Nürnberger Lebkuchen

One of my favourite edible Christmas gifts this year was a simple box of German Lebkuchen. This is the good stuff from Nürnberg, the historical home of these popular Christmas biscuits. As you may know, the medieval season of Christmas extends to Candlemas so I’ve been happily munching my way through them this Epiphany…

My friend Nicki who gifted them to me also sent me an article explaining that it was Bavarian monks who first created these biscuits in the fourteenth century using special wafers called oblaten as a base to build them on. It was an epiphany to her and to me to find out that this was essentially the same wafer used for Communion. Here’s a close-up viewed from the upper and lower sides so you can see it clearly:

It felt a little odd at first, but perhaps the idea that the same wafers used for the blessed sacrament should also be eaten in a mood of festive recreation is not so very strange when you remember the word holiday derives from holy day and connects back to older ideas about the observance of sacred leisure. These ‘traditionally built’ Lebkuchen are a surprisingly light bite given their size, not heavy in their texture but not insubstantial either, combining the Christmassy flavours of chocolate, ginger and citrus peel.

The unusual choice of the oblaten as the foundation for these biscuits got me thinking about foundations in general, which seems a good subject to consider at the beginning of the (modern) year. Unless the Lord builds the house the labourers work in vain, wrote Israel’s King Solomon, famous throughout the ancient world for his wisdom. This week I’ve been reading about the beginning of his reign again, of his magnificent building projects and scholarly works, and the discerning heart that God granted him to govern his people. By wisdom a house is built and by understanding is it established, through knowledge its rooms are filled with every precious and beautiful treasure is one of his many recorded sayings, a beautiful image that encourages me to think about how I want to fill all the ‘rooms’ of the year ahead…

King Solomon meeting the Queen of Sheba, c. 1700.

As Solomon suggests the way we order our lives – what we prioritise and choose to focus on – will determine what we are able to build on and in them. Sometimes the first step to doing this may in fact be digging deeper and even dismantling to support a better structure over time. In a similar way in the gospels Jesus compares the person who hears his words and put them into practice to a wise man who builds his house upon a rock: floods rose, gales blew and hurled themselves against that house, and it did not fall (Matt. 7). Perhaps the monks of Nuremberg saw an aptness in using the wafers used for the body of Christ as the foundation for their biscuits, much as Christ was held by the Church to be the foundation of God’s household, its cornerstone.

Always we begin again, St. Benedict tells us – author of the Rule that became a foundation text of the monastic culture that so profoundly shaped medieval Europe and generated extraordinary achievements in scholarship and creativity, not forgetting the Lebkuchen. Each year – each morning – can be an exercise in beginning, and if we aren’t quite sure how or what to start it can be helpful to examine our foundations.

Further Delectation

More about the history of Lebkuchen from The Daring Gourmet. (If you’re in the UK and would prefer to buy than make your own, you can get authentic Bavarian brands at a decent price from Lidl.)

Want a little taste of Christmas in Germany? More on how and where to visit Christmas markets in Bavaria.

From oblaten to oblates… As I write this, a kind Catholic friend at the London Library has just appeared with a copy of Esther de Waal’s book on The Way of St Benedict for me. Not a bad read to begin the new year.

Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen, a beautiful fifteenth-century German carol preserved in a monastery in Trier, set in this form by Michael Praetorius and performed by Solomon’s Knot:

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Greek Olive Oil Biskota

A few weeks ago I went to see the new Alexander the Great exhibition at the British Library with my friend Malcolm, a very knowledgeable commentator on the Macedonian king (you can listen to his potted history of him here). As readers may know, he was celebrated in medieval Europe as one of the Nine Worthies – sort of the medieval equivalent of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – and apocryphal stories about him during this period were popular. In fact, the landing page of the Bestiary features a scene from a high-end manuscript of The Alexander Romance in the BL, an adventure story in which Alexander and his cat explore the bottom of the ocean…

Detail from BL Royal MS 20 B XX

Worthy as the Alexander exhibition was, I was even more interested to find these Greek Olive Oil biscuits in the gift shop. As you’ll see from the packaging, the transliteration of the Greek word for biscuits is biskota: a fact I expect to come in useful if I visit Greece again, as I hope I will. This recipe developed by Thessalonian company Petits Grecs hails from Crete and incorporates Arabic influences in the Tahini. For anyone on a dairy free diet they’re also dairy free.

