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 imaginatively on his journey to the cross from his entry to Jerusalem and last Passover meal with his disciples 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 really 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, but I added a little grated lemon rind. I resisted the urge to use bunny-shaped cutters and went with a more traditional round shape, following Dove Farm’s suggestion of brushing the top of each biscuit with egg white as well as a sprinkling of Caster sugar. I was pleased that they turned out well enough to distribute them as Easter gifts (which was fortunate as most local supermarkets had run out of chocolate eggs!) 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 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 the warrior-king’s garments in Psalm 45 along with myrrh and aloes, 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 bringing 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 that Jesus really had returned from the dead, and still more to understand all that that meant for them – and everyone. But when they did, it turned them from scared men and women trembling behind locked doors to people willing to risk death themselves to share that news 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 comfort those who grieve and give them 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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Gingerbread Stars

It’s a bit of a tradition for me now to make Gingerbread Stars for Christmas. It’s an inexpensive, easy homemade gift for the holiday season and much appreciated by the recipients. The recipe is my Mother’s and produces more than enough to give to different sets of friends, a tin or two for the workplace and leftovers for house guests. My only addition to the recipe is a little freshly grated ginger as well as the dry ground but it can be made just as well without.

IMG_3139 2Each year I’ve meant to write about the great gingerbread making and each year time has overtaken me. And so each year I’ve taken photos with great optimism — these, from 2016, interposed in my phone’s camera reel with a trip to see the RSC’s King Lear at the Barbican — all ready for a bestiary entry which never gets done…

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This year of course will be different. Instead of a busy, relatively carefree Christmas in company with much of the UK I’ll be having a careful, relative-free one. I know this whole year has been an exercise in letting things go, and I count myself lucky I have a Christmas bubble (bauble?) with nice people in it and that my losses have been extremely mild compared to those of many others, but I did have a little cry on Sunday adjusting to the fact I definitely wouldn’t be travelling up North. It’s been a long year, hasn’t it? And while there will be many challenges to navigate in the new one so many of us wanted to be able to take a break from it all for a few days and escape into something a bit more like the Christmases of the past.

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Gingerbread itself offers a tangible link to Christmases much longer ago. It’s been a treat in Europe since at least the eleventh century, when it was given as a gift by monastic houses or baked as a delicacy in royal kitchens or (later) sold at Gingerbread Fairs. The taste of ginger — like the cinnamon and nutmeg which can also be added — helps convey something of the flavour of those older Christmases. Early modern recipes tend to be lighter and sweeter, but eating and exchanging gingerbread is still a Christmas tradition and still permissible in the time of Covid — a way in which we touch hands, however lightly, with that medieval world.

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If the gingerbread-making evokes the warmth of past Christmases, the stars make me think of the hope of the Christmas story too — one accessible not just to the rich and mighty, but the poor and powerless. Especially for them in fact as we learn in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of wonder at God’s mercy. And in the midst of everything else that’s going on — or not going on — right now, is one astronomical event that will make this particular Christmas memorable for another reason: the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter on the evening of Monday the 21st of December will be a bright spot on the horizon if the weather is good enough for us to view it and you can find more details on what and how to look for here. It’s the first time a planetary ‘star’ this spectacular has occurred for hundreds of years, which naturally brings to mind the story of the wise men (in Latin, magi) journeying to Bethlehem because of the unusual star that appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth, which modern astronomers think likely to have been a conjunction or near conjunction of planets between 7 and 2 BC. Fittingly enough, its appearance this year coincides with both the Winter Solstice and the day appointed for the Antiphon, O Oriens (O Light), echoing Zechariah’s prophecy of a saviour appearing like a star

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death

As the Clerk of Oxford reminds us, these Advent Antiphons are traditionally sung at Vespers “in the early dusk of a midwinter evening, [as] ancient songs of longing and desire in the darkest time of the year” and in Christ we have a saviour who entered the world just when he was most longed for and needed, and who in the end provides a deeper comfort and more lasting hope than any breakthrough vaccines or changes of politics.

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These songs of hope and longing have a special resonance for me this year. It’s easy to romanticise the medieval celebration of Christmas because of our distance from it, but like Zechariah before us, medieval revellers knew what it was to celebrate in darkness and the shadow of death — aware, as we too are more keenly aware, of the instability of life and its brevity and fragility. Many of our most hauntingly beautiful Carols have come to us from this medieval past as well, with their message of hope and joy even in times of great turmoil and sadness. One written in fifteenth-century England that I know is going to be ringing in my head this week is “This Endris Night I saw a sight, / A star as bright as day…” Thinking of all celebrating this year in less than ideal circumstances, and the hope that shines out brighter than a star in the darkness.

Further Delectation

Make your own gingerbread — so many recipes to choose from! – or explore this fascinating history of the gift-giving of gingerbread in monastic houses.

