Water Biscuits

What a moving and turbulent two weeks it has been for the United Kingdom. After all the splendour and sadness of that state funeral, I think it’s high time for a cup of tea and a biscuit, and as Her Late Majesty the Queen is known to have started each day in such a manner we can hardly do better than follow her example – but more of that anon. It’s fair to say her character and legacy have come into sharper focus in the shared grief of many at her passing: a wonderful jigsaw of memories, stories and tributes over ninety-six years, revealing the beauty, and, yes, the majesty of a life which was extraordinary by any estimation. For many of us, I think there’s also been a felt grief at the symbolic passing of much she came to represent: a generation largely marked by its sacrifice, an age largely marked by its stability. It’s in this spirit of gratitude and reflection that I invite us to consider the Water Biscuit…

This biscuit is associated with its maker, Carr’s of Carlisle, who co-incidentally were the first biscuit manufacturers to receive a Royal Warrant. It was an enterprising Theodore Carr who invented the Table Water Biscuit as an improvement on the Captain’s Thin in 1890: “What he did was to experiment with the thickness of this popular biscuit, trying to make it thinner and crisper, until it would seem almost like a new variety,” Margaret Forster writes in Rich Desserts and Captain’s Thin, her biography of the Carr family. What Theodore created is basically a modern version of the Ship’s Biscuit slimmed down still further for your average landlubber. Taste-wise they’re deliciously thin and crispy, the biscuity equivalent of a pizza (it may be more an accident of semantics that they’re categorised as biscuits and not crackers!) As savoury biscuits, I’m pairing them with some nice cheese from Yorkshire.

Ships from the fifteenth-century Romance of the Three Kings Sons (credit: British Library)

As you might guess from the name, it’s water rather than fat that binds the ingredients together, and helps keep the Water Biscuit fresh for long voyages on or offshore. The table I assume refers to the meal table (or perhaps the mess table if it’s at sea). And to me, the association of both evokes the powerful scene from the last supper, recorded in the gospel of John:

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet…

Washing the dirt and dust of the road from your guests’ feet and drying them with a towel was clearly servants’ work in first-century Judea and not a role the disciples had ever envisaged for their Messiah. When Peter objects, Jesus tells them: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master.” It was a theme he returned to again and again in his ministry: that the greatest in the kingdom of God is the one most willing to become the servant of all.

Jesus washing his disciples’ feet by Jyoti Sahi

It’s a message the late Queen would have been familiar with too as a practising Christian and a teaching she clearly aimed to put into practice. As Archbishop Justin noted at her funeral, the faithful devotion to service which so characterised her long reign, (and for which, I believe, she’ll be remembered as our greatest monarch), “had its foundation in her following Christ – God himself – who said that he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

While the manner and context of the Queen’s call to serve was both unusually public and privileged, she certainly understood the value of the contribution of the ordinary citizen to the health of the nation and with characteristic modesty believed that in the end it was just, if not more, vital to its success. The upward course of a nation’s history is due, in the long run, to the soundness of heart of its average men and women, she observed once. Like the trusty Water Biscuit, let’s cultivate such soundness wherever we can, the high watermark of which will always be our willingness to love and serve.

Further Reflection

A story about the part the Queen, her corgis, and some biscuits played in comforting a traumatised war surgeon in 2014.

An Unexpected History of Ship’s Biscuits.

The Queen’s life in her own words, although with unfortunately blurred footage. (She really did use the indefinite pronoun ‘one’ when speaking about herself and it’s nice to see some of her own wry humour coming out, and not a little brio!)

In the venerable tradition of Thomas Tallis, Sir James MacMillan set part of the passage in Romans 8 (“Who Shall Separate Us from the Love of Christ?”) to music in this eight-part a capella composed especially for the funeral on Monday. A beautiful piece – and promise – for the future:

Baked Apple and Custard Biscuits

I’ve yet to delve very deeply into the subject of Artisan Biscuits but earlier this year my friend Rachel gave me a box of these Baked Apple and Custard Biscuits from Bath’s Fine Cheese Company. It’s no secret I’ve eaten a lot of biscuits over the years but these are so good they immediately found a home in my Top Ten Biscuits Ever*. Adding dried apple pieces to a butter biscuit recipe produces a biscuit which tastes a lot like Apple Crumble, which is an excellent thing if you like that dessert as much as I do. Here they are in the garden sitting in the shade of the fig, the very image of biblical prosperity and contentment:

The only down side to these biscuits is that they’re so Elegant and English they give off a slightly formal afternoon tea vibe when arranged on a plate which makes you feel you should limit yourself to two or three while inwardly wrestling your inner cookie monster. If you want to eat a few more of them without feeling it incumbent on you to move on to the cucumber sandwiches, I recommend serving them in their rustic-looking container.

An irresistible apple-flavoured biscuit seemed a natural set-up for the story of the Fall, however if you read the account in Genesis 3 no apple is mentioned. Exactly what sort of fruit caused humankind to crumble doesn’t concern us here but this post provides an excellent opportunity to discredit the rumour – probably put about by the same serpent that got Adam and Eve into trouble – that apples get a bad press in the bible.

