM on August 26, 2019 [2 favorites]


Also, the local ones had more icing per biscuit area. I'm feeling weirded out that they can come in nice packages. It's not legit if it's not out of a tin bin of a night market trader, to be sold by the gram (example)
posted by cendawanita at 11:53 AM on August 26, 2019 [6 favorites]


Oh man, iced gems! Such a satisfying little crunch, I feel like I can experience the snap of the icing coming off the biscuit just looking at a picture.
posted by lucidium at 12:08 PM on August 26, 2019 [2 favorites]


Ironic that "generations of kids from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore" are nostalgic for Huntley and Palmers' biscuits. The company is used by Conrad in Heart of Darkness as a symbol of the emptiness of the colonial enterprise.

"‘It was a great comfort to turn... to my influential friend, the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. I clambered on board. She ran under my feet like an empty Huntley and Palmer (sic) biscuit tin...’

My tutor at University, Valentine Cunningham, imagined Conrad taking the train into London and travelling past the Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory, which was across the tracks from Reading Gaol, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned. Not only did Huntley and Palmers produce imperial biscuits, they produced alphabet biscuits, mentioned by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake:

"1 Huntler and Pumar’s animal alphabites, the first in the world from aab to zoo."

This was the pretext for my tutor to make the deconstructionist point that, since we are all in the prisonhouse of language, when we eat, we are eating the alphabet. It is a remarkable coincidence that Wilde was imprisoned in a place called "Reading".
posted by Tarn at 12:40 PM on August 26, 2019 [14 favorites]


There was a tin of those biscuits on our refrigerator for over a year when I was about ten-years-old. The tin was a round red one, very tall with golliwogs and teddy bears on it, meant to look like a post box. Someone sent them to us from England, to Canada, and they tasted stale when the tin was first opened and no better after the year had passed. For some reason my mother decided to not let s eat them, but I don't think she was saving them for herself. I am one of those kids pipeski mentions above who learned the distinction between pretty-colours-looks-delicious and actually-tastes-like-carboard-and-sugar with the iced gem biscuits.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:24 PM on August 26, 2019 [2 favorites]


The UK is the home of pioneering biscuits - in addition to the sterling work of Huntley and Palmer, and the magnificence of Tunnocks of Scotland (maker of the Tunnocks Teacake and the Caramel Wafer), if I were a documentary maker, I'd make a film about the extraordinary work of Peek Freans of Bermondsey, who gave the world the Garibaldi biscuit, the chocolate digestive, the Bourbon biscuit, Cheeselets and Twiglets among many others now lost to the discerning connoisseur. And the Trotsky Assortment, of course.
posted by Grangousier at 1:45 PM on August 26, 2019 [6 favorites]


(compared to old timey cheap tropical climate chocolate)

You mean palm oil based Kandos?
posted by Mrs Potato at 1:48 PM on August 26, 2019


the Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory, which was across the tracks from Reading Gaol, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned

Fun fact: this is not the only connection between Huntley & Palmers biscuits and British queer history. When the Wolfenden Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution was set up in 1954, the committee members found it so difficult to talk openly about sex that they had to use a code: 'Huntleys' for homosexuals and 'Palmers' for prostitutes.
posted by verstegan at 2:22 PM on August 26, 2019 [9 favorites]


We ate these because my mother had grown up eating them in Singapore. What a nostalgia bomb! Just looking at the pictures reminds me of the taste.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:31 PM on August 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


Iced gems, in Scotland, in the eighties, were definitely a cut above most other sweets/biscuits imo

And yet, iced gems in Scotland in the 90s were definitely cardboard and rock hard flavourless sugar. The very worst of the party biscuits - the best, of, course, being party rings. I occasionally see iced gems for sale and marvel at the fact they are still around, despite the fact they are so, so terrible. They have no redeeming features at all!

Is this the thread where I can also point out that wagon wheels used to be actually huge and are now just regular sized biscuits and don't tell me I've just grown because I know that's not the whole story!
posted by stillnocturnal at 3:34 PM on August 26, 2019


Don't forget, this is the country that thought it was possible to make people like a biscuit just by writing "nice" on it.
posted by Grangousier at 3:39 PM on August 26, 2019 [2 favorites]


Iced gems are the best. The extra dry biscuit and the hard but melting sugar on top. I will be buying these for my daughters after school snack when she goes back next week and I may need extras now that I think of it. Yum!
posted by RandomInconsistencies at 4:06 PM on August 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


Is this the thread where I can also point out that wagon wheels used to be actually huge and are now just regular sized biscuits and don't tell me I've just grown because I know that's not the whole story!