The relationship of Hellenic to Hebraic Culture could be antagonistic when it threatened the survival of Jewish beliefs (as in the story of Hanukkah) but it was also Greek language and literary culture – widely disseminated in the ancient world as a result of Alexander’s conquests – which became the vehicle for translating the Bible to a wider readership before Christ’s birth and the language used to write the gospel accounts of his life by the early Christians. We know St Paul visited Athens, debating with the philosophers there on their own terms and quoting a Cretan poet’s words that in God we all live, and move, and have our being. Like most educated Jews of his day he was well-versed in Greek literature and philosophy, and wanted to show that there could be some common ground between Jews and Gentiles in their quest for truth about heavenly things.

So you’ll forgive me if I got a little excited about these Greek biscuits, and still more by their association with olive oil or liquid gold as the Greeks still call it. A key resource in the ancient world, you’ll find it referenced again and again in the bible where it is used for cooking and lighting and as an unguent for cleaning wounds. When mixed with a special combination of spices it was also used to anoint the kings and priests of Israel as a sign of their being set apart for God and his purposes and in a purified form to keep the lamps burning in the temple. The Bible and apocrypha both contain stories in which oil supplies are miraculously provided: it never runs out for Elijah’s widow in a season of famine and it stretches for an extra seven days to keep the Menorah in the temple burning in the Maccabees’ time.

I was expecting these biscuits to be a little greasy given the oil is a major component but in fact they’re a pleasing combination of dry and chewy. There’s also a palpable hit of orange which is a good Christmassy flavour – even if it is Advent, it’s open season on mince pies. I must admit to a little disappointment on finding there were just five biscuits in the box however (and all individually wrapped) making them even more expensive than Fortnum and Mason’s Chocolate Pearls of Great Price

On reflection I wondered whether Petits Grecs hadn’t served me this biscuit’s moral on a china plate though. Given the five biscuits and the olive oil, what could this be but the perfect set-up for Jesus’s Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids: a story commonly told in Advent to encourage his followers to watch and wait for his return. Oil plays a crucial part in this story because it is only the five wise bridesmaids who have laid up a good stock of it who are ready to join the bridegroom – an allegorical representation of Jesus – when he returns to fetch them for the wedding feast while the five who have to go and buy some are left outside. (You can read the full story here if you like.)

Detail from the 6th century Rossano gospels

Meditation is one of the disciplines of the spiritual life and Jesus’s stories especially invite meditation. I’m convinced one of the reasons that he used them so much is because it provoked his listeners to take an active approach to mining meaning from them – to allow the truths in them to be found by each listener at their own point of need, travelling from the head to the heart. Meditating on this story this Advent leaves me with more questions than answers I want to take some time to sit with: what does it mean to know Christ if he says that not everyone who claims to know him really knows him? And what does this oil signify, if it’s so vital to keep a supply of it ready all the time?

Further Delectation

Read a little more on Alexander’s Mythical Adventures from the British Library blog.

Read a little more on the ancient history of Olive Oil.

One of many beautiful Anglo-Saxon meditations on Advent from the Clerk of Oxford – this one focuses on the Trinity, appropriate for the Greek Orthodox church as well who have a special focus on it.