In fact, apples get an overwhelmingly good press in the bible. Here are just a few of the references to them from The Song of Songs: “Refresh me with apples for I am faint with love.” “Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my beloved among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste.” Solomon must have been a fan of the humble pippin as they appear in Proverbs as well, where “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (25:11). And they are frequently used idiomatically in the idea of a person or a people being the dearest objects of God’s care and attention: “Keep me as the apple of your eye, hide me in the shadow of your wings,” is the prayer of Solomon’s father David in Psalm 17, familiar from the liturgy of Compline.

Detail of God planting the Garden of Eden, Naples c. 1350. Paris, BnF, Français 9561, fol. 7r

There’s more than a hint too that God has a soft spot for fruit trees and their cultivation. “The Lord planted a garden” must be one of my favourite lines in the bible, offering us a glimpse of what He was doing at the dawn of human history: making trees grow. Years later, Mary Magdalene mistook the risen Christ for a gardener; an easy mistake to make if the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree (like father, like son?). And it’s Jesus who offers us one of the most beautiful gardening metaphors for the work of the kingdom: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”

“If you abide in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit…”

John 15

The fruitfulness of the Baked Apple Biscuits are a delicious reminder that the art of staying connected to Jesus’s life is vital for our health and growth. I’m still learning what this means to be honest but part of it is recognising that it’s only in so far as we make time to attend to God and his purposes for his world that we’ll be able to communicate something of his presence to others and to cultivate the fruit of the spirit: those refreshing characteristics of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. While it can be hard to remember this truth let alone feel it to be true on a Monday morning on the treadmill of the world’s systems, the spiritual life consists in waking up, looking up and engaging with this life that is the wellspring of our own lives, however hidden. So much of our joy, strength and purpose flows from this connection it’s worth cultivating. Not by straining but by resting. Not by fretting but by trusting. Not by leaning on our own strength but in drawing on his – and the fruit will come.

Further Delectation

Wondering what artisan food is? You can find a helpful discussion here (lots of foods would have qualified as artisan in the Middle Ages!)

BBC Good Food’s guide to throwing an afternoon tea party (how high?) Topical as this is supposed to be #AfternoonTeaWeek.

Try this recipe for Apple Crumble Cookies (a good way to occupy small hands on school holidays) courtesy of Jamie Oliver. Only five ingredients needed.

A lovely song inspired by the abiding theme of John 15 by Aaron Williams.

Me Want It But Me Wait“. Cookie Monster cultivates self-control as a fruit of the spirit.

In medieval bestiaries, hedgehogs were thought to use their spines to gather up fallen apples (a story that may have originated with Pliny the Elder, and which was used as a warning against devilish thefts). Here are some ways to support hedgehogs in real life and a fantastic image of them rolling in apples from a thirteenth-century bestiary:

From BL MS Royal 12 F XIII, fol. 45r

* a highly selective and subjective list, but a list nonetheless.

If you would like to keep this bestiary free from ads and see more entries more regularly you are welcome to contribute to the Biscuit Jar.

The Elisabeth Biscuits

My sister and brother-in-law went on a little break to Bruges in May, making up for lost travelling time during the pandemic. I caught up with them briefly at St Pancras on their way back and they gifted me these goodies from Elisabeth, a chocolatier with outlets across Belgium. According to their website, “Elisabeth’s lady owner travels all over the country to taste and select famous Belgian delicacies as well as long forgotten local culinary traditions” and this carefully curated collection includes these Aprikozenkoejke (apricot cookies) which I now think of as the Elisabeth Biscuits. Small delicate buttery drops with flaking of almonds and a pane of apricot jam in the middle, suspended like stained glass in a window… I’m quietly fascinated by the jam’s viscosity, set in just such a way that it holds its shape.

It was a few days after I’d received the Elisabeth biscuits that I thought to connect them with that other Elizabeth whose seventy year Platinum Jubilee is being celebrated in the UK over four days of holiday this week with numerous street parties, beacon-lightings, pageants, fly-overs, and so on. Although differently imagined in our day, this sort of spectacle is one of the threads that connects modern Britain with its medieval past as the monarchy itself does (also differently imagined). And of course festive food…

More than ever these last few years I have appreciated the Queen’s dignified compassionate influence on public life, especially when those qualities have felt in short supply elsewhere. The steadfast manner in which she’s weathered so many storms and the whole character of her reign is proof that the art of viscosity – of holding firm under pressure – can be incredibly valuable in the right cause. There’s a verse in Psalm 15 where David asks who is worthy to dwell in God’s tent (i.e. in God’s presence) and one of the answers is a person who keeps their oath, even when it hurts – a line I’ve always found strangely moving. Ultimately of course it’s only God who is able to keep all of his promises perfectly, but whenever we find human examples of promises faithfully kept over many years it’s worth celebrating.

