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Bath Oliver is a white, pale, thin and dry biscuit or cracker that was invented in England in the mid-18th century. It is named after the person who invented it and the town he lived in. Originated for health care purposes, Bath Oliver is now enjoyed as a snack, often consumed with cheese and red wine.
Born in 1695, William Oliver, who invented Bath Oliver, was a physician who settled in Bath, a city in the southwest English county of Somerset, in 1728. Educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge and Leiden University, the Netherlands’ oldest educational institution of higher learning, Oliver had previously practiced medicine at Plymouth, Devon, where he had introduced inoculation for smallpox. It was in Bath, located to the east of Plymouth, however, where he would remain for the rest of his life.
Within a decade, Oliver had become the leading physician in the city. This was due to the founding of a hospital now known as the Royal Mineral Water Hospital, or “The Min.” A medical facility that specializes in rheumatism, it had been established in 1738 out of a belief that the mineral waters at Bath’s spas contained healing benefits. Oliver came up with a food item that could supplement such purported natural powers.
Thus the Bath bun, which was the precursor to Bath Oliver, was born. It was an incredibly rich bun made of floor, caster sugar, milk, water, dried yeast, eggs, butter and sultanas, which are white seedless grapes. Although the patients loved the delicious snack, Oliver soon discovered that they were gaining weight from eating them. He resorted to introducing the Bath Oliver as a less fattening alternative.
Suffering from gout in his last years, Oliver wanted the Bath Oliver to survive him. Before he died on 1764, he passed it on to his coachman Atkins, along with some flour and money. Atkins went on to make a fortune with the diet biscuit when he set up a shop at 13 Green Street; he is credited with giving it the Bath Oliver name. It was advertised as “Old Bath Oliver Biscuits,” possessing the ability to reduce stomach acidity.
The Bath Oliver is still sold commercially, branded with a portrait of William Oliver himself. They are no longer made in Bath, and Oliver’s recipe for the cracker is still kept a secret. What is known from rare, old cook books is that Bath Oliver biscuits contain flour, yeast, water, milk and butter.