In this new series we’re celebrating specialist foods from the UK’s different regions, and the Manufacturers who make them.
The short in shortbread refers to the ‘shortening’ process used to make it – adding large amounts of butter to the recipe and stopping the gluten strands from forming. This is what gives it that distinctive brittle, crumbly texture.
Shortbread has its origins in medieval ‘biscuit bread’, which was made from the leftover dough when making bread and dried out in a low oven until it hardened.
Over the years the recipe evolved, and the yeast (used for the bread) was replaced with butter, which explains why shortbread is generally thought to date back to the 12th century yet is more commonly associated with that Scottish femme fatale, Mary Queen of Scots.
After returning to her native country from France (and bringing their culinary influence with her) Mary was known to be fond of crisp, buttery “petticoat tails” – the frill-edged, circular shortbread that’s divided up into triangular segments. Because of this Gallic impact, it’s even rumoured the name “petticoat tails” is derived from “petites gatelles” – “little cakes” in French.
The first public mention of shortbread was made by a Mrs McLintock in 1736, by which time it was still primarily a food for the wealthy – sugar and butter (which alongside flour and salt make its base ingredients) being expensive commodities. For working people it was eaten only on special occasions like Christmas, weddings and particularly New Year – in Scotland it’s traditional to give your first footer some shortbread after they step over the threshold.
These days the traditional shortbread shapes – the aforementioned petticoat tails, rounds (circular individual biscuits) and a rectangular block split up into fingers, remain the most popular.
The Manufacturer: Walkers
Located in the Scottish Highlands, Walkers was founded by Joseph Walker in 1898 and is still run by his descendants, using his original recipes. Jim Walker, Managing Director of Walkers elaborates “The Walker family have been baking shortbread for over 120 years and there are many secrets that the family do in the baking of their shortbread – which is now recognised as the World’s Finest.”
So what makes it so good? “Good shortbread should have many different qualities, including taste and texture” says Jim. “But the most important quality is the flavour of the finest pure butter. Walkers Shortbread is virtually the only company of any size that uses only pure butter in its shortbreads.”
Another crucial factor when it comes to shortbread is being authentically Scottish. Jim explains “Shortbread is neither a biscuit nor a cake, but it is a delightful confection which was created in Scotland. Shortbread is indigenous to Scotland, and the finest shortbread in the world is baked in Scotland – it is one of our most popular food exports. Being authentically Scottish is absolutely vitally important for Walkers, for us to have a strong Scottish identity with tartan unashamedly adorning our products. Walkers is all about integrity and the packaging portrays this.”
And due to their international popularity, and consequently the increased demand, Walkers boast not only a Royal Warrant (granted by the Queen in 2017), but also one of Europe’s most modern bakeries, combining new technology with traditional methods.