It’s hard to think of anyone who has kept a weightier promise as long or as faithfully as the Queen, so I find it apt that her name signifies oath-keeping. ‘God’s promise’ or ‘God is my oath’ are frequent translations of the name Elizabeth in Hebrew, as well as ‘God of the Seven’ which makes more sense when you realise that it’s the biblical number of completeness, abundance, or divine perfection. Seven cycles of seven years is also the number for a biblical jubilee: a year set apart for the returning of mortgaged lands, the freeing of slaves and prisoners, and the cancelling of all debts from the years preceding it. While this Jubilee is more about giving thanks for this particular milestone in the Queen’s long life of dedicated service, both uses of it carry the idea of a window of blessing and favour.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow in tears
will reap with shouts of joy…

And in all these threads we touch into the great themes of redemption and covenant that make up the heart of God towards each and every one of us: of the freedom he works for us if we’ll let him and the promises he makes to us if we’ll have him – of his longing always to redeem, restore and relate. The Elisabeth biscuits for me are another reminder of that faithfulness over the years and the faithfulness it inspires in others. I hope Her Majesty gets the chance to enjoy a well-deserved biscuit or two this Jubilee weekend, and the esteem in which she’s held by so many of us.

Further Delectation

I’m glad I got the chance to watch the Thanksgiving Service in St Paul’s yesterday with a friend and more of the Elisabeth biscuits (I’ve taken them on several lovely outings this week and still not come to the end of them). The sermon from the Archbishop of York is worth a listen/reflection.

Baking for the holiday? The official dessert thing looks a bit fiddly so here’s the recipe for Her Majesty’s favourite chocolate biscuit cake instead (excellent choice, Ma’am). And for anyone who missed it, here’s a clip of her party at the palace with Paddington Bear.

I’m old enough to remember the Jubilee 2000 campaign in which many churches in the UK mobilised to help petition the richest countries in the world to cancel the debts of the poorest. The work it started is far from over. Learn more about it here.

A nice royal coat of arms from one of the British Library’s royal manuscripts:

Detail from BL Royal MS 18 A XII f. 1

If you would like to keep this bestiary free from ads and see more entries more regularly you are welcome to contribute to the Biscuit Jar.

Les Biscuits Roses de Reims

So I’ve had my eye on this box of biscuits for a while now and if you approach a new biscuit like a new manuscript, you’ll probably want a note of its provenance: it came to Peckham via a Frenchman’s family as the gift of his friendly Korean wife who was visiting my Welsh friend and landlady who first suggested it might merit an entry here… Despite a superficial resemblance in shape and colour, Le Biscuit Rose de Reims should never be confused with a pink wafer.

France, like Italy, seems to have been a veritable fashion house of biscuit-making in the late medieval and early modern period and these rose biscuits, produced exclusively now by maker Maison Fossier, date from the late 1600s. (The French, by the way, call a biscuit factory a biscuiterie, a word sadly lacking in English.) It’s the delicate rose food colouring that gives these biscuits their name and it feels as though a special occasion is required to sample them, which may be why they are traditionally consumed with champagne, another culinary speciality of the region.

I admit I’d be quite curious to try the rose biscuits with a glass of champers but it seems unduly decadent to splash out on a bottle purely to dunk a Reims biscuit in it, especially in this era of anxiety about rising living costs. As you’ll see from the description on the box, a second more affordable use for the biscuits is in a well-known French dessert a bit like an Eton Mess called a Strawberry Charlotte. And for any regular readers struck by the similarities: the rose biscuit could well be the blushing first cousin of the Lady Finger or Boudoir Biscuit, the patron biscuit of the Tiramisu…

For the moral, it seems but a hop, skip and jump to The Romance of the Rose and the rose as a perennial symbol of budding romance. However, a quick delve into the rose’s associations for writers in the Middle Ages reveals it to be a much thornier subject than might be expected. It’s not the scope of this entry to give a potted history of the rose’s varied (or variegated?) place in medieval culture but I’m indebted to Mia Touw’s essay on the topic for much of my information on this. For some ascetic church fathers of the early Middle Ages, the rose represented worldly luxury and sensual indulgence (tied perhaps to the stories of all the rose petals strewn at the more decadent parties of the late Roman Empire). For others, the thorns came to symbolise the mortification of the flesh and an example of Christ’s suffering, while its flowers became an image of divine compassion.

From Pierpont Morgan Library. MS M.245.

In both Christian and Classical literature there’s a longstanding tradition of roses being a symbol of mutability and a prompt to seize or redeem the times: “All Stant in Change Like a Midsummer Rose,” writes the Benedictine monk John Lydgate in one of his best, uncharacteristically brief lyric poems, anticipating Herrick’s “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May (and May is certainly the right month for it). The most famous rose in medieval poetry, however, may be in Dante’s Paradiso where the company of heaven is imagined as “an infinite eternal rose whose petals are souls and whose fragrance is the never-ending praise of God” (Touw again). I can’t help wondering if Henry van Dyke had that heavenly image in mind when he composed his hymn Joyful, Joyful, we adore Thee, in which “Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee / Opening to the Sun of Love”.

