My friend Samina went on holiday to Sicily earlier this September in what now feels like the golden window before the second wave broke upon us. On returning, she informed me she’d brought me some gluten-free biscuits she’d been given in the hotel. Here they are on location in another friend’s flat:
For a number of years I’ve been advertising an informal biscuit classification service but these samples have been tricky to identify. They’re presumably manufactured in Sicily or mainland Italy, but the Italian word Samina was given for them is a generic one. Taste-wise they’re not dissimilar to the chocolate-flavoured bourbon (which hails from Bermondsey as it happens) but more crumbly and powdery. But perhaps because they don’t contain any wheat or dairy products, they’re much less solid and quickly melt in the mouth…
The search for a name reminded me of how anonymity has been the lot of so many medieval writers, thanks to different approaches to authorship and manuscript transmission (no such thing as copyright!) as well as the inevitable obscuration of their histories over time. In a very literal sense, it’s by their works that we know geniuses like the Pearl poet or the Wakefield Master, which leaves these mystery biscuits in good company.
The very expression ‘to make a name for yourself’ is first recorded in medieval English. In Chaucer’s hilarious dream vision The House of Fame, we see the capricious workings of Fame first hand when the narrator, a bumbling bibliophile called Geoffrey, is kidnapped by a talkative eagle and taken to Fame’s Palace. Most of the people he sees there come begging to be remembered for their good works (or their bad ones). A few pathetic souls want fame without doing anything to deserve it, and a few, a very few, come asking for their names to be forgotten, giving ‘not a leek’ for fame nor renown because their good works were only done for the love of God.
Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things, wrote C.S. Lewis in his twentieth-century dream vision, The Great Divorce. Chaucer too would have agreed that God’s value system has always been radically different from that of the world’s. In Jesus we have a saviour who chose not to be born in a palace but a stable, to live a life of obscurity for most of his time on earth, and who said that many who were first on the world’s stage — the big names and influencers as we tend to view them — would be last in the kingdom of heaven.
As Archbishop Justin reminds us, this Armistice day is also the centenary of the burial of Westminster Abbey’s unknown warrior, a modern Everyman who represents the sacrifice of many whose names and histories have been lost. Contra the fickle gods of earthly fame, it’s a relief to think that the real arbiter of eternal worth is the eternal God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden. Who knows all the names written in heaven long after they’re forgotten on Earth.
‘Let your works be dead…’ A beautiful piece on the House of Fame by the British Library’s Kate Thomas.
‘I don’t give a leek’, ‘Go pipe in an ivy leaf’ etc. Brush up on your medieval expressions.
Research Sicilian Almond Cookies, which look delicious and are also gluten-free (and dairy-free). May have to have a shot at making some during lockdown!
If you would like to see more entries more regularly and help keep this bestiary free of ads, you are welcome to contribute to the Biscuit Jar.