Listen to this evocative setting of This Endris Night by Ralph Vaughan Williams, or a whole service of medieval carols at Great St Barts (the oldest church in London), or perhaps this lovely rendition of the Magnificat and Wexford Carol if you prefer something a little more early modern.

Feast your eyes on this beautiful fifteenth-century nativity detail from the Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau (Walters MS W.174, fol. 17v) with the starlight lancing through the thatch of the stable roof as in so many medieval nativity scenes:

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Jammie Dodgers

Way back at the beginning of the second lockdown I found myself craving Jammie Dodgers. As luck would have it they were on special at the local supermarket, but it had been so long since I’d bought them I was surprised to find their appearance and branding had undergone a bold cosmetic change. You can still see the old swirl-top pattern I remember in this recent article by Rachel Cooke, which confirms my view that many are turning to comfort biscuits in these trying times. In sympathy with the zeitgeist, the design now resembles a spillage at a jam factory. Still, these ones look very pleased with themselves sat on a plate in my new digs:

The company who make Jammie Dodgers, Burton’s, have been producing them in one form or another since the late 1940s. One — possibly apocryphal — story links them with Roger the Dodger of the long-running Beano comic. When I researched them further however, I found that the same biscuits have been in the news this year for distinctly un-comical reasons and we may find them in even greater demand this festive season if the Delivery Workers Guild goes ahead with its strike. So even comfort biscuits haven’t managed to dodge the shadow of 2020, it seems…

We listen to the evening news with its usual recital of shabbiness and horror, and God if we believe in him at all, seems remote and powerless, writes Frederick Buechner. But there are other times – often the most unexpected, unlikely times – when strong as life itself comes the sense that there is a holiness deeper than [the] shabbiness and horror and at the very heart of darkness a light unutterable.’ The apostle John might have agreed with him: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, he writes in the prologue to his gospel, written in the glow of the extraordinary life of his friend Jesus of Nazareth.

BL Oriental MS 5024 f. 19r

Light overcoming the darkness is also the message of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which begins this evening with the lighting of the first candle of the Menorah. Another apocryphal story tells how the Jews took back their temple after the Greek King Antiochus IV captured it in around 164 BC, desecrated the holy places, and made every effort to stop them practising their religion. At the re-dedication of the temple they only had enough of the consecrated oil to last for one day but the supplies miraculously stretched for seven until the new oil could be ready for burning. John gives us a glimpse of Jesus celebrating the festival in winter walking in Solomon’s Colonnade, a long pillared walkway not unlike a medieval cloister.

‘What if God became a human and lived with us?’ is the question John sets out to answer and you can read his gospel and the other gospel accounts of Jesus’ life or watch this recent TV adaptation if you want to know more of what happened along the way. I’ll admit I’m more than a little biscuit-obsessed these days, but to me the heart in the centre of the Dodger’s new splat speaks of the wonder of the Incarnation: of God looking on us with compassion in all our pain and confusion, horror and shabbiness, and sending himself as a human right into the heart of the mess.

BL Harley MS 4382 f.139

Further Delectation

Have a read of the Beano’s biscuit jokes (straight out of the Christmas Cracker school of humour) or have a go at making your own festive Jammie Dodgers.

Help support essential workers this Christmas. Let delivery companies like DHL know you’d like them to look after their drivers better. Ask your MP to support a pay-rise for NHS staff. Or consider whether you could help those on the frontlines of the food poverty crisis.

Prepare for Christmas with this medieval homily and meditation from the Clerk of Oxford’s modern counterpart. Listen to a beautiful twenty-first-century rendition of one of the oldest, loveliest hymns on the incarnation:

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Sicilian Mystery Biscuits

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 cocoa-flavoured bourbon (which hails from Bermondsey as it happens!) but more crumbly and powdery. And perhaps because they don’t contain any wheat or dairy products, these are a lot 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 expression ‘to make a name for yourself’ is first recorded in medieval English although the search for fame is ever-present in human history, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Great British Bake-off. In Chaucer’s hilarious, philosophical 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 and some for 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.

From BL Royal MS 2 D.13

Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things, wrote C.S. Lewis in his 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 the unknown warrior at Westminster, 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 that are written in heaven long after they’re forgotten on Earth.

Further Delectation

‘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!

And finally, biscuits have been much in the news of late thanks to the publication of Lizzie Collingham’s new book which two friends drew my attention to, one in this fun article.

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Latvian Beciņas

The very generous Dr Davis has been foraging for biscuits again and this month we have two exciting new specimens from the Baltic States, both of which resemble mushrooms. On opening this parcel I did wonder if he had picked them straight from the forest but the great clerks of the internet helped me identify them as Beciņas ar šokolādes micītē (mushrooms with chocolate caps).