From Albrecht Durer’s illustrations of Dante

The Biscuits Roses de Reims certainly seem to come into their own in an atmosphere of celebration, which is timely as we’re entering into a mini-season of celebration with the Jubilee next month. But today, too, is meant as a day of celebration in the Church of England’s calendar: the Feast of the Ascension, on which we remember Jesus’s being taken up into heaven forty days after rising from the dead.

And all these motifs, from the fear of loss and change to the joy of eternal communion and celebration come together in the story of that day as it’s depicted in the book of Acts: both what it was and what it means, as far as we can understand here and now. Why do you stand here looking at the sky? is the question put to Jesus’s friends and disciples by the two angels who appear after they can no longer see him through the clouds. This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven. At a human level, it’s not hard to imagine the reason for the disciples’ initial dismay and bewilderment. Instinctively, we so often fight to hold on to the good we know and love in the form we know and love. But far from leaving his friends alone on earth Jesus promises that his ascension brings heaven nearer to all of us: Don’t cling to me, he tells Mary Magdalene, the first of his friends to meet him again on the morning of his resurrection. For I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

Further Reflection

Read more about the Rose Biscuit’s history or try making the equally famous French dessert they are used in: Charlotte aux Fraises aux Biscuits Roses de Reims.

A powerful short reflection from the Rev. Jenny Dawkins for those who want to reflect further on the mystery and meaning of this lesser-celebrated feast.

Medieval artists loved depicting Jesus’s feet in mid-air for Ascension Day, though it does look a little funny. This has to be one of my favourite examples, tucked away in a historiated initial of a C15th Italian MS (State Library of Victoria RARES 096 IL I):

If you would like to keep this bestiary free from ads and see more entries more regularly you are welcome to contribute to the Biscuit Jar.

The Bath Oliver

Good Friday in the church calendar is not a day for eating biscuits. Sweet biscuits feel all wrong for it to be honest, as do the increasingly luxurious varieties of hot cross bun. But if you are opting for a simple bread and cheese lunch you could do worse than the legendary Bath Oliver: a dry, savoury biscuit with an eighteenth-century provenance. It still has the image of its physician-inventor (a Dr William Oliver from Bath) stamped on it and a society devoted to its preservation undertaking “outreach and education to support, bolster and maintain the tradition of the Bath Oliver biscuit.” If only every deserving biscuit had such champions!

Four things recommend this biscuit as Good Friday fare in my opinion. First, the lack of sugar coating. Second, the perforation; it would be impossible to imagine the Bath Oliver without its characteristic piercings. Third, the biscuit’s early association with medicinal practice (like many of Britain’s first patented biscuits, it was taken to help soothe troubled digestions, which in the case of Dr Oliver’s rich spa patients may have been brought on by overly refined or indulgent diets). Fourth, the cost. All these themes come together in the great passage in Isaiah 53, quoted here in part and worth reading in full if you have time:

Surely He took on our infirmities
and carried our sorrows;
yet we considered Him stricken by God,
struck down and afflicted.
But He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him,
and by His stripes we are healed

Christians through the ages have identified the portrait of Isaiah 53 with Christ as the suffering servant. The focus on the bodily sufferings of Christ would have been familiar to a medieval audience who were encouraged to meditate on their meaning through devotional literature and passion plays, and in Christ’s body and blood as represented in the Eucharist. While such meditation may have come naturally to medieval Christians, it can feel less comfortable to modern sensibilities who often find it easier to embrace a cross without splinters.

c.11th century crucifixion by a court artist in Salzburg. Photo credit: MFAB.

If modern Christianity shows a tendency to minimise or sanitise the suffering of the cross, we will also miss the meaning if we focus solely on the physical ordeal of crucifixion. The details of Jesus’s last hours are certainly painful to dwell upon but countless people in history have been crucified, including many who were innocent of the crimes that they were executed for. What made such a death unique in his case was who he was. As the gospel writers tell us, he already knew everything that was going to happen to him because it had been written about long before his birth (John 18:4; Luke 24:25). He knew he was born to suffer and sacrifice his life of his own free will, and so become the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

That one man’s death could buy the rest of humanity’s freedom from the law of sin and death is a mystery, but one that makes more sense if he truly was the Son of God. Theologians like to argue over different models of the atonement but ultimately the proof is not in any theological puddings but in the fruit of changed lives. Whatever happened to St. Paul on the road to Damascus, to Augustine of Hippo, John Newton, C.S. Lewis or Simone Weil (or this drug-addict-turned-evangelist or this gangster-turned-street-pastor) was so deep and profound the metaphors they used to describe it were new birth or a movement from darkness to light. I’ve chosen just a few very different people and stories here (there are countless others) but all attribute a radical change of character and course direction to the saving work of Christ.

From birth to death, every step of his thirty-three-year journey to the cross was made in love and obedience. And he walked it so that you and I might exchange all the sins and wounds and sicknesses and sadnesses we have for the life and health and wholeness (peace/Shalom) in him, even eternal life. So as we reflect on that great exchange again this week we remember that while it is a solemn and sombre day to remember Christ’s choice to suffer for our sake, it is also a very Good Friday for us.

