27 July 2008

Galletas Marías

There is a type of "cookie" in México called the "Maria" or collectively "Galletas Marías" that is almost considered to be a staple in the Mexican diet. The first solid food that Mexican babies eat is often a Galleta María dipped in milk. The Spanish word "galleta" (gah-YAY-tah) means "cookie". This type of cookie is famous in other parts of the world as well but it is little known in the United States…at least I don't remember it from my youth. In Europe it is more aptly to be called a "biscuit" and it is generally known as the "Marie Biscuit". There is a similar word to the English word "biscuit" in Mexican Spanish. The word is "bizcocho" and it could be translated as "biscuit" but it is more likely to refer to a pastry item such as a sweet bread or what we call "pan dulce" (pahn DOOL-say). The word "galleta" is generally meant to be both "cookie" and "biscuit". The Marie biscuit has a very unique and interesting story and its heritage goes way back in history. Let me try to piece it all together for you. Please be patient.

First of all, the word "biscuit" can be traced back to the Romans, who baked a type of dough consisting of rye flour and honey into something like the army biscuit familiar to soldiers and sailors in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, but sweeter. The term used by the Romans was "panis biscoctus" from"panis" meaning bread, the prefix "bis" meaning two or twice, and the suffix "coctus" meaning cooked. In other words, the Romans (and everyone who followed them), cooked the biscuit twice, once to bake it and the second time at a lower heat to dry it out because they discovered that a very hard and dry biscuit would keep for a long period of time without deteriorating. In the ensuing years, seafarers, soldiers, and explorers the world over adopted these biscuits as an essential item because of their keeping ability. The seafaring biscuits were hand made under very primitive conditions from white flour and a minimum of water. The dough was pounded very tight to produce almost white biscuits, so hard they just about required a hammer to break them and they had to be dunked or soaked before being eaten. This type of biscuit was especially necessary to provision the sailing ships that took many months to reach the distant ports of the world. The biscuits were called "ship biscuits", "sea biscuits", "pilot bread", "hard tack" and several other pet names which are unmentionable. They would keep in storage for a long time without becoming rancid and were mostly invulnerable to insects and vermin…unless they got damp. For this reason they became the mainstay of the men in the armed services and the crews of merchant ships up until the end of the First World War.

In 1829 a man named Thomas Grant invented a type of machinery in England for making ship biscuits (not ship's biscuits) and it proved very effective. By the year 1856 the industrialization of biscuit making in England was in full swing through the development of large moving ovens and mixing machinery capable of mass producing biscuits. It wasn't long before biscuit making went from a small cottage industry to big business. A couple of gentlemen named James Peek and George Hender Frean founded the Peek Frean Biscuit Company 1857. Nine years later in 1866 they built a large factory and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 made them wealthy men when ten million biscuits were ordered for the British Army and Navy. About this time, with the steam ship replacing the old sailing ships, the travel period between ports was reduced and thus lessened the need for biscuits with such a long lasting shelf life. This was a challenge to the biscuit manufacturers who found it necessary to produce other, more tasty and nutritious types of biscuits. The new trend made a lot of the earlier biscuit machinery obsolete and engineers began to design and produce machines that could make better tasting biscuits at a faster rate. A talented man named John Carr joined Peek Frean & Co in 1860. In 1861 he produced the Garibaldi biscuit which was named after the world famous hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, the man who is credited with unifying Italy. The Garibaldi biscuit was a filled biscuit consisting of a top and bottom layer with currant jam sandwiched in the middle.

The real success story for John Carr, however, began in 1865 when he produced the famous Pearl biscuit that was the pioneer of the modern biscuit or cookie. This was a great leap forward for biscuit making. The Pearl biscuit was soft, crisp, and crumbly instead of rock hard and he was able to eliminate the "docker holes" which are the uniformly space holes that you see in certain biscuits and crackers like grahm or bran crackers and saltines (and Galletas Marías) even to this day. The docker holes are often necessary in biscuits and crackers that have a low fat content to make sure that they bake evenly and won't crack or even explode in the oven as the water leaves them in the form of steam. I don't know why the new biscuits were called "Pearl" biscuits but I have several theories. One is that they contained "pearl-ash" which was an early form of baking powder and was used at that time for low fat rising biscuits and eliminated the need for docking. The other is that they were sprinkled with "pearl sugar" which is sugar that comes in bigger than normal crystals. Maybe someone who knows for sure will help me out. In any case this is where terminology gets a bit confusing. In the United States the word biscuit usually means something like a sea biscuit or a dog biscuit while anything else that is made from just flour and water and has docker holes is called a "cracker". If docker holes are eliminated and sugar is added we call it a "wafer" and if fat is added we call it a "cookie".