British Orthodox composer John Tavener’s stunning choral piece The Bridegroom seems particularly fitting for this Advent post. Here it is juxtaposed with some rather haunting images from YouTuber Marcin Markowicz:

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Baci del Chiostro

Lady’s Fingers, Roman Glasses, Bones of the Dead… Is it me or are the names of continental biscuits typically more imaginative than British ones? True, there are fewer opportunities for humorous misunderstanding as a result but also less sense of a back story, hints of a colourful history, in something as prosaically descriptive as a Custard Cream. This month’s biscuit translates to ‘Kisses of the Cloister’. At least that is the literal meaning of these Baci del Chiostro given to me by my friend Katka, a regional version of the better known Baci di Dama (Ladies’ Kisses) from Piedmont – popular little sandwich biscuits found in different forms across Italy.

Wrapped up like a sweetie in their bright orange wrappers, the biscuits are not as soft as I was expecting but would likely mellow a bit soaked in coffee if it’s not too much of a travesty to suggest that. You can definitely taste the chocolate-hazelnut filling and the little information I can find about them online suggest they came by their name because they look like two mouths kissing but I’ll leave you to judge that for yourself in the picture below! Recipes for Baci di Dama are easy to find but so far as I can tell there is only one company that makes this Baci del Chiostro version in Saronno.

For the moral, I got to thinking about the theme of kissing in scripture… From Judas’s famous kiss of betrayal to the ecstatic kisses of the lovers in the Song of Songs, there are a lot of moments in the bible where a kiss is used to communicate more than words: to seal a romance or a friendship or even a sacred moment of worship, as in the beautiful image of the woman who covers Jesus’s feet with kisses and perfume. “Greet one another with a holy kiss” Paul tells the Church in Corinth – an injunction that was taken rather too enthusiastically by one man at a fellowship I once belonged to – and a custom which lives on today as the Kiss of Peace usually given before the Creed in the Orthodox Church, and the slightly awkward handshake in the Church of England.

Psalm 85: Righteousness and Peace kiss each other (detail from the 9th century Stuttgart Psalter)

But it’s another kiss that stands out more for me in one of the best known stories Jesus told about one — or rather two — lost sons:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger son said to him, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. After a few days, the younger son got everything together and journeyed to a distant country, where he squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent all he had, a severe famine swept through that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. He longed to fill his belly with the pods the pigs were eating, but no one would give him a thing. Finally he came to his senses and said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have plenty of food? But here I am, starving to death! I will get up and go back to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”  So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still in the distance, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him…

Luke 15: 11-20

It’s generally called the Story of the Prodigal Son but as Henri Nouwen reminds us it is also the Story of the Compassionate Father. In the culture of Jesus’s day, the son’s demand for his share of the estate and behaviour after leaving home shows an exceptionally callous rejection of his family of origin. It’s only when he finds himself in need and sees his folly for what it is that he returns to beg his father’s charity, expecting to be let back in in disgrace and offering to return to the household to work as a servant. But his father sees him coming from a distance and offers no word of reproach; instead he runs to him and kisses him. He’s just so grateful to have his son back whatever he’s done, all he wants to do is celebrate with a welcome home party! (Much to the disgust of the performance-driven elder son.)

The Prodigal Son by Charlie Mackesy

As with the other parables the longer you sit with the story, the more you may find it has to say to you. (I love this particular depiction of the kiss by artist Charlie Mackesy.) Advent is the Church’s great season of waiting, but the older I get I wonder if it isn’t also about God waiting for us. Not to mark us down or trip us up or ask us what we were thinking of staying out so late, but like the father watching at the window for the first glimpse of his son returning, hitching up his robes and running forward to kiss him.

Further Delectation

Have a go at making your own Baci di Dama (or cloister?) with this recipe from BBC Good Food.

Looking for some quiet reflection over Advent? Henri Nouwen’s meditations in The Return of the Prodigal Son are well worth a read, inspired by his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting of the same theme. You can read Part 2 of the story, about the Older Son, here.