Further Reflection

A little bit of history on the Bath Oliver’s own surprising death and resurrection…

The surprising story of John Lennon asking to be paid for a BBC interview in Chocolate Bath Olivers as featured on The Chocolate University Online (hat tip to my friend Paul for this one!)

Malcolm Guite’s poems on the stations of the cross.

The wonderful Fernando Ortega in his own beautiful meditation on the death of Christ:

If you would like to keep this bestiary free from ads and see more entries more regularly you are welcome to contribute to the Biscuit Jar.

Mesi-Käpp Käpaküpsised 

Those generous fans of the Bestiary in Latvia have sent me a wonderful assortment of Estonian biscuits to try, all of them in the Mesi-Käpp (“Honey Pot”) range from Kalev, a chocolate manufacturer popular in the Baltic States. These Käpaküpsised immediately caught my eye. It’s hard to translate the name with the usual internet tools; the nearest I can get to it is some kind of cover or cap and even the donors were unsure what ‘1 tükk 4 min jooksu’ meant (an instruction to microwave them perhaps?) though I did learn that küpsis is the Estonian for “cookie”, that narrower semantic cousin of the biskviit. Update: an Estonian speaker has confirmed it means ‘one biscuit every four minutes’ – less as a serious serving recommendation than a joke about how addictive they are.

As you can see from the pic below, these biscuits resemble bear paws or prints, light and crumbly chocolate discs that have survived their trip surprisingly well. They taste pleasant with coffee and I have an inkling their dryness might be well matched with a mousse or ice cream as a biscuity dessert. And in fact it seems that the Estonians have more than mastered the art of the dessert biscuit: in the course of researching Estonian cuisine, I discovered they have a special biscuit cake called küpsisetort, another reason (if more were needed!) to love a country whose modern independence began with a Singing Revolution and gave the world the healing, haunting simplicities of Arvo Pärt.

If the singing revolution reminds me of Jehoshaphat’s army, the bear paws reminded me of David’s battle with Goliath. You may remember how King Saul advises him not to fight the Philistines’ champion out of pity for his youth and inexperience, but the young David, whose only apparent skill is sheep-keeping, explains he has already seen off wild beasts who attacked his flock: “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from this Philistine,” he tells the astonished king, going on to defeat the giant in the name of the Lord with a well-aimed stone. David’s mindset was different in seeing only the affront to the Lord of Heaven’s Armies in the Philistine’s boasting while the rest of the army focused on his obvious strength and power.

David and Goliath in a C14th MS in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (BNF Latin 10483).

As I write this, of course, I can’t help thinking of another country not so many miles from Estonia locked in their own David-and-Goliath struggle. It moved me to read that both Christian and Jewish communities in that country have been praying David’s Psalm 31 together while the attacks continue. It’s as powerful an appeal as it is poignant for the people of Ukraine right now:

…I hear many whispering,
“Terror on every side!”
They conspire against me
and plot to take my life.
But I trust in you, Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hands;
deliver me from the hands of my enemies…

We pray for the people of Ukraine to be delivered from their enemies and for the shoes of the gospel of peace to bring healing in place of the tracks of war. It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of so much suffering and the lies that are fuelling it – but do not underestimate the power of prayer. God’s strength is far greater than our strength and his understanding far better than ours as the only one who knows the secrets of every heart. Whatever the whispers (and there are many) it is only in fearing him we can be freed from fear.

“Kolyada” by Olga Pilyuhina.
Further Reflection

Some ways to help relieve the suffering in Ukraine and speak up on behalf of Ukraine’s refugees, especially if you’re in the UK.

Shortbread

Wishing you a joyous Epiphany (and Twelfth Night, if you celebrate it). Some parts of Europe celebrate it on the night of the 5th of January but the feast itself falls on the 6th in the Church of England’s calendar, which, coincidentally, is also National Shortbread Day, so here are a few epiphanies about this wonderful biscuit…

Around the fifth Day of Christmas, we uncovered a box of shortbread. To quote my sister, “I don’t know where they came from or who brought them; I just started eating them,” but the packet did say these were baked in Scotland which was promising. I’ve read somewhere you aren’t allowed to sell shortbread with less than 50% of butter in the shortening (an archaic term for the fat content) north of the border and still call it that, “All-Butter” being the gold standard. Like gingerbread, shortbread comes with a medieval history: there’s evidence this quintessentially Scottish biscuit was produced as early as the twelfth century although Mary Queen of Scots and her French cooks were thought to have developed the recipe to its current state of perfection in the sixteenth. According to Walkers of Speyside, it “was originally reserved for celebrations such as weddings, christenings and for family gatherings at Christmas and Hogmanay.” Not that this packet made it that far as my brother-in-law nabbed the last one early on NYE…

Scene from the Hours of James IV of Scotland, c.1500

It also sounds a suitable biscuit for consumption on Twelfth Night, which in Britain used to be celebrated more than now. Kings and queens, or ‘lords of misrule’ were appointed to preside over the festivities, a special kind of fruit cake was eaten, wassailing (ale-drinking and carolling) undertaken, and entertainments like plays and mummings were popular. I’m afraid we have Queen Victoria to blame at least in part for those traditions disappearing after the 1800s, but the earlier pattern was for an abstemious Advent in December followed by a January that was… joyful. Now the twelve days of Christmas are rarely marked in full and our Januarys can feel so somber it often seems like the calendar has been turned on its head.

