The Grand Duchess and the Biscuit

Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna
Photo: Archives

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The Maria biscuit was named after the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, daughter of Tsar Alexander II of Russia and wife of the second son of Queen Victoria, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh.

The Independent compared the Russian grand duchess to “a sort of Princess Diana of her day.” Her wedding caught Europe’s fancy and to celebrate the occasion, a small English bakery in England, Peek Frean created a sweet new biscuit (cookie) with Maria stamped on the top to celebrate her marriage into the British royal family in 1874.

This royal connection explains why the Maria is the most fussily patterned of biscuits. The ornate border running around the edge, which is referred to as a “key” pattern was quite a common pattern in Russia and could be seen as borders on many of the tiled floors in official buildings dating from the tsarist period.

The Maria is considered a more up-market version of the popular Rich Tea biscuit, which is more durable to dunk in ones tea or coffee and also considered tastier.

Its popularity spread throughout Europe, particularly in Spain where it became the nation's favourite cookie -- 40% of all biscuits sold in the country. Marias were first produced in large quantities in Spain around the turn of the 20th Century, but it was not until the Civil War that they became an integral part of the national culture. The long harsh years of the war plunged Spain deep into poverty, turning even a simple loaf of bread into a luxury. When the war ended in 1939, the nation's top priority was for every Spaniard to have enough bread. The wheat harvests were so plentiful that the bakers turned out huge number of cartons of Marias to consume the surplus. In those days, every cafe had a plate of Marias on the counter -- a happy sign of Spain's recovery.

Nicknamed the Queen of all Cookies, the Maria was popular in Great Britain and across Victoria's empire where it was enjoyed with the traditional cup of tea. To this day, it is still baked by other biscuit companies and enjoyed around the world, particularly Australia, India, South Africa, and Spain.

Traditionally, the Maria is enjoyed
with a cup of tea, but it goes well with coffee, too.

Maria and Alfred had five children together, including the infamous Marie, Queen of Roumania, and Victoria, who married Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich of Russia.

Compiled by Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia
Sources: The Independent, La Tienda
19 March, 2010