THE REASONS for the popularity of biscuits in the British diet are many, but excellence is not among them. We eat them because they are in the tin, because we are bored, because they are cheap and sweet - not because we find them thrilling.

But an unlikely new protagonist has entered the scene: the Prince of Wales. He has taken the British biscuit and turned it upside down and inside out. Launched at the end of last year, the Prince's biscuits - Duchy Originals - are selling ten times better in the shops that stock them than other bestsellers.

So what? I hear you say. The princely seal of approval, the distinguished packaging, the Duchy of Cornwall crest stamped on each biscuit - how could they have failed? Academic question. One bite of a Duchy Original will convince even the most demanding consumer that the Prince's biscuit amounts to more than royal hype.

Described as an 'oaten biscuit', the Duchy Original is somewhere between a digestive and an oatcake. It is less sweet and more satisfying than the former, more complex in flavour and less plain than the latter. In a word, Duchy Originals are quite

excellent.

While the classic digestive leaves you with that over-refined, stick-to- the-roof-of-your-mouth feel, Duchy Originals are altogether cleaner on the palate. An oatcake is perfect with cheese or butter, but seems somewhat stark on its own. By comparison, the Prince's biscuits taste complete in themselves. The flavour and texture will send you to the label looking for more information about their source. There is plenty to tell.

Duchy Originals were born out of the Prince's commitment to organic farming, for which he makes an articulate case in his new book, Highgrove: Portrait of an Estate, written with journalist Charles Clover. The Prince believes that 'conventional' farming and food production are inherently environmentally unsustainable in the long term. So he has chosen to convert part of his estate - the Home Farm, Tetbury, Gloucestershire - to organic production.

It is from the Home Farm that the organic oats (which account for the biscuit's bulk) and the organic wheatflour come. The other ingredients - sunflower oil, raw cane sugar, salt and bicarbonate of soda - are not, at present, organic.

Prince Charles's support for organic farming is consistent with his generally courageous attitude towards controversial food issues. Last year, he weighed in on behalf of French farmhouse cheeses made from unpasteurised milk. He has shown himself to be a staunch defender of artisan, geographically specific foods against the lack of character in modern food production.

'The Prince wants to demonstrate how organic agriculture can produce very high-quality food,' says Chris Nadin, one of his advisers. 'He has consciously decided to put his money where his mouth is and create a carefully crafted British product, one which is unique and different, capable of showing the potential for organic food. His hope is that other farmers and food producers see that there is a market and follow the example.'

The concept of Duchy Originals was not long in gestation. In 1991, Prince Charles visited Shipton Mill, a much-respected miller of organic cereals and supplier of stoneground flours, not far from Highgrove. 'We talked about various ways of using the organic cereal production from the Home Farm and came up with the idea of an oatcake with a hint of sweetness,' says John Lister, Shipton Mill's director.

With the farmer and miller teamed up, the next step was finding the right baker, someone open-minded enough to work outside the straitjacket of biscuit mass-production. 'Most of the traditional biscuit people told us that what we wanted to do just would not work,' Mr Lister says. The Duchy Originals team finally found the right outlook in the old, highly regarded Scottish firm of Walkers, of Aberlour on Speyside.

'Walkers are great craftsmen. They were prepared to be flexible, to try out new ideas; above all, to be patient,' Mr Lister says. There followed a lot of experimenting with the proportions of oats to wheat, with some 100 different trial bakes in the process. The hydrogenated corn oil (favoured by most manufacturers) was set aside for sunflower oil. 'We tried out the biscuits with a lot of different oils and fats but the flavour of the unhydrogenated ones was much, much better,' says Mr Lister.

Having arrived at a final, satisfactory recipe, trials of Home Farm organic oats and wheat versus their conventional equivalents produced interesting results. 'Even tasting them blind you could pick up a clear difference. Our organic cereals produced an enhanced, almost enriched flavour. They were just much better,' Mr Lister says.

But by refusing to follow the usual industrial shortcuts, the team ended up with a product that has only half the shelf-life of the average biscuit. However, this has not proved to be an insurmountable handicap, but rather something which adds to the biscuit's estate-grown, 'appellation controlee' status. Duchy Originals cost pounds 1.35 for a 300g packet of about 20 biscuits - considerably more than the standard digestive. Within that pricing structure, all royalties go to the Prince's charities and premium prices are paid to the farmers who grow the cereals.

Duchy Originals are on sale in around 300 specialist food shops and delicatessens around the country (see below for stockists). They are precisely the sort of product which reinforces their raison d'etre.

Less than six months from their launch, demand for Duchy Originals outstrips supply. They are soon to be served on Concorde. The packaging (a model of clarity, honesty and greenness) has already been copied in the Netherlands. But copying the contents is another matter.

There is a secret to the biscuits. Lips were sealed when I visited the makers, but Mr Lister said that they had stumbled on something in the process of making the biscuits which proved to be a fortuitous accident. 'We do not need to declare it on the label, it is something which happened naturally but doesn't happen normally,' he said with a broad smile.

Whatever it is that lies at the root of the Duchy Original's success, your reporter was not able to discover it. Suffice it to say that Duchy Originals are unique. Their makers are confident that they cannot be replicated.

Agent for Duchy Originals is Shipton Mill: 0666 505050. Selected stockists:

James of Beckenham, Kent; H P Jung, The Broadway, New Town, Beaconsfield; E Eaden Lilley, Market Street, Cambridge; Lewis's, Westgate, Oxford; Mackintosh of Marlborough; G Miller, 12 The Mall, Clifton, Bristol; Howell's, Cardiff; Arabica, Lemon Quay, Truro; M & J Barber, Kings Road, Harrogate; Lewis's, Manchester; Fenwicks, Newcastle upon Tyne; J & J Graham, Market Square, Penrith; Peckhams, Glasgow; Jenners, Edinburgh; Selfridges, Harrods, Fortnum and Mason, London.

(Photograph omitted)

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