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 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.

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):

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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

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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

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Easter Biscuits

While Christmas often feels like the bigger feast – quite literally – Easter has always been the highest Holy Day in the Christian calendar. The week preceding it is a time of solemn reflection in which we’re invited to accompany Jesus on his journey to the cross from his entry to Jerusalem and last Passover meal to his betrayal, trial and crucifixion, reading again the four gospel accounts of the events leading up to his death in all their vivid, painful detail. Together and alone, we meditate at the foot of the cross and wait in the quiet of Holy Saturday for the resurrection we know is coming. As we do we keep company with Christians through the ages, especially the Middle Ages with its emphasis on retelling and responding to the story of Christ’s sacrifice, dwelling on its full significance and meaning.

Jesus’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane from Jean Fouquet’s Book of Hours of Etienne Chevalier (c.1450)

Biscuits don’t feature all that much in Holy Week, which in England at least is the natural habitat of the Hot Cross Bun, but there is a type of spiced biscuit traditionally made to celebrate Easter Sunday here, particularly in the West Country although my Mum recalls my grandmother making them years ago in South London. Frankly I’d no idea these biscuits existed until recently so this year I was quite excited to have a go at making some. I was even more intrigued by the special ingredient used for them in Somerset and which is hard to find outside it without the aid of the internet: Cassia Oil.

I found a number of recipes for Easter biscuits online and there were two included with my order of Cassia oil. The one I used was very similar to this one though I added a little grated lemon rind to the mix. Resisting the urge to use bunny-shaped cutters, I went with a more traditional round shape and was pleased that they turned out well enough to distribute them as Easter gifts. They do look quite shortbread-y but the texture feels lighter, the taste buttery with a pleasant hit of currants. The flavouring from the Cassia Oil is subtle, even with the maximum dose of 10 drops.

Cassia is from the same tree from which we get cinnamon and it’s a rather important spice in the bible. It’s one of five ingredients blended to make the special anointing oil for the priests in the temple and one of the perfumes of the warrior-king’s garments in Psalm 45, the justice-loving ruler who has the oil of joy poured out on him. Such oils and precious spices were also used to prepare a body for burial, which is thought to be the reason Cassia oil is used to make the Easter biscuits. Mary Magdalene and the other women who visited the garden tomb that first Easter Sunday morning came bearing spices to anoint Jesus’s body. It was the last service they could do for him.

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen!”

(Luke 24)
From Mileševa Monastery, Serbia. In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the women are known as the myrrh bearers.

It took his followers a while to believe Jesus really had returned from the dead, and still more to understand all that that meant for them. But when they did, it turned them from scared men and women trembling behind locked doors to people willing to risk death to share what had happened with the world. This was the good news (or as the Greek has it, gospel). Not a dead Lord but a risen Lord. Not a dead story but a living one.

I started today with a cup of tea and an Easter biscuit to celebrate. This morning the sentence that keeps ringing in my ears when I think of the Easter biscuits and the Cassia oil is God’s promise to give those who grieve the oil of joy instead of mourning (Isaiah 61). Perhaps it’s a promise with especial resonance for us this year. Hallelujah. Christ is risen.

Further Delectation

A little piece on these biscuits on Gabriella’s blog – it seems the Easter biscuit is alive and well in Bristol.

Keith Green’s arresting Easter Song is as fresh as it’s ever been and full of the joy of Easter.

A powerful piece by Esau McCaulley on the women at the tomb, especially in the wake of 2020.

Got time to burrow into a bit of medieval art and book history? For an Easter treat, the BL’s Medieval Manuscripts blog today links to BBC Radio’s Moving Pictures programme, homing in on the Easter page of the Sherborne Missal (reproduced below, from BL Add MS 74236).

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Lady Fingers

Happy New Year, everyone. No, I haven’t just woken up… The medieval new year always starts on the 25th of March rather than the beginning of January. For those who like a bit of historical trivia with their biscuit lore, it was also the period to which the medieval books were made up (add an extra 10 days on for the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 and you get the 5th of April as the last day of the tax year).

The end is where we start from, wrote T.S. Eliot in the mystical Four Quartets reflecting on the way our ends tend to generate beginnings. Beginning a new year at the same time as we see the natural world coming to life has a feeling of aptness to it, which may be why so many cultures, including the oldest biblical one, follow suit. It’s significant too that the 25th of March coincides with Lady Day or the Feast of the Annunciation in the Church’s calendar, a story that marks both an end and a beginning in the long-awaited fulfilment of the prophecies of Israel’s saviour. Mary’s reaction to the sudden appearance of the angel and his world-shaking announcement is fear first but then trust that things would be as he promised. You are blessed because you believed the Lord would do as he said, Mary’s cousin tells her.  

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What biscuit could possibly betoken all that? How about a medieval creation more familiar to the dessert bowl than the coffee table? They’ve had so many names in history from Savoiardi in Italy to Champagne Biscuits in France, but Lady Fingers are one of the most popular English names for them. Extremely light, hard and dry like most Italian-style biscuits, they become almost meltingly soft once you dip them in coffee. Black coffee felt right for this occasion and I used a nice caramel-flavoured blend from local legend Old Spike.

