Coronation Biscuits

Each time there is a royal celebration of some kind there are special tins with special biscuits. I bought such a tin for the late Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and either bought – or was given – them to celebrate the births of Princes George and Louis, and Princess Charlotte. So as this is the first time in seventy years that Britain has had a coronation I decided to purchase a Carolean one, although it still feels odd talking about the King instead of the Queen, and no longer being a noveau Elizabethan. I teetered a bit between one of Cartwright and Butler’s solemnly splendid evergreen tins and this gorgeous purple and gold affair from Marks and Spencer’s, which was twice as sumptuous at half the price:

I’ve learned over the years that you can’t judge a biscuit by its tin, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the shortbread inside. I’ve written about this quintessentially Scottish biscuit before so won’t go into the history of it again but where I was expecting some standard rounds or wheels the M&S bakers went with a regal theme, a kind of regalia in biscuit form if you will…

I’ll leave the crowns and palaces and flags to speak for themselves, but linger a moment on the symbol of the orb and cross. A distinctly medieval image, the orb alone was a Roman symbol of imperial power but for the Christian monarchs and emperors of Europe the addition of the cross over it refocused attention on Christ as the eternal sovereign of the world and the King to whom all earthly kings must be subject as holders of temporal and limited power.

Richard II (1377-1399)

This medieval view is biblical in so far as scripture talks of all earthly powers and authorities owing their positions to God, but the bible as a whole does not offer us unqualified support for monarchy as a system either. When the Israelites petition Samuel for a king so that they can be be like the other nations, God makes it clear that if they go ahead with their plans to adopt a monarchy it will place many burdens and obligations on them and that their asking itself is a symptom of their having rejected Him as the only king they need. However, once the decision in favour of a monarchy has been made and their first king, Saul, fails several crucial tests of character, God chooses his own king for his people, the shepherd boy David, and blesses his socks off, telling him he will never fail to have a descendant on the throne of Israel. All of which suggests that God is not so much pro- or anti-monarchy as he is willing to work in whatever flawed-but-capable-of-good governmental systems we find ourselves in to help bring about the coming of his own – everlasting – kingdom.

The coronation of King David

The Books of Kings and Chronicles record the deeds and characters of the kings of Israel and later of the Northern and Southern kingdoms after Solomon’s time. Some kings were outstandingly good, some were outstandingly evil, and some were fairly good or fairly evil, but for each the crucial question was whether they would worship the God of their ancestors and worship him exclusively; their success and prosperity was determined in a large part by the spiritual choices they made and on who, or what, they had set their hearts. The damage done to a nation by a weak-willed or corrupt king and conversely the good done by a virtuous one could be so great that the moral and political education of a future monarch was of the utmost importance to their subjects in medieval Europe and led to a whole genre of literature on the topic called Mirrors for Princes. Here’s an illustration of the London poet and scribe Thomas Hoccleve handing his Regement of Princes (c.1411) to the future Henry V:

Hoccleve and Prince Hal / the future Henry V

The powers of a king these days are more constrained thanks to the checks and balances of constitutional monarchy but he still possesses extraordinary influence. Pace Dieu et mon droit, far less emphasis is given to his divine rights than his divine responsibilities; it is the Christian ideal of servant-hearted kingship that informs the ceremony of the Coronation in the liturgy used in Westminster Abbey this weekend, where a young person (one of the choristers of the Chapel Royal) will welcome King Charles with these words:

Your Majesty,
as children of the Kingdom of God we welcome you
in the name of
the King of Kings

And he replies:

In his name, and after his example, I come not to be served
but to serve.

Just as the best earthly marriages offer our imaginations a little glimpse of the marriage of Christ and his people, so the best earthly coronations offer our imaginations a glimpse of the glory and majesty of the King of Kings and the immense dignity and significance that he gives to us as his sons and daughters. And it’s characteristic of the best earthly monarchs that they have always understood themselves as human actors in a spiritual drama, never mistaking the shadow for the eternal reality. A perspective evident in the old Wesleyan hymn sung at the funeral of the late Queen:

Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be:
let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee;
changed from glory into glory,
’til in heav’n we take our place,
’til we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

I wouldn’t put the national anthem on a par with the bible but can readily join in with its closing prayer:

May he defend our laws,
And ever give us cause,
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the King.

Tomorrow feels like more of a solemn than a celebratory moment in the life of the nation if I’m honest but one I’ll be watching with a cup of tea and a coronation biscuit.

Further Delectation

A round-up of Coronation Biscuit Tins… Good Housekeeping have produced a feature on the best ones to buy!

Following the ceremony tomorrow with your choice of coronation biscuit? Here’s a link to the service guide with all the liturgy they will be using with the bible readings and songs.

Not such a fan of thrice-gorgeous ceremony? Neither was one of Shakespeare’s best loved medieval kings. ‘Tis not the balm the sceptre and the ball... A superb rendition of one of Henry V’s monologues by Sam West.

