Professional biscuit tester Paul Courtney has travelled the world and tasted more than 1,000 different types in his bid to fill the nation's biscuit tins with the very best biccies. Paul, 52, eats an average of ten biscuits a day at the United Biscuits Technical Centre in High Wycombe, Berkshire, and has worked for McVitie's for 18 years – that's 65,000 biscuits tasted during his career at the biscuit makers.
His primary role as Culinary Innovation Manager is advising McVitie's on flavours and recipes, helping the brand to come up with new varieties to satisfy Brits' ongoing love affair with the humble biscuit. His role has also seen him journey to over 20 countries, from Indonesia to America, trying international biscuits in his quest for the best.
He eats his first biscuit of the day at 8am and spends 15 minutes making notes on its smell, flavour and texture. But, despite spending 18 years eating more than 65,000 biscuits, his favourite remains a classic, and the UK's best-selling biscuit – a McVitie's Chocolate Digestive!
Paul says of his day: “I get to my desk at 7.30am and I have my first biscuit at 8am. It's all quite scientific – I have to record the flavour, texture, how it feels in the mouth, and the aroma. I always smell the biscuit first as aroma is about 80-90 per cent of the experience – much like wine! As I'm doing this I make detailed notes. It takes about 15 minutes to write up a report on each biscuit.”
If he is testing two biscuits in quick succession, Paul will eat a 'water biscuit' cracker in between to cleanse his palate, as well as rinsing his mouth with water.
He adds: “You have to eat the milder biscuits first. I would never eat a Ginger Nut before a Rich Tea for example, because that Ginger Nut would play havoc with my palate. That kind of havoc might be good for a member of the public, but not for a professional biscuit tester.”
The father of two fell in love with biscuits at the age of six and took up his dream job at the age of 34 after working as a chef in restaurants such as London's Savoy. He said: “Despite eating more than 1,000 different biscuits in my time, my favourite is still the Chocolate Digestive. Sometimes the old ones are the best – they have been around for more than 100 years because they are just great!
Despite his love for the classics, Paul confesses that his tastes can be 'unusual' and that he particularly enjoys the 'molecular gastronomy' favoured by the likes of Heston Blumenthal and is always looking to these modern and innovative sources to inspire his latest McVitie's creations. Indeed, he believes his best biscuit creation was actually a prototype chocolate cookie containing black olives.
He said: “It sounds weird and wacky but the combination works really well, it's very rich. I've made them but when you tell people the ingredients after they've tasted it, they tend to say 'uuuurrgghh'. It's not necessarily an easy biscuit to sell to people!”
During his 18 years at McVitie's Paul has been instrumental in creating a variety of products, but claims that his proudest creation so far is McVitie's Digestives Nibbles which launched this year. Of the new product he says; “It was so great to be a part of a team which created Nibbles – we've taken one of the oldest, most popular classics in our portfolio and turned it in to something brand new, which I think is really exciting.”
While on his travels, searching for inspiration around the world for McVitie's biscuits, Paul stumbled across the best variety he's ever tasted in Australia. “I came across a Macadamia nut cookie with ginger and lemon myrtle herb at an artisan bakery in Australia. For a biscuit tester it was almost like finding the Holy Grail. It was one of those moments when you just go 'oh my goodness, that is phenomenal!'”. Meanwhile, the worst biscuit he found was in an American supermarket, made from 'fake chocolate'.
From his many years of experience working at McVitie's, Paul insists the simplest biscuits are often the most difficult to make well. He added: “The Rich Tea is the hardest – for such a simple biscuit it's actually quite complex to make due to the baking techniques. Likewise, the Jaffa Cake is also quite complex because of the way it is structured.”
With all this biscuit eating, Paul, who is married to Shan, confesses that he never gets bored of eating biscuits, but plays squash twice a week to keep fit. He said: “I never tire of biscuits, and (as you'd expect) we always have plenty in the house. I go home, put my feet up and treat myself to a Chocolate Digestive or Hobnob dunked in a cup of tea.”