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The sparkly top-coating of sugar is a nice touch and they’re not unpleasant in their tiramisu-less state but even so I kept feeling a strong urge to pop them in a trifle. Unsurprisingly perhaps, I found them in the dessert and not the biscuit aisle of Asda. The makers of this particular supermarket brand can’t decide whether to call them Sponge Fingers or Boudoir biscuits, but whichever they are I encountered a few issues getting a clear picture of them after Metuka earmarked the writing room for her boudoir. (She’s feeling very affectionate today and is now snoozing next to me on the sheepskin rug.)

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The Lady Fingers’ long history seems shrouded in as much mystery as the Tiramisu with which they’re so often connected, but we can hazard a guess that they first appeared sometime between the high and late Middle Ages at the Court of Savoy, perhaps for a royal visit. This all fits rather nicely with the story of the angel announcing a visit from the King of Kings, and the startled young girl wise enough to accept his words and sensible of the honour of being chosen to help fulfil them. 

Further Delectation

Read more about medieval depictions of the Annunciation in this excellent post from the very helpful Introducing Medieval Christianity blog, brought to my attention by the Clerk of Oxford (who posts here on the significance of the 25th of March in medieval Christendom). 

Lady Day wasn’t really an alternative International Women’s Day or Mother’s Day in the Middle Ages but it too served as a reminder of the worth and dignity of women. If you want to read more about powerful advocates for women in this period, you might be interested in Christine de Pizan’s Le Livre de la Cité des dames (Book of the City of Ladies)an educated single mother of the fifteenth century who made a living as a writer at the French court. Happy Lady Day, all!

Enjoy this lovely medieval hymn on the Annunciation, Angelus ad Virginem, mentioned in a slightly less elevated context in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale and also one of my favourite Christmas numbers:

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Penguin Biscuits

What with the cold and the gloom, I haven’t felt much like shopping for biscuits these last few weeks but I did p-p-p-pick up a penguin or eight from the local supermarket to see me through this wintery weather. It does the heart good to look in on the impromptu party they’re throwing in the writing room this week. The little fella with the hat and horn-blower is my favourite. (And before anyone asks, yes, they’re all from the same household.)

Penguins were a lunchbox staple of my childhood and I was happy to find they still come with jokes on their wrappers (‘How did the penguin pass his driving test?’ ‘He winged it.’). Judging from the plumage, these are probably kings or emperors. There’s no penguin design on the bar itself, a modest chocolate sandwich, but there’s something comfortingly solid about this species and they’ve certainly had their sincere and not so sincere imitators over the years from the dubious Puffin take-off to the high-flying Australian Tim Tam.

Penguins are not a feature of medieval bestiaries. The earliest possible sighting of any that Europeans were aware of may well have been the flightless ducks observed by the crew of the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama on his expedition to the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 (if so, the penguins surprised them by braying like donkeys). It’s a pity because bestiarists of all people would have appreciated this bird’s admirable qualities, its endearing clumsiness on shore and gracefulness in water for example, and still more its powers of endurance.

We’ve had need of that power these last few weeks. Collectively I suspect this has been the worst winter in recent memory in Britain and certainly within my lifetime. It’s been tough in ways few could have imagined a year or perhaps even half a year ago. And yet here we are. I understand better now why so many of the New Testament writers make such a virtue of endurance; it may not be the most appealing fruit of the spirit to try to cultivate, but how necessary it is for the long haul. ‘If we can winter this one out, we can summer anywhere,’ as Heaney put it, a quote that’s been circulating in lockdown for obvious reasons.

‘February’ in a 15th c. Book of Hours from Burgundy. (NY Public Library MS. Spencer 43, fol. 7r)

For the New Testament writers, the power of endurance promises us something more solid than simply wintering it out for the sake of survival, of gritting our teeth and rolling with the punches, although it’s definitely contained an element of that for me this month. St Paul tells us that it builds character and character hope, which begs the question of how we can find ways of enduring that allow us to emerge from this season in a stronger position spiritually than when we went into it?

When I look back to some of the toughest periods of my life before the pandemic I can see ways in which this strengthening process was already beginning. I haven’t doubted God’s presence with us throughout all this but I have come face to face with my own insufficiency to weather these new challenges without help, both from other people and from Him. There’s been a humbling and a levelling in that: a recognition that we’re all human, all vulnerable. But also new revelation that God’s grace has always been sufficient, his strength made more and more visible in our lives when we trust him with our weakness. So today my prayer for us all is that we might not only endure through this season but grow in hope and strength through it, inspired by the p-p-p-perseverance of the Penguin.

Further Delectation

What are the rival claims of the Penguin and the Tim Tam to biscuity greatness? Which Antarctic explorer was better at drawing penguins? How does a bird the same weight as a baby hippo get itself back out of the water? All your questions answered by the experts!

Enjoy a short but interesting read on medieval iconography for February from Princeton’s Index of Medieval Art site. Or if you’re impatient for the spring to come it may help to know it started on the 7th of February in the medieval calendar as the Clerk of Oxford explains in this lovely piece on early medieval celebrations of spring and its poetry.

No feathered friends where you are? Take a little time to tune in to some live penguin action from California. Recommended for a relaxing mini-break with a coffee and biscuit:

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