And here’s the wonderful Porter’s Gate declaring the greater glory of the King over all:

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The American Biscuit

Biscuits for breakfast: OK or not OK? In Britain I don’t know a single soul who eats those Belvita biscuits although at weekends a biscuit or two might be the prelude to the Breakfast Proper. But in America a dish called Biscuits and Gravy is regularly eaten for breakfast and here we come to one of the great culinary divides between the two nations, a chasm so vast confused biscuit lovers on both sides of the pond find themselves in the position of Inigo Montoya in the cult film The Princess Bride, when he says: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means…

So what does it mean? I’ve tried before to answer the question here. To summarise: in Britain, a biscuit is what most Americans call a cookie and is (generally) sweet and (generally) smaller, flatter and tougher to bite into than a cake, but emphatically not a cake although it may at times be confused with one. To make things even more complicated in Britain a cookie is thought of as a subtype of a biscuit which means all cookies are biscuits but not all biscuits are cookies… In America, a biscuit is much closer to what we Brits call a savoury scone but (generally) lighter and fluffier and made to be eaten with a white sausagey gravy we would think of more as a sauce. As you can see the meaning is quite different, which begs the question how did such a semantic divergence come about? English Language and Usage Stack Exchange concludes:

At various times before 1800, dictionaries have used [words such as bisket, biscuit and bisquet for] a confection made with flour, eggs, sand sugar (among other ingredients). But at other times before 1800, dictionaries have applied the words bisket, biscuit, and bisquet to tiny rounds of hard-baked bread. Under the circumstances — especially in view of the equivocal treatment of the word in Samuel Johnson's tremendously influential 1755 dictionary, it is hardly surprising that British English went one way with the word biscuit and North American English went the other...

Like Robert Frost, the latter opted for the path less travelled semantically speaking. Or as one wit on the internet put it:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is biscuit-usa-v-rest-of-the-world-768x576-186255308.jpeg

American biscuits are often thought of as a Southern staple but are now eaten everywhere in the States, where, like French onion soup, they’ve made the unexpected journey from low-cost peasants or workers’ fare to general comfort food. I’d never tried American biscuits before so wasn’t quite sure what they were meant to taste like but decided I’d have a go at making some. I think these biscuits turned out better than the gravy although to be fair I veered off the beaten track of the recipe several times, overdoing it on the buttermilk and underestimating the amount of whole milk that I needed, partly as a result of struggling to convert the measurements accurately.

There’s no doubt the biscuits were at their best fresh and I followed the advice to split them and fill them with gravy to make a delicious, if slightly gloopy, sandwich. All in all this tasted a bit like a cross between a sausage McMuffin and a plain flour dumpling, while fulfilling the same function as the wedges of thick farmhouse bread you’d use to mop up a hearty stew. While it felt odd as a breakfast option, I did enjoy it.

In the same way as this unusual experience of a biscuit explodes our idea of what a biscuit is, are we ready to welcome the risen Jesus if he shows up in a different way to the one we expected? In those first days after his resurrection, some of his closest friends didn’t even recognise him to begin with and from the gospel depictions we know there were aspects of his resurrected life that were very different to the one they had known before. He could meet them inside locked rooms still bearing the marks of the nails on his body. He could walk with friends who took him for a stranger until a word or touch brought revelation of his presence, long after they had felt their hearts burning within them in their conversation on the road. He could show up on the shores of Galilee to cook his disciples breakfast (fish, not biscuits). He could appear and disappear out of nowhere (or everywhere?) There was a divine mystery in it all that they could not understand, much less control.

Incipit illustration of the Resurrection from a Dutch Book of Hours, c.1500 from

The story of Christ’s return from the dead is exciting, but it is also challenging. Are we willing to have our understanding of everything challenged, in the way that resurrection life always challenges us? In those days between Easter and Pentecost, the astonished disciples hadn’t much of a clue what their risen Lord was doing (some of us still don’t) but they were learning to trust him and to recognise him whenever he appeared in their midst. A thought to reflect on this first Easter week (and a very Happy Easter to all who celebrate it!)

Further Delectation

Biscuits and Gravy: A Little Bit of History.

Watch this fun film experiment introducing American biscuits and gravy to British teenagers (and their headmaster).

From darkness to light: a lovely article on Easter Exultet rolls from the BL’s Medieval Manuscripts blog.

And lastly, that exchange from The Princess Bride:

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The Club Biscuit

Welcome to the Club. Like the trusty Penguin, this doughty milk chocolate biscuit evokes the nostalgia of an 80s childhood and the advertising slogan sung by the kids in commercials: if you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit join our club! I never did find out how to join exactly but if buying a packet of these is the price of entry, I’m in. In Great Britain Club biscuits are produced by McVitie’s but in Ireland – where they hail from – they’re made by Jacob’s, better known in the UK as a maker of savoury biscuits and crackers. It’s a company that still exists in name at least but sadly no longer operates from the Emerald Isle.

