In the second of our series going behind the scenes at London's remarkable manufacturers, Angela Hui sees how the cookies crumble at McVitie’s. Photography Andy Parsons
‘If you want to taste a biscuit straight off the line, feel free. Make sure you try one before they go cold,’ factory manager Fraser Jones tells me. ‘They have a spongier texture than cold biscuits.’ Feeling like a kid in a candy shop, I carefully pluck a biscuit from the high-speed conveyor-belt and scoff it in one. There’s nothing quite like a warm digestive fresh out of the oven – the flavour is intensified and it melts in your mouth.
I’m at the McVitie’s factory in Harlesden, where all my sugary dreams have come true. One of the company’s biggest manufacturing plants is right here in Zone 3. From the outside it doesn’t look like much – grey brickwork with a blue roof and a giant McVitie’s logo – but on the inside it’s a different story. Scanning around the factory floor, I’m blown away by the sheer size of the place. The site covers 48,800 square metres, which is roughly equivalent to seven football pitches. Loud noises come from all directions – alarms beeping, machines whirring, biscuits shuffling from one station to the next and workers shouting above the din. I’m glad they’ve kitted me out with ear-protecting headphones.
Not just about rich tea, McVitie’s has a rich history. Robert McVitie and his father William opened a ‘provision’ shop in Edinburgh in 1830, before expanding the business and eventually opening factories across the country to keep up with the demand for baked goods. McVitie’s even baked the royal wedding cake for Queen Mary and King George V in 1893, earning the royal seal of approval.
These days, there are seven McVitie’s factories in the UK and each one produces different types of biscuit. The Harlesden site is one of Europe’s largest and oldest biscuit factories. It’s also where the five bestsellers are made: Digestives, Chocolate Digestives, Hobnobs, Rich Tea and Mini Cheddars.
At every stage of the production line, I see all sorts of contraptions rolling, folding, cutting, cooking, layering and packing. Row upon row of biscuits speed past while workers manning the machines swiftly pick out any duds. As I walk between the production lines, the smell of fresh biscuits fills my nostrils, ranging from chocolate to cheese. It’s overwhelming – in a good way.
With so many delicious smells wafting around the factory all day long, do the workers ever get to sample the goods? Actually, yes. ‘One of the perks of the job is our morning routine. We have a daily taste panel at 9am to ensure every product we’re making is up to standard,’ Fraser says. ‘We look at the packaging, examine the biscuit and taste the product to make sure everything’s up to scratch.’ Dream job or what?
But it’s not all munching on Hobnobs for breakfast. McVitie’s is a non-stop operation: 620 full-time staff work 362 days a year in four shifts. Only half the team ever see each other because of the alternating working hours. The factory produces 12.5 million digestives every day, weighing a whopping 165 tonnes. (Fun fact: the whole process for creating one digestive biscuit takes six to seven minutes.)
As my tour wraps up, I now know what Charlie Bucket must have felt like after he scored a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, wide-eyed and hungry for more. Speaking of which, anyone for a rich tea and a cuppa?
1. Knead to know
The ingredients are weighed out by a computer system and stored in bulk. The worker manning the mixing machine controls the quantity of each ingredient to feed the mixer in smaller batches. One mixer goes through roughly 800kg of dough every 18 minutes, which creates a whopping 600kg of baked goods. Makes your own biscuit stash look pretty measly, right?
2. Buttery biscuit base
The mixed dough drops on to the laminator machine, which rolls and flattens it into thin sheets. These are cut and laid on top of each other then given one last roll to make the final dough sheet. Next, they’re stamped and separated using stencil-cutters, and the excess dough is reused – so none of that sugary, buttery goodness goes to waste. Phew.
3. All fired up
The biscuits are cooked at between 200 and 300 degrees in a long oven filled with burners on a conveyor-belt. They’re blasted with a high heat at the start to get their colour then there’s a slow, gradual cook towards the end. And you thought the ovens on ‘Bake Off’ were hi-tech.
4. Hot off the press
Once cooled, the plain digestives are packaged up, while soon-to-be chocolate digestives sail over a chocolate-covered conveyor-belt. Any chance we could have a go on that?
Want more behind-the-scenes pics? Read about London's secret gold bullion factory.