The most brilliant of the Makars, whose flowering of poetic creativity coincides with the development of shortbread in late medieval and early modern Scotland (no coincidence, surely?) understood all too well how tough the dark winter days can be. I’m particularly fond of the mercurial, melancholic William Dunbar: a cleric attached to the household of James IV. Amusing the court with dramatic entertainments on occasions like Twelfth Night was one of Dunbar’s lighter duties and one he excelled at, but despite being the cause of great laughter in others he wrote feelingly about his own low spirits in winter:

Into thir dirk and drublie dayis
Quhone sabill all the hevin arrayis
With mystie vapouris, cluddis, and skyis,
Nature all curage me denyis
Of sangis, ballattis, and of playis…

In these “dark and cloudy days”, even “songs, ballads and plays” can’t cheer him up, he says, vexed as he is with “heavy thought” on every side. “Yit quhone the nycht begynnis to schort / It dois my spreit sum pairt confort.” (Yet when the night begins to shorten, it brings my spirit some comfort.)

Scottish terrier greeting Welsh sunlight with an English human (out of shot).

I hadn’t realised until I came to research it that the word ‘short’ in shortbread refers not to their size or fat content but their crumbliness: a short biscuit (or cake, or pastry) is one that is friable – i.e. something that breaks easily. I’ll admit I hesitated to write about this as a desirable quality in a biscuit until I looked beyond the breaking to connect it to the bread part. Bread in the bible is a symbol of spiritual as well as bodily nourishment and in the breaking of it we are reminded of the fellowship of the early Christians, who had all things in common, but most of all perhaps of the body of Christ broken for us.

God never promises us that this breaking wouldn’t be unsettling, but to quote Leonard Cohen, the cracks may be how the light gets in (or sometimes how it gets out). To the weary and wary alike, the stories we celebrate in Epiphany speak of a heavenly reality breaking into our world like a light does: in the story of the wise men who discovered a king worthy of all other kings’ worship, and of that same king, now a grown man living a humble life in the backwaters of Nazareth, rising up from the waters of baptism to hear a voice from heaven telling us this is God’s beloved son.

Jesus’s baptism, by artist Dave Zelenka (2005)

The curious semantics of the shortbread reminds me of another moment of revelation which feels both familiar and mysterious somehow. Two puzzled and grieving disciples journeying along the road to Emmaus fall in with a stranger who helps them make sense of what had happened to a loved, lost friend. Stopping for a meal together, they finally recognise the same friend in the person of the stranger teaching them about the role of the Messiah, but their eyes are only opened to see him at the breaking of bread.

After everything 2021 threw at us, you may not expect much joy from your January – or 2022 as a whole – this year, but I hope and pray that however distant joy seems you are surprised by it. And whatever kind of news is breaking, whatever burdens you may be carrying (or still carrying) in the days to come, may you find that king-friend-stranger walking with you on the journey and know him in the breaking of bread.

Further Delectation

Apparently Twelfth Night still survives in the West Country, God bless it. With all that excellent cider it had to be the home of wassailing… Click the link above to read more about Old Twelfth Night on the 17th of January. (If you’re especially keen, it also has a Wassail recipe here.)

A blog post on the history of shortbread with yummy recipes from the British Food blog written by Dr Neil Buttery (yes, that is his name, I kid you not…)

A beautiful reflection on Epiphany from the Digital Nun, whose wisdom I have much appreciated over the years.

Not specifically about Twelfth Night, Epiphany or shortbread, but my friend Olivia alerted me to this post on Bread, Cake and Biscuits by the gentle author of the Spitalfield’s Life blog which is well worth a read if you have the time.

Looking for some quality Twelfth Night entertainment? This fun clip of Mark Rylance (as Olivia) and Stephen Fry (Malvolio) in the Globe’s 2013 production of Shakespeare’s play for the Inns of Court might add a little levity to your evening (performed in early modern fashion with men taking women’s roles):

If you would like to keep this bestiary free from ads and see more entries more regularly you are welcome to contribute to the Biscuit Jar.