I must admit I only clocked that the Club was Irish when I did a little research on Irish biscuits for St Patrick’s Day. It was difficult to find recipes that seemed authentically Irish as opposed to just ordinary biscuits flavoured with a dash of Guinness or Bailey’s (an Irish cookie to go with your Irish coffee, Sir?) but I did come across a few species of biscuit I hadn’t come across before such as Lace Biscuits and the fondly remembered Mallows / Mikados. However, the Club seemed the most appropriate choice for St Patrick’s Day for reasons I hope will become apparent the deeper we delve…

As you can see from the picture below, the Club is a solid-looking biscuit: a veritable chocolate bullion in a silvery wrapper containing about the same satisfying thickness of chocolate as you’d get in a McVitie’s Gold Bar. The crunchy middle layer is entirely surrounded by a thick and delicious wall of chocolate. This mint chocolate version was so strongly scented I could smell the mint through the foil!

According to that august online authority, A Nice Cup of Tea and A Sit Down, the original Milk Club predates the First World War and creation of modern Ireland. In their 2008 entry they could only find the original Milk Clubs on Ireland’s West Coast but a recent check reassured me that Jacob’s still make them for their Irish market. (The other flavoured varieties UK biscuit lovers are more familiar with were first produced for the UK at a later date from a satellite factory in Liverpool.)

It also surprised me to discover that the reason these biscuits were known as Clubs has nothing to do with the clubbability factor. Instead, it refers to the design stamped on the wrappers of the original Milk Club, the same symbol for the Club suite on a pack of playing cards which in turn reminded me, perhaps intentionally on the Jacob brothers’ part, of the seamróg or shamrock: the three-leaved clover that, along with the harp, is a famous symbol of Ireland. Whichever type of clover it was, or if it ever actually existed, St Patrick is supposed to have used it as an illustration of the Trinity in his efforts to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity – a great story, even if it is almost certainly an early modern fabrication.

A medieval illustration of a clover from BL Egerton MS 747, c. 1280-1310.

It may also surprise some readers to discover Patrick himself was not Irish but Romano-British back in a time when relations between the two islands were freer and simpler. While the history is a little hazy, the best guess seems to be that he was Welsh or Scottish, and that he was captured by raiders and taken off to Ireland as a slave while still a young teenager. It was there, in his desperation, that he found God, who he says protected and consoled him like a father. He actually tells us a little of his story first-hand in his Confessio: an English translation can be found here and is short enough to read in a coffee break (with your choice of biscuit):

So I am first of all a simple country person, a refugee, and unlearned. I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall…

While Patrick describes himself as unlearned and perhaps believed that to be true, his writing reveals him to be immersed in the scriptures. This passage reads like a vivid illustration of Psalm 40, where God lifts the despairing David ‘out of the mud and the mire’. Browsing the Confessio this week, I was struck by how similar parts of it feel to the letters of St. Paul who likewise felt caught up in a divine commission to advance a faith he’d formerly rejected. To my mind the Confessio offers us a more believable account of the career of a fifth-century missionary than the fantastical tales of evicting all the snakes from Ireland (a common story among early Celtic saints: Hild of Whitby and Columba of Iona are rumoured to have done something similar). Far from lowering him in the reader’s estimation, Patrick’s account of his life has the effect of raising it. It certainly reads like that of a very ordinary man in some respects, but the light that shines through it all is one of honesty and holiness.

St. Patrick from BL Royal MS 17 B. xliii, f. 132v

Like Paul, Patrick is candid about his hardships but also of the love that drove him to return to Ireland to preach to the people there. In another memorable passage, we get a glimpse of him doing it:

The sun which we see rising for us each day at his command — that sun will never reign nor will its splendour continue forever; and all those who adore that sun will come to a bad, miserable penalty. We, however, believe in and adore the true sun, that is, Christ, who will never perish. Nor will they perish who do his will but they will abide forever just as Christ will abide forever…

This acknowledgement that the sun would one day burn out may seem prescient in view of what is now common scientific knowledge, but the strictures against solar adoration may strike a modern reader as peculiar. It is details like this however that give the Confessio another touch of authenticity as many of the people Patrick came into contact with were still influenced by older pagan druidic cultures that had worshipped the sun. (‘They can’t have worshipped much…’ quipped the late great Terry Wogan in his commentary on the Eurovision Song Contest in one of the many years Ireland hosted it.)

Patrick’s metaphor of Christ as the true and lasting sun is a good illustration of the way in which Celtic Christianity sought to build as many bridges as walls between the pagan and Christian understanding of life which shared a reverence for the beauty and power of language and nature. Although it’s debatable whether he himself authored it, the well-known Hymn of St Patrick is in this tradition:

Christ as a light illumine and guide me.
Christ as a shield overshadow me.
Christ under me, Christ over me.
Christ beside me on my left hand and my right…

And the moral? Just as a solid wall of chocolate covers every part of the Club biscuit so wonderfully, so in prayer we are invited to follow Patrick (and other medieval Celtic Christians) in invoking Christ’s special presence and protection. Encircling prayers, as they are sometimes called. Not a bad place to start – and end – the week (thank God it’s a Friday!) Wishing a Very Happy St Patrick’s Day to all who celebrate it.

Further Delectation

Can’t get to Ireland for St Patrick’s Day? Let the internet bring it to you…

More on St. Patrick and the Confessio from the British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog (and see the text of the original – with helpful contextual resources – here).

