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.
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”.
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.”
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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