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 biscuit. 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; 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 biscuits 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). His story of the Pearl of Great Price is paired in the gospels with that of the man who finds hidden treasure in a field, sells all that he owns to buy the field as soon as he can and feels full of joy to have found it. 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)
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 and hopes on for the present and 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. 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?
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.
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