Chocolate Pearl Biscuits

It may surprise you to know that the medieval borough of Southwark (pronounced Suth-erk to confuse the tourists) is famous for more than its pubs and pilgrimages. The Peek Freans biscuit factory was based here in Bermondsey for more than a century, and was the first company to mass produce such classics as the Garibaldi and the Bourbon. It was also the maker of the first ‘soft’ biscuit to be sold in Britain, the Pearl Biscuit. This was a species I’d never heard of until I did a little research into it recently, and it has almost disappeared from British Isles (or aisles?) now but there is still one place you can find them if you look for them…

At £7.95 a tin, Fortnum and Mason’s Chocolate Pearl Biscuits are the most expensive biscuits I’ve ever purchased for the Bestiary but as the store is practically next door to the London Library I’m stowing them here in the members’ attic as treats to share with writing friends (Fortnum’s assertion that “the trickiest part of eating these delicious things is keeping them from the clutches of your tea-time guests” doesn’t strike me as very public-spirited). As you’d probably expect from their provenance, these are a bit of a luxury: dry and deliciously buttery with chocolate pearls from the Rhône Valley. Pearls of great price indeed!

“…the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls,” Jesus explained to the crowds listening to his parables. “When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45). This famous story of the Pearl of Great Price is paired in the gospels with that of the man who finds hidden treasure in a field. I think of T.S. Eliot’s beautiful lines in Little Gidding about this place we’re all looking for, which is somehow the place we return to as well as that we’re seeking to discover:

…half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always — 
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)

Ancient oyster fossils

Costing not less than everything… The older I get, the more I think I see a little more of what Jesus meant when he told us your treasure is where your heart is and asked what profit it would be to gain the whole world yet lose your own soul. To ask ourselves where our treasure lies – what we’re fixing our attention on and our hopes for the future – is a discipline that can reveal to us our inner poverty, but if our hopes aren’t built on anything of real and lasting value it’s best we know it now. And on the other side of that question, what if there are more valuable treasures out there that we haven’t discovered yet? How do we find this pearl worth giving everything to own?

Further Delectation

A fun little history of Peek Freans Company from Tea, Toast and Travel (including very old footage of the biscuit factory from the early 1900s).

Here for the pearls more than the biscuits? You may like to read more about lapidaries (medieval descriptive catalogues that are much like bestiaries but for precious stones).

The Middle English poem, Pearl, may well have been inspired by this parable: a poignant dream poem thought to be a reaction to the loss of a child. It was written in a Northern English dialect that’s harder to read today than Chaucer’s but Simon Armitage’s modern translation is very accessible. You can read more about the poem and its history here or listen to the opening of the poem sung by the Mediaeval Baebes.

Image of the dreamer and his lost pearl from the Pearl poem BL Cotton MS Nero A X/2

If you would like to keep this bestiary free from ads and see more entries more regularly you are welcome to contribute to the Biscuit Jar.

Shepherd’s Welsh Biscuits

Dych chi’n hoffi bisgedi? After a little break over the summer I’m delighted to introduce these Bisgedi Ceirch (Oaty Biscuits) and Bisgedi Picau ar y Maen (Welsh Cake Biscuits) from Llanwrst in Denbighshire. Together they comprise Shepherd’s Welsh Biscuits, a range of biscuits developed by James and Natasha Shepherd and inspired by the history, character and flavours of Wales:

As you can see, I was rather taken by the dragons on the packaging and while there were only eight biscuits per box they are handcrafted, chunky specimens so a two biscuit serving fills you up. On first acquaintance I prefer the Bisgedi Ceirch which are surprisingly soft in texture with an oatiness that’s chewy rather than scratchy like a hobnob. The taste reminds me of shortbread, and they certainly live up to the Shepherds’ description of them as rugged, oaty biscuits with a warming vanilla flavour. Good to eat all year round, but they’d be perfect in winter with a strong cup of char.

By contrast the Bisgedi Picau ar y Maen (Welsh Cake Biscuits) feel a lot denser with a fruity hit that really captures the taste of a Welsh Cake – a round griddle-cooked cake with dried fruit resembling a flat scone topped off with a fine dusting of sugar. These bisgedi remind me of the Easter Biscuits I made earlier this year. There’s a definite crossover in the mingling of butter, fruit, spice and sugar flavours.

Oaty biscuit (upper left) and Welsh Cake biscuit (lower right)

The Welsh biscuits are a follow on from the Shepherds’ success at reviving the Aberffraw Biscuit and while they just happen to have Shepherd as their surname, the choice to use the name and crook motif for this brand feels appropriate given how famous Wales is for its sheep and pastures. From the sixth-century monasticism and missional zeal of Dewi Sant to the Welsh Revival a little over a century ago, the country’s spiritual heritage is unusually rich and still reflects something of the Celtic Christian mindset with its rootedness in the life of the land and rhythms of nature.

Gerald of Wales. Apparently. Notes on the source of this MS pic welcome.

The Celtic Christian tradition is one that embraces art and poetry too. The twelfth-century cleric and travel writer Gerald of Wales (c.1146 – c.1223) drew attention to Welsh skill in this respect in his descriptions of the country and its people; in every household, he says guests ‘who arrive in the morning are entertained till evening with the conversation of young women and the music of the harp; for each house has its young women and harps allotted to this purpose’, and harp-playing is ‘held preferable to any other learning’ (Descriptio Cambriae 1: 10). He also commends his compatriots for not being materialistic or jealous, and for their skill at martial as well as musical arts. All this makes me think of King David, who shares his name with Wales’ patron; both the harp and shepherd’s crook are symbols of the man who “shepherded his people with integrity of heart, and led them with skilful hands.” (Ps. 78)

Detail. BL Add. MS 42130 87v.