Stumped by Shamrocks? Here are some of the elusive facts surrounding the symbolic clover.

And finally, a chance to put on St Patrick’s Breastplate and the Armour of God for those looking for extra spiritual cover! (And a special credit is due to the musician responsible for the beautiful adaptation of the hymn in the above video:

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Croquants aux Amandes et Miel

Ash Wednesday. A cross like a kiss on the forehead and the season of Lent has begun: that 40 day journey of reflection starting in the wilderness and ending at the empty tomb. In the Middle Ages, Lent was a big deal for both devout and nominal Christians if only because of the strictness of the Lenten fast. As well as fasting from meat, the list of forbidden foods included traditionally biscuity ingredients like eggs and butter, hence the wild flurry of pancake-making on Shrove Tuesday. (For those interested, the British Library’s Great Medieval Bake Off: Lent Edition has some fun recipes to get you through a medieval fast!)

It may surprise a reader familiar with the modern custom of giving up of sweet foods for Lent but nuts and sugar (and wine) were allowed. I hadn’t intended to write about another Provencal biscuit so soon after the Navettes but on finding these deliciously crunchy Croquants Aux Amandes et Miel (Crisped Biscuits with Almonds and Honey) in my room the other day, I realised providence had led me to the perfect biscuit for Ash Wednesday. These Croquants, a present from my sister and brother-in-law, hail from the Abbey of Sénanque –a Cistercian monastery dating back to the twelfth-century. The place is famous for its lavender and the monks who tend it are also skilled at bee-keeping, making honey another Sénanque specialty.

The Croquants look like miniature biscotti, leading me to suspect they would go particularly well with strong black coffee and as my usual coffee haunt was closing early yesterday, I decided to decamp to a quiet pub and see if I could get a coffee there instead. The friendly bar staff looked on in some amusement as I whipped out my phone for an attempt at an arty shot of the candle, coffee and biscuit! Dipping it in coffee was exactly the right thing to do as it softened up at once but kept its shape, which was impressive. Without the coffee, they would be incredibly dry, but also very sweet and almond-y.

The adjective ‘Croquant’ which gives these biscuits their name is usually translated ‘crisp’ or ‘crunchy’, calling to mind the ashes of Ash Wednesday. In the ancient world to cover yourself in ashes was a sign of profound grief and distress. Today the ashen cross of Lent is a mark of penitence – of sorrow for our sins and a desire to return to God, as well as an acknowledgment of how short our little lives are, to paraphrase wise Master Shakespeare, and how much we need his mercy. Through the Lord’s great mercy we are not consumed (Lamentations 3:22)

From a human perspective, the place of ashes speaks of emptiness and endings, but in God’s it can become a crucible that transforms and transcends even the deadest of ends. If there is a promise we could take from the Croquant, it might be Isaiah 61 where those who mourn are promised a crown of beauty for ashes. I learnt recently the Hebrew here suggests working in and through the devastation to bring both beauty and holiness: a priestly head-covering or bridal decoration drawn up and out of the very places that seem most desolate to us. This year, as we start out again on the long road to Easter, may it be an encouragement to give God our ashes and see what he does.

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For Candlemas this year I’m revisiting the Navette, a biscuit I first came across seven years ago thanks to some kind Californian friends who brought me a packet of them from a holiday in Nice. Everywhere else in France the first choice of treat to celebrate it would be a pancake but in Provence they eat this special type of biscuit whose name means “little ships”. They look a little like a little ship too or at least a primitive sailboat.

The legend that gave rise to the invention of the Navette is almost certainly apocryphal: the voyage of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (or in some versions three Marys) to the coast of Southern France. Civic pride probably played a part in the eagerness of medieval Christians to link their city’s or region’s history to that of the early Church in some way, but I admit that the reason the biscuits have been associated with Candlemas is not clear to me (answers on an e-postcard!) These are made to the classic fleur d’oranger recipe popular in Marseilles. With their subtle citrus notes, it’s the biscuit equivalent of a Lady Grey tea.

Aesthetically, Candlemas must be one of the most memorable feasts of the Christian year even if it’s not quite in the same league as Easter and Christmas. I know I’ll never forget the wonder I felt the first time I celebrated it with a sea of glimmering lights in Durham cathedral. In the medieval Church, Candlemas marked the end of the Christmas season with a special procession and the blessing of candles commemorating Mary’s “churching” (i.e. the rites of purification prescribed for Jewish mothers forty days after childbirth) and Jesus’s presentation in the Temple. The child’s parents were obliged to bring an offering with them and their choice of pigeons or turtledoves shows they were not wealthy people. To a casual onlooker, and probably to Mary and Joseph themselves, their entrance with the newborn Yeshua might have seemed uneventful, but God prompted Simeon and Anna to recognise its significance and speak of the child’s extraordinary future, encouraging and preparing them for what was to come. It’s also the occasion for the beautiful prayer of Simeon, now referred to as the Nunc Dimittis:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen
thy salvation;
Which thou hast prepared
before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of thy people Israel…

Luke 2:29-32
C15th illustration of Simeon and Anna with the Holy Family from Pierpont Morgan Library. MS M.117

Clearly Simeon had already had an inkling that he would have a part to play in welcoming the Messiah, but for all we know Anna may only have recognised hers in the moment it arrived. It’s moving to think of these two elderly servants of the Lord – both prophets in some sense – waiting their whole lives for this meeting. How easily they might have missed it if their focus had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. If the Navette carries a message for us today, and if it can be linked to the celebration of Candlemas, it might be something to do with being attentive to divine appointments in our own lives, wherever and however we find them in our comings and goings.

