Millionaire's Shortbread; An Unsuccessful Etymological Quest

When my mother worked at a bakery in a little town in England I had two favourite treats; gooey chocolate éclairs and just as gooey caramel shortbread. Eventually I became a vegan and stopped eating these tasty, calorie heavy treats and so sort of stopped paying attention to them.

Skip forward a couple of decades and I'm working in a cafe in Edinburgh, selling some bizarre confection called millionaire's shortbread. It's apparently everywhere in Scotland, this shortbread that is only for the very wealthy. Except it's just plain old caramel shortbread with a weird name.

A weird name that NO ONE KNOWS HOW IT GOT!

Seriously; no one. Not even the internet. Trust me, I have spent hours trawling the internet trying to find out why and when caramel shortbread became known as millionaire's shortbread in Scotland (and now America; this was not helpful). The answer has not been digitalised. Oh sure, there are plenty of "its ingredients are very rich", "the ingredients were once very expensive" or as Miss_Elphie put it "Cause [sic] it has a million calories?".

This was all I got from Twitter, with one person suggesting that it was Blue Peter's fault when they showed how to make it in 1991 and called it millionaire's shortbread. These all sound like reasonable answers, but they have no basis in actual knowledge. They're complete guesses. Most rich, expensive foods do not have names that tell you how wealthy the prospective muncher will have to be to buy one, unless the person is very poor or considered (at one time) to be of low social status. It's the poor folk that come up with new recipes and ingenious ways to make something tasty and mildly nutritious from next to nothing, but the wealthy recipe book writers that name the results. It's always "poor man's" something or "gypsy" stuff; caviare and cheese respectively.

Add to that the fact that plain old normal shortbread was originally a luxury item due to the EPIC butter and sugar content and "millionaire" doesn't sit right as a colloquial name for a confectionery that has been picked up by all and sundry. It sounds like it was given that name by an individual and then got picked up... by all and sundry.

If this is the case though; who and when? I had to go looking.**

Shortbread is pretty much roundly believed to have originated in Scotland, though the exact dating is difficult, ranging from the 12th century to the 16th. The date that caramel shortbread and subsequently the name "millionaire's shortbread" turned up is a complete unknown (at least to the internet). However, tracing some of the ingredients COULD give an answer, I thought.

First stop; the 'caramel'. It's not really caramel. Caramel is just sugar and water. The gooey caramel filling in caramel shortbread requires condensed milk, in all the recipes that I have found anyway.

Milk was first condensed in France in 1820, but it was not until the 1850s that it became a household product, at least in America. World War II brought condensed milk (and evaporated milk) to the larder of the British people because, unlike fresh milk, it did not need to be refrigerated (more epic sugar content; caramel shortbread is death to calorie counters).

Necessity is the mother of invention, and there was plenty of necessity in World War II cooking in Britain due to rationing. Ingenuity abounded and resulted in some interesting recipes. Potato pastry anyone? Carrots, carrots, carrots!

It seems sensible to me that someone, somewhere, decided to use condensed milk to make caramel during World War II and slapped it on some shortbread (or a shortbread substitute). There are older ways of making a soft, dairy based, spreadable caramel that originated in Europe; dulce de leche (sweet milk) and confiture de lait (milk jam). However, they don't appear to have reached the UK (probably too much effort for the Brits to bother with) by the time condensed milk caramel was being used (I could easily be wrong).

So, I was pretty much left looking at World War II as the originator of caramel shortbread and someone after that for coining "millionaire's shortbread", someone specifically in Scotland.

It still seemed like a pretty odd name though. "Millionaire" just didn't feel like it fit. As I mulled this over inspiration (or a curse) hit me; what if it has nothing to do with the wealth of the eater? What if it's a bastardisation of another word? Milliner?

Having looked into milliner traditions and odd stories I can safely say that millionaire's shortbread has nothing to do with hats (although an old tradition in Scotland is to break ordinary shortbread over the head of a new bride before she enters her home... no, I don't know why either). It could be either a Scots word, many of which are derived from the Scandinavian languages, thanks to the Vikings, or a French word due to France and Scotland's interesting Auld Alliance (says the English woman) which resulted in French influences on Scottish cuisine.

This French thing could lead somewhere! After all, some dairy based caramel recipes originated in France. There are also other terms used in Scotland that are terrible corruptions of French; Gardy loo (gardez-l'eau) for example, a term people would yell before chucking the contents of their chamber pots out of window's in Edinburgh.

French then... Problem; I don't read French. Oh I can make out a little. I studied both French and Latin for a year (aeons ago) and English has been influenced by the Romance languages. I don't read it well enough to research articles in French though.

Cue some heavy (and hilarious) use of Google translate!

I discovered that there is a type of French biscuit that is very similar to shortbread called sable. The French wiki states this is because they were first produced in Sablé-sur-Sarthe. The English wiki seems a little confused and brings in the idea that the French for "sand" is sable, as the biscuits have a sandy texture. I did not have the wherewithal to look this up elsewhere so I just trusted the French wiki.

Sable-sur-Sarthe is in Normandy, which is where Confiture de lait is from! Well, as legend would have it.

Now I was getting somewhere... maybe.

There are recipes aplenty in French that involve sticking milk jam (I think I prefer the untranslated term, but I'm too lazy to keep typing it out) on sable biscuits. My quest was now to find out if there was a link to the term "millionaire's" and again inspiration hit me; the French word for "honey" is "miel". Perhaps there was a link there somewhere? Honey, after all, is a good substitute for cane or beet sugar and I discovered that the French word for sweeten is  "mieller" means "sweeten" (according to the French wiktionary).

Who the Hell thinks shortbread needs to the be more sweet?! Well, maybe the French. They do love their calories; just ask Raymond Blanc for his opinion on skimmed milk. Right there with you, man, right there with you.

That is pretty much where I got stuck. Without any old texts to look at this is all just conjecture. There is NOTHING online to help me out here, at least not in a language I can properly research in. The answer, or more clues might be out there, somewhere on the internet in French and I just can't read them.

That and I think I'm going screen blind.

So, here we are; with some assumptions, a hankering for biscuits and SO. MANY. WEBSITES! I can do no more online and none of my own books are being very helpful

Can you help me out? Have some Scottish recipe books (ye olde spelling may provide etymological clues)? Some old French ones? Do you know of any references to milk jam on shortbread that aren't just modern recipes? I can find nothing on French recipe websites that is similar enough to caramel shortbread that would cause the Scottish to pick up the French nomenclature. Are there any area specific recipes for biscuits, milk jam and chocolate (from Miélan, Miellin...)? Has my winding tale of discovery set any little grey cells twitching with inspiration?

I'll be continuing this search offline, hunting down recipe books. I might even have to visit a dead tree brothel (library) but I WILL keep on looking.

Although if one of you know the answer for sure, and it's NOTHING to do with any of the above I may just Hulk out and smash things, even if this has been an interesting journey of discovery on a cold Sunday afternoon.

And I'm totally including this in my NaNoWriMo word count.


It's not really relevant (pretty sure the naming has nothing to do with tax), but this article amused me.

Millionaire’s Shortbread is zero-rated while plebian chocolate-covered shortbread is taxed at the full rate. I don’t think I need to explain why that one is funny.
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