IMG_1723 The sponginess of the stalks and firmness of the caps reminded me of Jaffa Cakes although they look a bit different. The root of the stalk is dipped in chocolate and poppy seeds and they really are delicious with coffee. If you’re wondering how they get their distinctive shape, they’re baked in special pans with mushroom-shaped moulds. I was excited to discover the Beciņas are a Latvian specialty and a work colleague tells me they have something very similar in Lithuania, albeit with white instead of dark chocolate.

IMG_1728With half of the country covered in woodland, walking and foraging in the forest is a popular Latvian past-time. The official mushroom picking season lasts from August to October although happily these specimens can be found all year long. For a whole week in July I looked forward to my mornings with coffee and Beciņas and foraging for a moral for this biscuit got me thinking about everything wild spaces have to offer us. 

iuThis lovely painting of a forest glade is by German artist Ernst Ferdinand Oehme. Such scenes are called Waldinerres in German, which sounds a little like the Middle English Wyldrenesse or wilderness. Like the forests of medieval romance, the wilderness can be a place of refuge but also disorientation. A place where our old props and certainties are taken from us. This may feel bewildering (‘to be lost in pathless places, to be confounded for want of a road’) but as a friend of mine from the Wirral says it’s in the wilderness that God speaks. 

In one of the great medieval adventure poems of the fourteenth century, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain embarks upon a journey he never expected, accepting the deathly challenge of a mysterious green knight and riding deep into the ‘wyldrenesse of Wyrale’. I won’t give too much of the plot away — the whole story is worth reading and it’s marvellous — but it’s fair to say that what Gawain finds in the forest is not victory or defeat (or mushrooms) but a powerful dose of self-knowledge. In the process he also discovers that the knight waiting for him at the Green Chapel is not the dread opponent he thought but something far kinder and wiser and harder to fathom.

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Both in entering and easing out of lockdown it feels like we have all been plunged into a season of stillness, and whether that feels liberating or terrifying the silence has its lessons to teach us. Be still and know that I am God, Psalm 46 reads, and in stilling ourselves we invite that knowledge to fill us. In the forest. In the wilderness. In our own pathless places. In the pause in the middle of the morning for coffee and biscuits. 

Further Delectation

Another great Northern poet, Simon Armitage, introduces Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and you can read the poem in Middle and Modern English via Luminarium.
Can’t get to the outdoors right now? Take a virtual tour of Latvia’s lovely forests and castles.
This week’s magical Story from the Borders of Sleep. This latest podcast, written and narrated by Seymour Jacklin, is all about hermits, forests and the wisdom of green places.
Too busy for all this? You may need to ruthlessly eliminate hurry. Here’s some help to make a start on it.
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Iced Garden Biscuits

It was my birthday again last month and given the lockdown situation I really hadn’t any expectations for it beyond loafing around on the roof terrace in the sun. So it was a lovely surprise to receive this box of biscuits from my Mum – and not just any box of biscuits but these hand-iced masterpieces from the Biscuiteers Baking Company, a bright star of the biscuit scene in London.

IMG_1695 2.JPGAs you can see, these ‘homegrown’ biscuits are garden themed and, like the masterpiece of creation itself, full of that beauty and attention to detail that marks the work of a true craftsperson. So beautiful in fact it was hard to bring myself to eat them but I made a start with the trowel on the grounds that it had got a little cracked on its way out of the box. Having shovelled the first one in (chocolate shortbread, delicious) I decided to give  it a bit of welly, and after that… Well, I was quite proud of myself for making them last more than a week in the end. Whatever recipe they use for their biscuit base, it’s built to last.

IMG_1765I’ve written before about the Parable of the Sower. It’s one of the best known stories of the gospels and one of the few parables where Jesus provides a gloss on the meaning for his audience: the seeds are the words of God and the soil is the hearers’ hearts, which may at times be soft or stony, choked by weeds or eager for new life. It’s also a picture of what happens at the very beginning of God speaking to us: a seed, a thought, takes hold and with it a little glimmer of hopefulness. A promise of growth to come.

IMG_1707This week I came across a further application of the story I think the medieval clerks would have approved of: what do we do when the seed of something wonderful drops into our lives? It might be a new idea, creative vision, word of faith or moment of insight. What part can we play in helping it thrive?

L0027234 Pomegranate tree with man picking some
Wellcome Library MS L0027234

Light and water, space and shelter, vigilance and tenderness, patience and encouragement. Keeping on believing, waiting and trusting until you see the new thing springing up… The laws of nurturing the spiritual life aren’t that different to those of the organic one, really. In yet another great gardening parable, Jesus speaks of a mustard seed planted in the ground:

It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of all garden plants: it grows long branches and birds can make nests in its shade…

The Kingdom of God is like that, he says. It may start small but it grows!

Further Delectation

Shameless promotion of the Biscuiteers’ wares. While away a pleasant hour admiring their decorative arts.

Still in lockdown or bored of your new fangled garden? Here’s a no-nonsense approach to designing a medieval one.

My friend Amy alerted me to this erudite blog post from English Heritage on biscuits past. Something to savour after your gardening’s done?

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