Scenes from The Life of St Cuthbert, Durham

Further Delectation

More on celebrating Le Chandeleur (or “Crepe Day”) in France.

My favourite discovery this week (and just in time for St. Valentine’s Day…) send a medieval postcard!

A beautiful blog post from the Clerk of Oxford on the history and customs of medieval Candlemas, and some music to listen to in celebration of the feast. You could also take a look at this sweet film for kids or Michael Card’s Now That I’ve Held Him in My Arms – both retellings of the story from the perspective of Simeon.

If Candlemas be Fair and Bright… Like St Swithin’s Day in folklore, Candlemas also doubles as Groundhog Day for some people as a forecast for the weather!

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Nürnberger Lebkuchen

One of my favourite edible Christmas gifts this year was a simple box of German Lebkuchen. This is the good stuff from Nürnberg, the historical home of these popular Christmas biscuits. As you may know, the medieval season of Christmas extends to Candlemas so I’ve been happily munching my way through them this Epiphany…

My friend Nicki who gifted them to me also sent me an article explaining that it was Bavarian monks who first created these biscuits in the fourteenth century using special wafers called oblaten as a base to build them on. It was an epiphany to her and to me to find out that this was essentially the same wafer used for Communion. Here’s a close-up viewed from the upper and lower sides so you can see it clearly:

It felt a little odd at first, but perhaps the idea that the same wafers used for the blessed sacrament should also be eaten in a mood of festive recreation is not so very strange when you remember the word holiday derives from holy day and connects back to older ideas about the observance of sacred leisure. These ‘traditionally built’ Lebkuchen are a surprisingly light bite given their size, not heavy in their texture but not insubstantial either, combining the Christmassy flavours of chocolate, ginger and citrus peel.

The unusual choice of the oblaten as the foundation for these biscuits got me thinking about foundations in general, which seems a good subject to consider at the beginning of the (modern) year. Unless the Lord builds the house the labourers work in vain, wrote Israel’s King Solomon, famous throughout the ancient world for his wisdom. This week I’ve been reading about the beginning of his reign again, of his magnificent building projects and scholarly works, and the discerning heart that God granted him to govern his people. By wisdom a house is built and by understanding is it established, through knowledge its rooms are filled with every precious and beautiful treasure is one of his many recorded sayings, a beautiful image that encourages me to think about how I want to fill all the ‘rooms’ of the year ahead…

King Solomon meeting the Queen of Sheba, c. 1700.

As Solomon suggests the way we order our lives – what we prioritise and choose to focus on – will determine what we are able to build on and in them. Sometimes the first step to doing this may in fact be digging deeper and even dismantling to support a better structure over time. In a similar way in the gospels Jesus compares the person who hears his words and put them into practice to a wise man who builds his house upon a rock: floods rose, gales blew and hurled themselves against that house, and it did not fall (Matt. 7). Perhaps the monks of Nuremberg saw an aptness in using the wafers used for the body of Christ as the foundation for their biscuits, much as Christ was held by the Church to be the foundation of God’s household, its cornerstone.

Always we begin again, St. Benedict tells us – author of the Rule that became a foundation text of the monastic culture that so profoundly shaped medieval Europe and generated extraordinary achievements in scholarship and creativity, not forgetting the Lebkuchen. Each year – each morning – can be an exercise in beginning, and if we aren’t quite sure how or what to start it can be helpful to examine our foundations.

Further Delectation

More about the history of Lebkuchen from The Daring Gourmet. (If you’re in the UK and would prefer to buy than make your own, you can get authentic Bavarian brands at a decent price from Lidl.)

Want a little taste of Christmas in Germany? More on how and where to visit Christmas markets in Bavaria.

From oblaten to oblates… As I write this, a kind Catholic friend at the London Library has just appeared with a copy of Esther de Waal’s book on The Way of St Benedict for me. Not a bad read to begin the new year.

Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen, a beautiful fifteenth-century German carol preserved in a monastery in Trier, set in this form by Michael Praetorius and performed by Solomon’s Knot:

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Greek Olive Oil Biskota

A few weeks ago I went to see the new Alexander the Great exhibition at the British Library with my friend Malcolm, a very knowledgeable commentator on the Macedonian king (you can listen to his potted history of him here). As readers may know, he was celebrated in medieval Europe as one of the Nine Worthies – sort of the medieval equivalent of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – and apocryphal stories about him during this period were popular. In fact, the landing page of the Bestiary features a scene from a high-end manuscript of The Alexander Romance in the BL, an adventure story in which Alexander and his cat explore the bottom of the ocean…

Detail from BL Royal MS 20 B XX

Worthy as the Alexander exhibition was, I was even more interested to find these Greek Olive Oil biscuits in the gift shop. As you’ll see from the packaging, the transliteration of the Greek word for biscuits is biskota: a fact I expect to come in useful if I visit Greece again, as I hope I will. This recipe developed by Thessalonian company Petits Grecs hails from Crete and incorporates Arabic influences in the Tahini. For anyone on a dairy free diet they’re also dairy free.

The relationship of Hellenic to Hebraic Culture could be antagonistic when it threatened the survival of Jewish beliefs, but it was also the Greek language and literary culture – widely disseminated in the ancient world as a result of Alexander’s conquests – which became the vehicle for introducing the Bible to a wider readership before Christ’s birth and the language used to write the earliest accounts of his life. We know St Paul visited Athens, debating with the philosophers there and quoting a Cretan poet’s words that in God we all live, and move, and have our being. Like many other educated Jews of his day he was well-versed in Greek literature and philosophy, and wanted to show that there could be some common ground between Jews and Gentiles in their quest for truth about heavenly things.

So you’ll forgive me if I got a little excited about these Greek biscuits, and still more by their association with olive oil (or liquid gold as the Greeks still call it). A key resource in the ancient world, you’ll find it referenced again and again in the bible where it is used for cooking and lighting and cleaning wounds. When mixed with a special combination of spices it was also used to anoint the kings and priests of Israel as a sign of their being set apart for God. The Bible and apocrypha both contain stories in which oil is miraculously provided: it never runs out for Elijah’s widow in a season of famine and it stretches for an extra seven days to keep the Menorah in the temple burning in the Maccabees’ time.

I was expecting these biscuits to be a little greasy given the oil component but in fact they’re a pleasing combination of dry and chewy. There’s also a palpable hit of orange which is a good Christmassy flavour – even if it is Advent, it’s open season on mince pies. I must admit to a little disappointment on finding there were just five biscuits in the box however, making them even more expensive than Fortnum and Mason’s Chocolate Pearls of Great Price

On reflection I wondered whether Petits Grecs hadn’t served me this biscuit’s moral on a plate though. Given the five biscuits and the olive oil, wasn’t it the perfect set-up for Jesus’s Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, a story commonly told in Advent to encourage his followers to watch and wait for his return? Oil plays a crucial part in this story because it is only the five wise bridesmaids who have laid up a good stock of it who are ready to join the bridegroom – an allegory here for Jesus himself – when he returns to fetch them for the wedding feast while the five who have to go and buy some are left outside. (You can read the full story here if you like.)

Detail from the 6th century Rossano gospels

Meditation is one of the disciplines of the spiritual life and Jesus’s stories especially invite meditation. I’m convinced one of the reasons that he used them so much is because it provoked his listeners to take an active approach to mining meaning, allowing it to travel from the head to the heart. Meditating on this story this Advent leaves me with more questions than answers: what does it mean to know the bridegroom and what does this oil signify, if it’s so vital to keep a supply of it ready all the time?

Further Delectation

Read a little more on Alexander’s Mythical Adventures from the British Library blog.

Read a little more on the ancient history of Olive Oil.

One of many beautiful Anglo-Saxon meditations on Advent from the Clerk of Oxford – this one focuses on the Trinity, appropriate for the Greek Orthodox church as well who have a special focus on it.

British Orthodox composer John Tavener’s stunning choral piece The Bridegroom seems particularly fitting for this Advent post. Here it is juxtaposed with some rather haunting images from YouTuber Marcin Markowicz:

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Baci del Chiostro

Lady’s Fingers, Roman Glasses, Bones of the Dead… Is it me or are the names of continental biscuits typically more imaginative than British ones? True, there are fewer opportunities for humorous misunderstanding as a result but also less sense of a back story, hints of a colourful history, in something as prosaically descriptive as a Custard Cream. This month’s biscuit translates to ‘Kisses of the Cloister’. At least that is the literal meaning of these Baci del Chiostro given to me by my friend Katka, a regional version of the better known Baci di Dama (Ladies’ Kisses) from Piedmont – popular little sandwich biscuits found in different forms across Italy.

Wrapped up like a sweetie in their bright orange wrappers, the biscuits are not as soft as I was expecting but would likely mellow a bit soaked in coffee if it’s not too much of a travesty to suggest that. You can definitely taste the chocolate-hazelnut filling and the little information I can find about them online suggest they came by their name because they look like two mouths kissing but I’ll leave you to judge that for yourself in the picture below! Recipes for Baci di Dama are easy to find but so far as I can tell there is only one company that makes this Baci del Chiostro version in Saronno.