Depends on what country - in Australia, the manufacturer of Wagon Wheels figured they could capitalise on this expectation, named the regular size the 'mini', and released a 9cm version.
posted by Merus at 5:19 PM on August 26, 2019


palm oil based Kandos

I actually had to Google that, because it was disappearing when I was very young, but yes that's one of them. Wow, the sense memory just came flooding back. The stronger memory is those Tora and Ding Dang chocolate balls, and maybe it's a good thing I never got into much of a sweet tooth.
posted by cendawanita at 5:35 PM on August 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


Don't forget, this is the country that thought it was possible to make people like a biscuit just by writing "nice" on it.

That is my favourite biscuit and I have wept every day since Peek Freans discontinued it in Canada 😭
posted by emeiji at 6:10 PM on August 26, 2019


I'm mildly disappointed that the kid with the accidental iced gem haircut didn't just lean into it and go for a lovely brightly coloured dye job? Now I kinda want an iced gem haircut myself...
posted by halation at 8:36 PM on August 26, 2019


...by writing “nice” on it...

Biscuit history tells us these were named after Nice, the city of Savoy where Garibaldi was born, which was conquered by the Bourbons.
posted by Segundus at 10:47 PM on August 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


(I know that... it's a joke. Also, when you're a child in England in the 1970s, Nice Biscuits come quite low down on the biscuit scale. They're not nasty, but they're a bit like a toy car that doesn't even have opening doors, whereas a Bourbon biscuit is the full on James Bond Aston Martin with ejector seat and everything.)

Now I'm a grown up I eat Bourbon biscuits like a grown up - all in one piece rather than separating the two halves, scraping the filling off with my teeth and then realising I've been left with two much less interesting biscuits. I used to think eating biscuits required a lot more strategic thinking than is actually the case.
posted by Grangousier at 12:52 AM on August 27, 2019 [5 favorites]


In defence of the Nice biscuit, it has a wonderfully subtle toasted coconut flavour. While I don't eat them regularly, I certainly would never turn one down if offered. emeiji, I'll happily send you a packet or two if you like.
posted by pipeski at 5:31 AM on August 27, 2019


 the extraordinary work of Peek Freans of Bermondsey

Famous also for the Marie/Maria biscuit now well known in the Latin world but no longer made by Peek Freans themselves. It was developed in 1874 and named for Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, who'd just gone and married the Duke of Edinburgh and seemingly regretted it almost immediately.

Peek Freans also got to name a tiny part of North York/Toronto as Bermondsey, and their factory still stands there. I work disturbingly close to their cookie outlet which will very likely be the death of me.
posted by scruss at 9:33 AM on August 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


Oooh. In South Africa we have Iced Zoo Biscuits, which are rectangular and have a layer of colourful hard icing spread on top, with an animal extruded on top of that in white hard icing which is slightly softer.

And when I say "animal" I mean "some kind of blob with appendages". According to legend these were once recognisable animals, but I suspect that the biscuits are made in exactly one factory in all of South Africa, and they have exactly one set of animal-extruding nozzles which were made in 1968 by a company that went bankrupt, and they've worn down to nubs.

The icing tastes like the extremely synthetic flavour which is known here, when put in a fizzy drink and dyed green, as "cream soda". Cream soda is vile, but somehow zoo biscuits are fantastic. I think they have enough of a cult following to stay in production indefinitely.
posted by confluency at 9:37 AM on August 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


omg ding dang chocolate balls. Such shitty goodness
posted by destrius at 6:53 PM on August 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


Well if we're going down memory road, then what about White Rabbit milk candy imported from the old mainland via the "Chinese" emporiums?
posted by Mrs Potato at 11:35 PM on August 27, 2019


scruss: Café Noir [haven't seen in years]

They can be found in every supermarket here in the Netherlands. However what we don't have anymore are ginger snaps (under any name or brand). This is an outrage.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:45 AM on August 28, 2019


Mrs Potato, you should look out for where the hipsters are because white rabbit is undergoing a full-on revival these days. The current fad this year is white rabbit ice-cream/gelato. To bring it back to topic a bit, I didn't know it was originally intended as a British milk candy knock off!
posted by cendawanita at 2:35 AM on August 28, 2019 [3 favorites]


Oooh, White Rabbit gelato? Seems like it would taste a lot like the fior di latte flavor of gelato, just pure milky goodness.

White Rabbit is pretty easy to find in the US, thank goodness. And I gave this shirt to my sister and also bought the pin the same company made. (Just as I am probably going to buy one of the enamel pins I linked above because I am a sad enamel pin hoarder now.)
posted by PussKillian at 7:13 AM on August 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


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