August 12, 2011

The Cult of Iced Gem Biscuits aka Biskut Ais Jem

Source: Khong Guan

Sparked off by the stream of nostalgia brought on by Plusixfive's latest post, and my horrible memory never being able to remember the name of these little biscuits, I set off on a little investigative googling mission to find out more about these old school sweets. Let's take a trip down the halls of history shall we?

The real name is Iced Gems and they were first made in 1850s (the biscuit part) by biscuit manufacturers Huntley and Palmers in Reading, Berkshire. Like many inventions, they were an accidental discovery as these biscuits shrunk and came out smaller than their intended size during a biscuit experimentation (kinda Willy Wonka huh)! The makers started selling them as Gems and subsequently added the icing bit in 1910 and as they say, there was no turning back. After a whole series of mergers/sell-offs, the production of these little guys now come under what is known as Jacob's today. The Huntley and Palmers brand today is a newly established biscuit company who bought the brand over from Danone when they sold it. You can read about the fascinating history chronicling the rise and fall of the biscuit giant here (and visit the museum in Reading!) and the history of Iced Gems on this website.

It is interesting to see how different people from all corners of the world identify with these little biscuits. Many people in Singapore and Malaysia (as did I) probably thought these were indigenous to our part of the world, often referred to as local old school snacks, since many of us grew up eating them. But if you think about it, it is highly unlikely that the fishermen of Malaya ate biscuits back then in the 1700s before the Brits came along and colonised our part of the world. They were probably munching on kuehs :) until the British introduced, along with so many other wonderful things of the western world, their tea, biscuits, cream crackers and of course, these precious gems.

They are locally known in Singapore/Malaysia as Biskut Ais Jem (malay transliteration), some also call them Belly Button biscuits, and probably more often than not, the terribly long name of ''those little biscuits with bits of colourful icing on them''. The local cousin of Iced Gems differ from the British originals in a few aspects - colour, taste and pointy-ness. Those found in Singapore have bright neon coloured icing of green, pink, yellow and white, compared to the muted colours of the Jacob's ones (though I wonder what colour Huntley & Palmers made them originally). The Singaporean ones are also far more pointy than Jacob's from what I see in pictures (see below for comparison). I haven't actually tasted the ones in UK myself, but according to Gourmet Traveller, the Jacob's ones are not as sweet (probably reduced sugar for health reasons here), icing is not as hard and biscuits are more crumbly. I shall do a taste test but I'm quite certain I'll prefer the one I grew up with!

Left to right: Singaporean Khong Guan Iced Gem biscuits compared to Jacob's

Do a quick search online for Iced Gems and you will find that there are many people who have fond childhood memories of eating them and sharing their stories on different forums. Everyone has a different method of eating them. Some eat the biscuits first and save the icing to savour at the end, others would bite off the icing first and throw away most of the biscuits (me!) or I'm sure some of you just chomp the whole thing down, perhaps even several at a time! I still remember how I loved to go to the corner shop stocking giant tins of biscuits where you can pick and choose by weight. But sadly, the local biscuit man in your wet market is probably a vanishing trade in today's chain supermarket world. Khong Guan also makes and sells them in commercial packaging and there's even a Facebook page dedicated to them.

Iced Gems don't just exist in edible form! They have clearly become a part of our social history, triggering off precious childhood memories every time someone comes across these biscuits. Like many icons, they have been turned into art, decorative items, jewellery etc. These are just some I've come across, aren't they cute??

(1) Push pins from Koalabonheur on Dewanda
(2)Fabric replicas from British Cream Tea;
(3) Light switch cover from Candy Queen Design;

And some people have been crazy enough to create a ginormous version of it! Sadly lacking is a proper Iced Gem Biscuits recipe, maybe one day I'll get around to experimenting or if you have one, please do share.

It is just amazing to contemplate that the world (alright, maybe just a few countries) being united by a common love and history of iced gem biscuits. So far I've only managed to track down followings in Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines (which isn't even a British colony!) and UK. I'd be interested to find out if these were also common in India and other British colonies. If you know, do leave a comment!

Long live the United Colours of Iced Gems Biscuits!

August 9, 2011

All The Greatest Things!

How has everyone's summer been? I've been up to all sorts of things, but that's not really a good excuse for my absence is it? I put it down to Twitter addiction, busy travel schedule and plain laziness :) There are some pretty exciting projects I've been involved in that I can't wait to share! Some will have to wait but will divulge a couple of things here.

For those who follow the online UK decor scene, you'll know about Heart Home magazine, an exciting online magazine that will be launched in September! It promises to be a collection of inspiring, creative and beautiful interiors and design treasures with a focus on the UK. I'm terribly honoured to be a part of this, and will be contributing a food article to the inaugural issue. Very excited! It took me  a crazy amount of time and effort to bake, style, photograph and write up just one article, it's no wonder I post so infrequently on my blog (tho I should think about posting much shorter photo logs). I can't how much work my lovely friends Arianna, Carole and Daniel over at HHM are up to launch the mag. Good luck guys!

I've also just spent one week taking a floral design course at the Covent Garden Academy of Flowers and it was a wonderful experience! The course I took was  Summer School I, where basics of flower arrangement are taught, along with other technical skills like wiring, contemporary design and structural construction. We made hand-tied bouquets, corsages, table arrangements and larger structures. My favourite must be mossing up a wreath from scratch. Now what does that mean, you may ask? I didn't know before this week either! We take a simple copper wire ring frame and basically wrap bundles of moss around it until it's fat and thick! The resulting wreath is what you see hung on the ladder in the pictures, isn't it lovely?

11 Floral Course1

We got to take what we made home, which means my flat was filled with lovely flowers like a garden :) If you have any interest in flowers at all, I would highly recommend Covent Garden Academy of Flowers. They have a variety of classes on different subjects for various skill levels - from casual 1 day courses to 4-month long intensive courses for those wishing to make a career out of floristry. And other than the skills you'll pick up, it was also a really relaxing and fun experience being at the Academy that differentiates them other places. Gillian and her team are the sweetest and nicest people, often pampering us with tea and cakes while we work hard on our arrangements. Gosh, I really miss my time there already!

Floral Course 01

I'm going to get more practice next week when I help put together some bouquets and decorations for my friend's wedding in Singapore. Stay tuned for pictures! Speaking of pictures, this week I'm starting a photography e-course run by the amazing Christina Greve of Divas And Dreams. What I love about her work is not just its ethereal dream-like quality, but the fact that she's very encouraging and teaches a lot about positivity and mindset in addition to technical skills.

So yes, there should be a lot more activity on this blog in the coming weeks, thanks for being patient and reading if you're still checking this blog!
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