For those who haven’t come across it, I recommend the beautifully and carefully curated content at the Visual Commentary of Scripture – stunning art work and thoughtful commentary on particular passages. This Drop Down Ye Heavens triptych works as an Advent meditation.

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Border Lemon Drizzle Melts

I was lucky enough to take a little holiday in a remote part of Argyll this month, and the owners of the cottage we rented provided us with complimentary biscuits. Border is a well-known, well-loved Scottish biscuit brand although I didn’t recognise them at first because of the new packaging. I’m very partial to their Dark Chocolate Gingers but this was the first time I’d come across a Lemon Drizzle Melt on either side of the border.

The LDM is an exceptionally soft, citrusy butter biscuit with the sort of ‘drizzle’ icing you associate more with lemon cakes in a satisfyingly regular zig zag pattern. These really are melt-in-your-mouth good and with the Argyll weather being drizzly for at least a few hours on most days, it seemed appropriate to retreat to the attic now and again with a LDM and a cup of tea. Although they may be harder to come by in England, I’m going to have to search for them here now I know they exist. In the end I think I managed to put away three from our complimentary box, not without strong competition from the rest of the family.

It didn’t occur to me at the time but the LDM’s citrus flavours and drizzle motif are in keeping with some of themes prevalent in the festival of Tabernacles or Sukkot, which fell in the week I was on holiday. Sukkot is the one festival in the Old Testament or Jewish Bible the Gentiles (i.e. the non Jewish nations) are enjoined to celebrate – so much so that in Zechariah 14 we are told that any nation that does not send representatives up to Jerusalem for it will get no rainfall! I don’t suppose people pray for rain much up in Scotland, but in a hot and dusty Middle Eastern country it’s customary to pray for it during Sukkot. In Jesus’s time, on the last and greatest day of the feast, the offerings in the temple would have included lavish libations of water drawn from the spring of Gihon. It was this day of the festival that was the context for his promise that all who believed in him would flow with living water…

These days many Jewish families construct their own sukkah, an open-air booth or hut covered with branches, and take their meals (and sometimes sleep in it) during the eight day holiday, to remind them of the temporary dwellings their ancestors lived in for forty years in the wilderness. It’s meant to be a joyful festival, but there is also an important life lesson here: “a tutorial in how to live with insecurity,” as the late great Jonathan Sachs put it.

…we sit in a sukkah, the tabernacle itself, which is just a shed, a shack, open to the sky, with just a covering of leaves for a roof. It’s our annual reminder of how vulnerable life is, how exposed to the elements. And yet we call Sukkot our festival of joy, because sitting there in the cold and the wind, we remember that above us and around us are the sheltering arms of the divine presence…

Illustration of a sukkah (1300s Italy) from the British Library.

Perhaps that message has greater resonance for us all this year, certainly in Britain when in the space of just a few weeks we have been subject to rapid change in government. The phrase ‘safe as houses’ no longer seems to apply to many bastions of security, not even our Houses of Parliament. And yet we are truly fortunate in being preserved from greater insecurity still: from the devastations of war, of natural calamities and the civil unrest we are seeing elsewhere in the world.

Amid all this shaking – national and global – there is an invitation to put our trust in God: “Oh Lord, you have been our dwelling place for all generations,” Psalm 90 tells us, one of the prayers of Moses who led the Israelites when they lived in their temporary dwellings in the wilderness. Come rain or shine, sweet or sour, maelstroms or meltdowns – he is our refuge – our forever home. Not a bad takeaway for the Lemon Drizzle Melt (which also makes a good takeaway with a strong cup of tea this rainy October!)

Further Delectation

When life gives you lemons make lemon biscuits… Here’s a tasty looking recipe.

Know your Etrog – some handy information on the ancient citrus fruit associated with Tabernacles.

Drawn to Celtic Climes? Pray through the changing seasons with Celtic Daily Prayer.

For when you just need to escape for a bit… Some beautiful music from House of Waters:

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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.

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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

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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):

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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:

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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.