For the moral, I got to thinking about the theme of kissing in scripture… From Judas’s famous kiss of betrayal to the ecstatic kisses of the lovers in the Song of Songs, there are a lot of moments in the bible where a kiss is used to communicate more than words: to seal a romance or a friendship or even a sacred moment of worship, as in the beautiful image of the woman who covers Jesus’s feet with kisses and perfume. “Greet one another with a holy kiss” Paul tells the Church in Corinth – an injunction that was taken rather too enthusiastically by one man at a fellowship I once belonged to – and a custom which lives on today as the Kiss of Peace usually given before the Creed in the Orthodox Church, and the slightly awkward handshake in the Church of England.

Psalm 85: Righteousness and Peace kiss each other (detail from the 9th century Stuttgart Psalter)

But it’s another kiss that stands out more for me in one of the best known stories Jesus told about one — or rather two — lost sons:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger son said to him, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. After a few days, the younger son got everything together and journeyed to a distant country, where he squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent all he had, a severe famine swept through that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. He longed to fill his belly with the pods the pigs were eating, but no one would give him a thing. Finally he came to his senses and said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have plenty of food? But here I am, starving to death! I will get up and go back to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”  So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still in the distance, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him…

Luke 15: 11-20

It’s generally called the Story of the Prodigal Son but as Henri Nouwen reminds us it is also the Story of the Compassionate Father. In the culture of Jesus’s day, the son’s demand for his share of the estate and behaviour after leaving home shows an exceptionally callous rejection of his family of origin. It’s only when he finds himself in need and sees his folly for what it is that he returns to beg his father’s charity, expecting to be let back in in disgrace and offering to return to the household to work as a servant. But his father sees him coming from a distance and offers no word of reproach; instead he runs to him and kisses him. He’s just so grateful to have his son back whatever he’s done, all he wants to do is celebrate with a welcome home party! (Much to the disgust of the performance-driven elder son.)

The Prodigal Son by Charlie Mackesy

As with the other parables the longer you sit with the story, the more you may find it has to say to you. (I love this particular depiction of the kiss by artist Charlie Mackesy.) Advent is the Church’s great season of waiting, but the older I get I wonder if it isn’t also about God waiting for us. Not to mark us down or trip us up or ask us what we were thinking of staying out so late, but like the father watching at the window for the first glimpse of his son returning, hitching up his robes and running forward to kiss him.

Further Delectation

Have a go at making your own Baci di Dama (or cloister?) with this recipe from BBC Good Food.

Looking for some quiet reflection over Advent? Henri Nouwen’s meditations in The Return of the Prodigal Son are well worth a read, inspired by his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting of the same theme. You can read Part 2 of the story, about the Older Son, here.

For those who haven’t come across it, I recommend the beautifully and carefully curated content at the Visual Commentary of Scripture – stunning art work and thoughtful commentary on particular passages. This Drop Down Ye Heavens triptych works as an Advent meditation.

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Border Lemon Drizzle Melts

I was lucky enough to take a little holiday in a remote part of Argyll this month, and the owners of the cottage we rented provided us with complimentary biscuits. Border is a well-known, well-loved Scottish biscuit brand although I didn’t recognise them at first because of the new packaging. I’m very partial to their Dark Chocolate Gingers but this was the first time I’d come across a Lemon Drizzle Melt on either side of the border.

The LDM is an exceptionally soft, citrusy butter biscuit with the sort of ‘drizzle’ icing you associate more with lemon cakes in a satisfyingly regular zig zag pattern. These really are melt-in-your-mouth good and with the Argyll weather being drizzly for at least a few hours on most days, it seemed appropriate to retreat to the attic now and again with a LDM and a cup of tea. Although they may be harder to come by in England, I’m going to have to search for them here now I know they exist. In the end I think I managed to put away three from our complimentary box, not without strong competition from the rest of the family.

It didn’t occur to me at the time but the LDM’s citrus flavours and drizzle motif are in keeping with some of themes prevalent in the festival of Tabernacles or Sukkot, which fell in the week I was on holiday. Sukkot is the one festival in the Old Testament or Jewish Bible the Gentiles (i.e. the non Jewish nations) are enjoined to celebrate – so much so that in Zechariah 14 we are told that any nation that does not send representatives up to Jerusalem for it will get no rainfall! I don’t suppose people pray for rain much up in Scotland, but in a hot and dusty Middle Eastern country it’s customary to pray for it during Sukkot. In Jesus’s time, on the last and greatest day of the feast, the offerings in the temple would have included lavish libations of water drawn from the spring of Gihon. It was this day of the festival that was the context for his promise that all who believed in him would flow with living water…

These days many Jewish families construct their own sukkah, an open-air booth or hut covered with branches, and take their meals (and sometimes sleep in it) during the eight day holiday, to remind them of the temporary dwellings their ancestors lived in for forty years in the wilderness. It’s meant to be a joyful festival, but there is also an important life lesson here: “a tutorial in how to live with insecurity,” as the late great Jonathan Sachs put it.

…we sit in a sukkah, the tabernacle itself, which is just a shed, a shack, open to the sky, with just a covering of leaves for a roof. It’s our annual reminder of how vulnerable life is, how exposed to the elements. And yet we call Sukkot our festival of joy, because sitting there in the cold and the wind, we remember that above us and around us are the sheltering arms of the divine presence…

Illustration of a sukkah (1300s Italy) from the British Library.