It was David who wrote the Psalm that begins The Lord is My Shepherd. To those of us used to church environments the words are so familiar we can rattle them off without thinking, but they repay dwelling on, especially in a world unpractised in the art of slowing down:

“The Lord is my shepherd
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul…

Plas Cadnant, Anglesey

God knows slowing down enough to listen to the music of our souls can be painful when we don’t know how to restore them, or find ourselves hungry, restless or exhausted in ways we don’t fully understand. But perhaps there’s a clue in the psalm if we’re willing to stop and graze there. I am the Good Shepherd, declared David’s most famous descendant: a man who had compassion on the crowds that came to him because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without anyone to care for them (Matt 9:36). Not only did Jesus’s words assure them that his concern for them was deep and genuine, they were also rooted in his ancestor’s beautiful vision of a life lived close to God and subject to his leading. While it might seem counter-intuitive to spend time pondering those words just when the world of work and school is speeding up again, grazing on the Welsh biscuits reminded me that his invitation to be our shepherd still stands.

Further Delectation

Reflections from a 72-year-old farmer in Wales’s Teifi Valley: a simple but profound piece that is also worth grazing on.

Gwnewch y pethau bychain.Ten facts about Saint David, the narrative of whose life is a typically medieval tapestry of history and legend notable for the lives and communities it inspired even if he didn’t eat many biscuits. You can also read this rather good anonymously authored article on Gerald of Wales as part of a Wiki-history of Chester with a particularly wry put-down of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

‘Your rod and your staff are a strange mercy, in a world where I’m not yet home…’ Audrey Assad’s meditation on Psalm 23 is a musical favourite of mine (or there’s Howard Goodall’s choral gem, also used for the opening credits of The Vicar of Dibley if you prefer a more traditional version!)

Florentines

I’m writing this post on the rattling train from Kings Cross to Edinburgh. It’s the first time I’ve been out of London since September so I’m very much looking forward to Narnia and the North (or Northallerton, anyway). It’s also National Biscuit Day, which I’d forgotten about until this morning when this wonderful thread of biscuity homages to history reminded me. This week felt like we had the first day in a hundred years in which it was sunny enough to sit in the garden without a coat on for more than two minutes, and what better biscuit to celebrate that little glimpse of summer than one of these excellent dark chocolate Florentines my friend Katka gave me?

Although I don’t often get the opportunity to sample them these days, Florentines are one of my favourite biscuits so I was pleased to discover no less a personage than Delia Smith arguing that they’re the best biscuits in the world. I love Felicity Cloake’s description of them as ‘delicate webs of nut and candied fruit’. These specimens are particularly nice with coffee, although a bit sticky to eat because of the caramel. Like macarons, they’re notoriously difficult to make well – I had a go myself a few years ago and they came out looking like flapjacks that had lost their way.

From the name you might be forgiven for thinking the Florentine’s origin is Italian when in fact most experts agree it was likelier to have been cooked up in France by the chefs at Louis XII or Louis XIV’s court when the Medici family came to visit. To make things even more complicated, this particular recipe is an English tribute from Thomas Fudge’s bakery and has been in use for more than a hundred years in Dorset.

Perhaps this particular Florentine is the nearest thing you’ll get to fusion-cooking in the biscuit world. In the medieval world, it’s the nearest thing you’ll get to a florilegium, a collection of literary extracts selected like choice blooms for the reader (the word itself means a gathering of flowers, the same as an anthology). Both derive from the Latin florens with its connotations of blooming and flourishing. This makes it a good choice of biscuit for “the joly tyme of May,” as Chaucer’s narrator in the Legend of Good Women puts it, the favourite month of the medieval love poets.

“Look, the winter is past,
and the rains are over and gone.
The flowers are springing up,
the season of singing birds has come,
and the cooing of turtledoves fills the air.
The fig trees are forming young fruit,
and the fragrant grapevines are blossoming…”

That sounds a lot like a fourteenth-century dream vision, but in fact it’s straight from the pages of The Song of Songs: a love song, first and foremost, but the church fathers always liked to read it as a picture of Christ and the church or the individual soul. A poem about love and loss, waking and dreaming, finding and searching. Because the God of the bible is not some remote figure approached through set formulas, but a person we can seek and who seeks us in our own desert places and gardens. In finding him – or perhaps in allowing ourselves to be found – there’s a perennial invitation to bloom.

Further Delectation

Eat your Florentines with The Florentine, another great fusion of Anglo-Italian culture in Firenze.

School’s out, you say? (For the yes argument, see Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women; for no, this learned little essay on a thirteenth-century florilegium).

Enjoy this beautiful May miscellany from the Clerk of Oxford or this lovely illustration for Maying in late medieval France from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

If you would like to keep this bestiary free from ads and see more entries more regularly you are welcome to contribute to the Biscuit Jar.