It just so happened that some years later, on 23 January 1874, to be exact, at the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, the Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna Romanova, the daughter of Emperor Alexander II of Russia, married His Royal Highness Alfred Ernest Albert Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of England's Queen Victoria. Needless to say, it was the wedding of the century and in a flash of marketing genius in 1875 Peek and Frean produced a special biscuit in honor of the Princess Marie and even stamped her name on it. They placed a border running around the edge which was quite a common architectural pattern in Russia and can be seen as borders on many of the tiled floors in old Russian official buildings. The Marie biscuit was a big hit. Its popularity spread throughout Europe. In Spain in particular it became the nation's favorite cookie. Marias were first produced in large quantities in Spain around the turn of the 20th Century, but it was not until the Spanish Civil War that they became an integral part of the nation's culture. The long hard years of the war plunged Spain into poverty and even a simple loaf of bread became a luxury. When the war ended in 1939 the nation's top priority was for every Spaniard to have enough bread. The farmers went to work and the wheat harvest was so bountiful that the bakers turned out huge numbers of Marias with the surplus wheat. There are now almost two dozen brands of Marie biscuits around the world including many in Asia. The appearance varies little and almost always retains the distinctive "Marie" or "Maria" imprint and a border pattern.

In Mexico there are several brands of Marias but the most popular by far is Gamesa. The company was formed by Alberto, Ignacio, and Manuel Santos Gonzalez, three brothers, who acquired the majority of the stocks of the pasta and cookie company "Lara" in 1921. They named the company Galletera Mexicana S.A. de C.V. and later merged with other companies to create "Gamesa" (gah-MEE-sah) which Mexico's largest manufacturer of cookies. I really like their galletas Marías. They taste a lot like the Nabisco Barnum Animal Crackers that I enjoyed as a kid. They both have about the same ingredients except that the animal crackers have a slightly higher fat content and thus about ten percent more calories. It is my understanding that the Barnum Animal Crackers came from England in 1902 and they were based upon an English cookie and I imagine that cookie was the Marie biscuit. I have a Mexican friend whose name is Alejandro. He is a "velador" or gatekeeper for a local company and his wages aren't very high. He and his wife have four grammar school age children and he tells me that on school days each child gets twelve Gamesa María cookies and a glass of milk for breakfast. That is about 330 calories per child. There are 40 cookies in each package and he buys six packages per week which makes 240 individual cookies or twelve per child per school day. They cost 4.5 pesos per package which makes a total of 27 pesos. The milk costs 11.5 pesos per liter and he needs five liters to go with the Marias which makes the milk total 57.5 pesos. The total cost of the Marias and the milk together is 84.5 pesos which for him is pretty expensive but still the most economical way to go when you realize that this is about ten percent of the family's weekly income. What about on the days when the kids don't go to school? What do they eat for breakfast? They get one slice of Bimbo or Wonder white bread and a glass of milk. You see kids, it's better if you go to school!


glorv1 said...

We have those galleta marias here in Modesto. They sell them in the Mexican area. That sure is some information about this and very interesting. I personally like to dip them in my coffee and my doggie loves them as well. Great post.

Brenda said...

They are also used for baking here in Mexico where we would use graham wafer crumbs in Canada. When I first came to Mexico, I hunted for graham wafer crumbs for baking. I finally asked my landlady and she was amazed that the store would be out of Marias galletas. No, I told her there were lots of those, I just didn't know that they used those instead.

Bob Cox said...

That picture of hard tack sure resembles saltines...I've heard stories about civil war soldiers chewing on them for days at a time, must've been tough. Course...in Georgia the militia also had "goober peas"
Hah! see if you yankees can figure that one out !!

Nick said...

Interesting article Bob, very informative.

As to the "goober peas" I believe Mr. Cox is referring to boiled peanuts which were used as emergency rations by the confederate army in the Civil War.

karl said...

Emergency rations?! More like cause for celebration. Boiled peanuts are plebian, slave food, really, but clean, filling and delicious. Nothing against roasted peanuts but not having hot fresh boiled peanuts, now that would be an emergency.

As in Mexico, though I think because of British colonial influence rather than Spanish, Gamesa galletas Marías are in every shop and stall in Belize.

Lesley said...

Very detailed history, Bob. I enjoyed it. Thanks!

Gaby said...

You forgot to write about the many desserts that are done with Galletas Marias, like the Carlota de Piña!

Bob Mrotek said...

I didn't forget. I was saving that part for you to write about :)

tryanmax said...

Through a strange quirk of internettage, I stumbled upon this post. I came late to Marias and found they are a perfect companion to Nutella!

If I were to offer a guess, I would say that the American staple equivalent to Marias is vanilla wafers. Of course, American tastes and experiences are so varied, that may only be true of the region where I live.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. They are very delicious, but to me I think they taste like animal crackers!

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.