Perhaps that message has greater resonance for us all this year, certainly in Britain when in the space of just a few weeks we have been subject to rapid change in government. The phrase ‘safe as houses’ no longer seems to apply to many bastions of security, not even our Houses of Parliament. And yet we are truly fortunate in being preserved from greater insecurity still: from the devastations of war, of natural calamities and the civil unrest we are seeing elsewhere in the world.

Amid all this shaking – national and global – there is an invitation to put our trust in God: “Oh Lord, you have been our dwelling place for all generations,” Psalm 90 tells us, one of the prayers of Moses who led the Israelites when they lived in their temporary dwellings in the wilderness. Come rain or shine, sweet or sour, maelstroms or meltdowns – he is our refuge – our forever home. Not a bad takeaway for the Lemon Drizzle Melt (which also makes a good takeaway with a strong cup of tea this rainy October!)

Further Delectation

When life gives you lemons make lemon biscuits… Here’s a tasty looking recipe.

Know your Etrog – some handy information on the ancient citrus fruit associated with Tabernacles.

Drawn to Celtic Climes? Pray through the changing seasons with Celtic Daily Prayer.

For when you just need to escape for a bit… Some beautiful music from House of Waters:

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Water Biscuits

What a moving and turbulent two weeks it has been for the United Kingdom. After all the splendour and sadness of that state funeral, I think it’s high time for a cup of tea and a biscuit, and as Her Late Majesty the Queen is known to have started each day in such a manner we can hardly do better than follow her example – but more of that anon. It’s fair to say her character and legacy have come into sharper focus in the shared grief of many at her passing: a wonderful jigsaw of memories, stories and tributes over ninety-six years, revealing the beauty, and, yes, the majesty of a life which was extraordinary by any estimation. For many of us, I think there’s also been a felt grief at the symbolic passing of much she came to represent: a generation largely marked by its sacrifice, an age largely marked by its stability. It’s in this spirit of gratitude and reflection that I invite us to consider the Water Biscuit…

This biscuit is associated with its maker, Carr’s of Carlisle, who co-incidentally were the first biscuit manufacturers to receive a Royal Warrant. It was an enterprising Theodore Carr who invented the Table Water Biscuit as an improvement on the Captain’s Thin in 1890: “What he did was to experiment with the thickness of this popular biscuit, trying to make it thinner and crisper, until it would seem almost like a new variety,” Margaret Forster writes in Rich Desserts and Captain’s Thin, her biography of the Carr family. What Theodore created is basically a modern version of the Ship’s Biscuit slimmed down still further for your average landlubber. Taste-wise they’re deliciously thin and crispy, the biscuity equivalent of a pizza (it may be more an accident of semantics that they’re categorised as biscuits and not crackers!) As savoury biscuits, I’m pairing them with some nice cheese from Yorkshire.

Ships from the fifteenth-century Romance of the Three Kings Sons (credit: British Library)

As you might guess from the name, it’s water rather than fat that binds the ingredients together, and helps keep the Water Biscuit fresh for long voyages on or offshore. The table I assume refers to the meal table (or perhaps the mess table if it’s at sea). And to me, the association of both evokes the powerful scene from the last supper, recorded in the gospel of John:

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet…

Washing the dirt and dust of the road from your guests’ feet and drying them with a towel was clearly servants’ work in first-century Judea and not a role the disciples had ever envisaged for their Messiah. When Peter objects, Jesus tells them: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master.” It was a theme he returned to again and again in his ministry: that the greatest in the kingdom of God is the one most willing to become the servant of all.

Jesus washing his disciples’ feet by Jyoti Sahi

It’s a message the late Queen would have been familiar with too as a practising Christian and a teaching she clearly aimed to put into practice. As Archbishop Justin noted at her funeral, the faithful devotion to service which so characterised her long reign, (and for which, I believe, she’ll be remembered as our greatest monarch), “had its foundation in her following Christ – God himself – who said that he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

While the manner and context of the Queen’s call to serve was both unusually public and privileged, she certainly understood the value of the contribution of the ordinary citizen to the health of the nation and with characteristic modesty believed that in the end it was just, if not more, vital to its success. The upward course of a nation’s history is due, in the long run, to the soundness of heart of its average men and women, she observed once. Like the trusty Water Biscuit, let’s cultivate such soundness wherever we can, the high watermark of which will always be our willingness to love and serve.

Further Reflection

A story about the part the Queen, her corgis, and some biscuits played in comforting a traumatised war surgeon in 2014.

An Unexpected History of Ship’s Biscuits.

The Queen’s life in her own words, although with unfortunately blurred footage. (She really did use the indefinite pronoun ‘one’ when speaking about herself and it’s nice to see some of her own wry humour coming out, and not a little brio!)

In the venerable tradition of Thomas Tallis, Sir James MacMillan set part of the passage in Romans 8 (“Who Shall Separate Us from the Love of Christ?”) to music in this eight-part a capella composed especially for the funeral on Monday. A beautiful piece – and promise – for the future: