The Malted Milk

So I promised my friend Naomi I’d profile the Malted Milk, but so far I’ve held off because (whisper it) I find it hard to get excited about biscuits like these… This in itself provides an object lesson in human psychology. What is it that draws so many of us to anything resembling chocolate and away from the plainer sorts of biscuit lauded for their lower calories? It takes a special kind of individual or at least a special kind of self-restraint to choose a Malted Milk over a Chocolate Hobnob, and yet there’s no sign of the former disappearing from the supermarket shelves anytime soon. I forget Naomi’s reasons for preferring Malted Milks to any other species of biscuit, but if she has a thing for them there must be something to like about them.

IMG_0160The Malted Milk has a curiously homespun quality for such a mass produced biscuit. Its well-known emboss design of grazing cows resembles a cave painting more than the industrial precision of the Oreo, but for that very reason there’s something charmingly unselfconscious about it. For me such comfortable rusticity is reminiscent of a lost Eden, a place where cows (and sheep!) might safely graze and Malted Milks be consumed in peace and quiet.


‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ asked the preacher John Ball, the voice of socialism in the 1380s. Chaucer’s Ballad of Gentilesse turns the same question on its head by suggesting true nobility is within the reach of every human prepared to strive for it whatever the condition of their birth. It does feels a little odd seeing Adam, the original bad boy of Genesis, held up for emulation as the Father of Gentilesse in this poem, but Chaucer is here talking about pre-Lapsarian or unfallen man as he might have existed in that legendary time before Paradise was lost, a state of perfect innocence before the Malted Milk became shackled to a blues song…

Margin illustration from John Lydgate’s The Fall of Princes (BL Harley MS 1766)

Thankfully the story of Adam and Eve doesn’t end with their expulsion from Paradise and medieval theology sets great store by the concept of Felix Culpa or the Fortunate Fault. On this reading, the story of the Fall is one in which humanity’s rebellion is counterbalanced by an even greater exercise in human obedience: Jesus’ trust replacing their mistrust, his self-giving their taking, and so on. Even the teenage Mary’s decision to accept the task of bearing the Messiah (‘Be it unto me according to thy word’) forms a crucial part of this reversal of human fortunes and a particular kindness of God’s to make salvation hinge on a woman’s obedience as well as a man’s. From weal to woe to weal again, and from greater woe to greater weal. As a meta-narrative it’s all so beautifully constructed and what God does on that large canvas for all of us, he loves to replicate in the smaller canvases of our individual lives, turning even our Valleys of Weeping into places of refreshing.

Further Delectation

Read more about the history of Malted Milk with a cup of Horlicks and a Malted Milk to hand…

Did you know that Malted Milks are second cousins to the Malteser? Also light caloried, but with added chocolate. You’re welcome.

Listen to Audrey Assad’s Fortunate Fall album (or pretty much anything she’s written.)

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The Oreo

Consider the Oreo… As many New Worlders celebrate their independence today, I thought it high time we profiled their National Biscuit on the Bestiary and for the convenience of speakers of American English I shall be referring to it here as a cookie. It’s a measure of how popular Oreos have become in Britain now that you can even find them in the wilds of Yorkshire. Here are four sitting pretty on some old Blue Willow china, no doubt waiting for a glass of milk to accompany them…

IMG_0932Left to my own devices, I might have assigned the Oreo’s genesis to the ’50s but in fact it first appeared in 1912 around the same time as equivalent sandwich styles premiered in Britain (c.f. the Bourbon and Custard Cream). Even today America’s Oreos are still produced by the successors of the wonderfully named National Biscuit Company, created back in the era when Old and New World biscuits were largely the same thing.

New York, New York and Nabisco (image from Chelsea Market and The Smithsonian)

Intriguingly, this compact and demure little cookie manages to attracts more controversy than the Knights Templar, viz. ‘What does the name really mean?’, ‘What does the Cross on the top signify?’ and, most crucially, ‘What is the most righteous way to eat it?’ The more you delve into the question of the Oreo’s spiritual significance the more you’ll find a dazzling – and frankly gnostic – range of exegeses on the market. Far too many to come down on one side or the other in a hasty fashion.

Photo credit: Olivia Brambill

While it’s not the first time we’ve profiled embossed cookies on the Bestiary, the intricacy and regularity of the Oreo’s design bears closer examination. In America at least, it’s as distinctive as a coin face and almost as widely recognised. This excellent article from Edible Geography on the unsung heroes of biscuit embossing and the history of the Oreo in particular is well worth a perusal (I had no idea that the current design only dates to 1952, or that the Oreo has a very Greek-sounding rival, the Hydrox, with an even more venerable history).

The nearest thing I can find to a commentary on the art of embossing in the bible comes in Paul’s statements in Romans about Christians being conformed to the image of Christ and not being conformed to the world’s pattern. If we’re honest, such language of conformity rarely sits well with children of the revolution for whom freedom is ‘a breakfast food’ (as one brilliant New World poet put it). Perhaps it plays too much on our fears that faith means towing a line or adopting a sort of cookie-cut saintliness that leaves no room for individuality or self-expression. For the New Testament writers, however, being conformed to Christ’s image is less about being boxed in than being let out and finding freedom from the power of sin and death to become the people we’ve always wanted to be. ‘I run in the path of your commands for you have set my heart free’ the Psalmist writes. It’s on this path to freedom that he’s our template and trailblazer.

Further Delectation

A masterclass on the art of Oreo-eating from Jess and her Dad (but if all this seems very complicated, just experiment with your own inimitable style – whatever that is!)

Give the humble Hydrox some love – or at least a read of its history in the Atlas Obscura.

Don’t have any Oreos in the house to celebrate your independence with? Have a consolatory read of e e cummings’ loveliest medieval-themed poem.

If you’ve landed here straight from the High Middle Ages and find yourself a bit flummoxed by all these bizarre references to a New World, you can catch up with Amerigo Vespucci‘s correspondence on the subject or these more recent Letters from America and newfangled experiments in Netherlandish cartography:


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Roshen Hazelnut Wafers

I’ve been saving these hazelnut wafers for the Feast of Corpus Christi, another of those moveable feasts in the Church calendar which falls on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Gareth kindly sent these along with the Chocoline Cookies as another example of Eastern Europe biscuitry, but sadly they have not weathered the journey quite as well. The first few I extracted from the packet broke apart in my hands and I had to dig down a layer or two to find some that were more intact, like this one:


A very innocent looking biscuit, you wouldn’t dream its Ukrainian manufacturers had been banned from exporting it (and other Roshen products) in a now infamous ‘chocolate war‘ with Russia. While the outer layers of wafer crumble easily, they are light and sweet as well as splintery – and the crumbly bits could well find their home in a dessert of some kind. The hazelnut-flavoured chocolate filling is also very pleasant and nicely complimented with a mid-strength coffee.


The easily breakable wafers reminded me of other wafers with a history of being broken: the little disks of bread that symbolise (or, according to Catholic doctrine, actually become) the body of Christ and his real presence with us in the Eucharist. It’s a celebration that can take many forms, but is in essence a very simple thing: the breaking of bread and drinking of wine together as he commanded us to do at the Last Supper.

For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me…

This year my friend Sarah wrote a poem which illuminated one particular sentence in the accounts of that supper that I’d never noticed before. The line where Jesus says, ‘I have longed to eat this Passover Meal with you.’ The word longed brought me up short. Naturally it’s not the same word in all translations, but most English texts use something similar such as ‘very eager’ or ‘earnestly desired’. Somehow I’d never given it its proper weight. That in the night in which he was betrayed, in the final hours before the torture of the cross and all its terrible rejection and humiliation (all of which he had already foreseen and steeled himself to go through) there was something he had been looking forward to. Because the sacrifice of his body and blood wasn’t about saving us so he could save us, but saving us so he could be with us – about sharing a meal with his friends. Was it any coincidence that the disciples on the road to Emmaus first recognised him in the breaking of bread?

Further Delectation

medieval poem for Corpus Christi from the Clerk of Oxford.

This moving post by Joy Clarkson with a link to Gavin Bryar’s Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet (if you’ve never heard it before, you might want to read the story of how it came to be written).

In the late middle ages, Corpus Christi was celebrated with processions and mystery plays in England. You can read more about them and modern revivals here and here, and here’s an early fifteenth-century Corpus procession from BL MS Harley 7026:

Harley 7026 f. 13 Corpus Christi procession

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Lemon Moon Biscuits

It was my birthday this month, which was an excellent excuse to buy some nicer-than-usual biscuits for the office. As luck would have it there’s a Konditor and Cook just down the road from where I work so I nipped in on Monday to appraise their biscuit range…


Konditor’s official mission is to spread joy through cake and happily that mission extends to several species of biscuit. These Lemon Moon creations went down well in the office, and their surprising density and combination of meringue, lemon and almond flavours gave them the taste of an extra citrusy Christmas cake. For my part I’d never come across a biscuit so densely packed with fruit or redolent of marzipan (its moon shape was also distinctive although not quite as slender as a real crescent moon, but who wouldn’t err on the side of less bite and more biscuit?)


You don’t have to look too far for a mention of the moon in the bible. In the dramatic opening chapter of Genesis, Elohim creates it as one of two lights to separate the day and night. While the sun rules over the day-time, the moon is the lesser light appointed to rule over the night, and both are set in their place as a marker of times and seasons. In medieval cosmology the moon’s sphere sits directly above the Earth and everything ‘sublunary’ is subject to change and corruption. ‘We that dwelle under the Mone / Stand in this world upon a weer [a doubt]’ wrote Chaucer’s friend John Gower.


Such stoic resignation to an earthly life of change and instability may provide a handy filter on current affairs, but it also reveals an interesting disconnect between medieval Christian and older Hebrew culture. To the medieval poets and their inheritors, the moon symbolised fickleness (‘Don’t swear by the moon!’ begs Juliet in Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-crossed lovers) but in the Book of Psalms you could do a lot worse than swearing by Earth’s constant satellite. Here the moon is established as a sign of God’s unfailing love and covenant with his people, ‘his faithful witness in the sky’. 

Perhaps the wheel has come full circle in modern climatology which rather emphasises the moon’s stabilising influence on the Earth than the other way around, but whether he understood that or not, it was contemplating the wonder of it all which led David to cry:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—
    the moon and the stars you set in place—
what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
    human beings that you should care for them? 

A good sentence for a biscuit created to look (a little bit) like the moon on a starry night…


Further Delectation

More on medieval cosmology from the British Library’s blog and in this fascinating post  from the Getty Museum. (The pictures above are from a 9th century copy of Pliny’s Natural History BL Harley MS 647 and Christine de Pizan’s lovely Book of the Queen BL Harley MS 4431).

Another recipe for Moon Biscuits popular in India (these do look a lot more like a real crescent!)

Shooting Stars from troubadour Will Cookson wandering beyond the Moon’s far side, for when your day’s been too sublunary by half:

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Chocoline Cookies

This week’s biscuit hails from the furthermost reaches of Eastern Europe, another find from intrepid biscuit hunter Gareth, who crossed the borders of Latvia a few weeks ago to retrieve it. He did say that the biscuit selection in Belarus wasn’t as varied as he was expecting, but I was quite impressed by the specimens below and the packaging is so bright you can almost see it glowing:

IMG_0701Chocoline cookies are produced by a company in Minsk, whose name seems to be Chocoladovo transliterated from Belarussian. This particular incarnation of Chocoline is topped with a scattering of milled roast peanuts partially coated by a layer of soft chocolate, and the dimensions (5cm squares to about 8 or 9mm depth) seemed a bit unusual to me, probably because British brands look and feel chunkier. The peanut version was less crunchy in texture than I’d expected from the picture and the coating more sugary than nutty, but they were pleasant enough with a coffee after noon or dinner and thin enough to justify eating three or four at a push, or maybe six if you’re a penguin…

I was a bit stumped for a moral until I reflected that the rocky surface of the Chocoline fitted well with Jesus’s Parable of the Sower, in which the seed sown on rocky soil represents those who receive God’s word with joy but fail to develop deep roots, believing for a while then falling away when they face temptationThere are many lessons we could take from this but perhaps the most positive is that temptations have one up-side as far as self-knowledge goes: you only really know how firm your principles are or how deep your roots go when they’re tested.

Titivillus was the devil responsible for scribal errors too. Here he is bothering St Bernard de Menthon…

My favourite Middle English morality play, Mankind (c.1470), portrays the drama of temptation through a more extended allegory, a popular way of depicting the spiritual life in the medieval period. In it the dim but loveable Mankind – a sort of gardening Everyman – successfully withstands the temptations of four Vices until the devil Titillivus (only visible to the audience) appears to harden the soil, nick his spade and inflict him with an urgent need to piss when he should be praying. Thus disrupted and distracted, Mankind succumbs to the persuasions of the Vices who have a tendency to steal the show as craftily as Titillivus steals the shovel. But the audience’s amusement at their uproarious behaviour fades as their true nature is revealed and they eventually succeed in persuading Mankind to put a noose around his neck and hang himself as ‘the new fashion’. (Fortunately, his old friend Mercy arrives just in time to save him.)

Temptation tests our character, but what if you take the test and fail? What if some rocky terrain you weren’t expecting exposes some lack or shallowness you’d rather not own, pitching you into disgrace or despair of things ever changing? Jesus understood this sadness, I think, when he said temptations would inevitably come, and in general he had much kinder words for the tempted than those doing the tempting. Failure can be a lonely place, but as the story of Mankind shows sometimes it takes a fall from grace to show us what grace really is. And, like Mercy, he has a habit of running in when the rest of the world runs out, God bless him.

Further Delectation

Watch the vices in action in this production of Mankind at the Festival of Early Drama.

Listen to this spectacular choral setting of Psalm 51, Misere Mei Deus (‘Lord, Have Mercy on Me’) performed by the Tenebrae choir. (You may also enjoy the story of its release to humankind, thanks to a well-known musical genius with perfect recall!)

Thinking of making your own raid on the biscuit barrels of Belarus? Have a read of The Lonely Planet’s Online Guide to learn more about one of Europe’s new ‘it’ destinations.

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Galettes Bretonnes

These excellent Galettes Bretonnes were another offering from my friend Olivia and if you get the chance to make their acquaintance too I thoroughly recommend it. Given the French are better known as coffee than tea drinkers I had thought to pair them with a cafetière of French coffee, but the glowing write-up they received on A Nice Cup of Tea and A Sit Down encouraged me to put them through their paces with a nice cup of tea instead:


As the name suggests, these Galettes are based on a traditional recipe from Brittany and I must confess to chomping my way through five in succession as soon as my iPhone had captured their likenesses. They are very buttery indeed with a croissant-like sheen and like a croissant the grease has a tendency to rub off on your fingers. While this might sound off-putting they really do taste as delicious as proper croissants too, and impressively so given that they had already been left to sit on the shelf for several weeks. Frankly, if this is what mass-produced Galettes taste like, I can only imagine the bliss awaiting those destined to eat the freshly baked version in a Breton kitchen…

Brittany was sometimes called Little or Lesser Britain in the Middle Ages to distinguish it geographically from Greater Britain and you can see a nod to its Celtic heritage in the Galette’s three-spiralled Triskelion. It was the Celts of Greater Britain who first brought Christianity to Brittany after the Fall of the Rome, and like those of Wales and Cornwall (whose language is closer to Breton) went on to shape its art and history in radical ways. The Christian faith may not have seemed entirely strange to the pre-Christian Celts given that both cultures shared a belief in immortality and a spiritual world infusing and underpinning the material one. You might even argue that, in their own distinctive blend of poetry and mysticism, the Celtic pagans had already created an imaginative space for the new faith to enter long before its missionaries did.


The Triskelion itself offers one intriguing possibility of this as a prefiguring of the idea of Divinity as Trinity. In Celtic mythology ultimate realities are always triune or triad – one reason early Celtic Christians would, I suspect, have had no problem with the idea that the Trinity had always existed outside of time and before the birth of Christ. 

“There are four things I like about the Trinity. First, I love having a father in God. Second, I love having a friend and brother in Jesus. Third, I love having a comforter and guide in the Holy Spirit. And fourth… I love the fact that it’s a mystery. God in three persons. Three persons – one God. It’s a mystery and I love it. Why would I want to spoil things by trying to explain it?”  (Adrian Plass)

I like these things too, and find it cheering that a point of doctrine that proved so difficult for theologians to wrestle with could be simply and instinctively embraced by a bunch of Celtic bards. Each tradition has its own strengths, but perhaps the greatest lesson Celtic Christianity has to teach us is to be good stewards of mystery. If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, perhaps a respect for mystery is the beginning of love. 

Further Delectation

Intrigued by the Christian and Celtic? Peruse the incomparable Book of Kells (now digitised and available to read online from Trinity College Dublin) or listen to this setting of a Celtic Prayer by John Michael Talbot, a modern music-making monk.

Can’t get over to the sunny coasts of Greater and Lesser Britain right now? Have a go at making your own Breton biscuits or book yourself a magical, mysterious evening in with Marie de France’s Breton Lays.

It’s hard to write about French medieval culture today without thinking of the fire in Notre Dame recently and the brave pompiers who worked so hard to save her. Courtesy of the Met Museum, here’s a beautiful image of the cathedral in its medieval prime from my favourite fifteenth-century manuscript, Jean Fouquet’s Hours of Etienne Chevalier:


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English Jumbles

So this year Easter may have trumped the Bard’s Birthday as the greater and more moveable feast, but I did get time for a quick foray into the world of Elizabethan Jumbles in honour of Master Shakespeare. If you’re in any wise a biscuit-baker or couch-dweller you might be familiar with these intricately knotted creatures from their appearance on the Great British Bake-OffJumbles have been around since at least 1585 when the first recipe for them was printed in Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswife’s Jewell, which is the nearest thing I can find to a sixteenth-century Mrs Beeton. It may or may not be true that they were rushed out to the Field of Bosworth by order of Richard III, but Bosworth Jumbles (‘s’ shaped, apparently) are a traditional part of Leicestershire cuisine so perhaps the Yorkists had their own version. Here are two discussing it on the eve of battle…

IMG_0516 2In the end I followed Dawson’s recipe, encouraged by Sanne Berry’s baking blog and a glass of the wine left over from Easter Sunday lunch. I have to say it was really fun keeping company with Elizabethan bakers for a few hours and I soon became engrossed in the unfamiliar twists and turns of Tudor biscuit-making. Mixing and rolling the dough into ropes was easy, but it took me a while to get the hang of the knot-tying part. After several unsatisfactory attempts at a True Love Knot (sorry, Shakespeare!) I decided to keep things simple and Trefoil.

If the weaving of biscuits was new to me, the really novel experience was boiling them before baking them in the oven. Dawson recommends dropping them in ‘seething water’, which I did with some trepidation having never cooked anything resembling a biscuit by this method before. Thankfully the unbaked Jumbles did not disintegrate on a rolling boil but rose to the surface like Gnocchi after just a few minutes. I then popped them in the oven at 160 C and was rewarded with this rather nice-looking batch within half an hour:

IMG_0481The first thing you might notice about the finished biscuits is their unusually smooth and shiny surface, the boiling having given them the effect of a gentle glaze. They were tastiest straight out of the oven with a strong cup of tea (Yorkshire, naturally). Personally, I wouldn’t want to chew on more than one at a time given their formidable density, however from a practical angle it’s easy to see how the Jumbles’ toughness and protective glazing makes them more durable and portable than most modern biscuit types. These  specimens could easily last a week, preferably softened up with some tea-dipping after cooling overnight, and apart from being boiled within an inch of their lives their most distinctive characteristic is their knot design. 

IMG_0672.jpgConsidering how fond the Tudors were of rings, wreaths and knots in general, I couldn’t help but remember how it was the metaphorical tying of a knot by Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor that brought a symbolic end to the Wars of the Roses in 1486. Of course Shakespeare would draw on the histories of that war for some of his earliest dramatic material about a century later; his plays, too, explore the role of love and marriage in uniting communities, and even today it’s how many comedies end and loose plot-ends are tied. When Shakespeare’s Agrippa councils Caesar to marry his sister Octavia to Antony, he advocates it as a means of knitting both men’s hearts ‘with an unslipping knot’. Such bonds offered a way of turning strangers into fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters (in the true fiction of the law at least), supporting the wider ministry of reconciliation Christians are called to practice in the world at large.

‘Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love / The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above,’ as the old hymn puts it – but as heavenly as the fellowship or even marriage of true minds may be, it often seems like a lost Eden when each day brings painful evidence that we don’t all think alike. Yet even where agreement or fellowship isn’t possible, kindness and courtesy can be. Jesus wasn’t joking when he asked us to love our enemies and part of the reward for doing so may be to find that they are not quite the enemies we thought they were.

Further Delectation

Check out Sanne Berry’s wonderful Dollop of History, for your own Jumble-making and many other excellent recipes from times past.

Can there really be such a thing as a marriage of true minds? Have a listen to the lovely Patrick Stewart reading Sonnet 116 and decide for yourself with a glass of sack.

Bring your Jumbles to Shakespeare’s Globe for an afternoon of quality theatre. The main season is now open if you want to sneak a look at the programme.

Take a virtual flying trip through seventeenth-century London just a few years after Shakespeare quit it (as imagined by students of De Montford University using contemporary sources from before the Great Fire):

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Japanese Pocky

It turns out National Tea Day falls on Easter this year and this week the noble Geoffrey invited me to a local Tea Festival (or FesTeaVal) at Tobacco Dock, which reminded me that I had yet to write an entry for these Matcha Green Tea Pocky from Japan. My friend Nancy originally brought me a packet of them via South Korea but happily you can now find them in Sainsbury’s also. On opening it my first thought was how much they resembled a box of cigarettes or long-stemmed matches.

IMG_0398It’s testament to the narrowness of the life I’ve lived that this is the first time I’ve come across a biscuit stick or been actively encouraged to admit the existence of biscuits that don’t fit in your hand, with the honourable exception of the giant cookie. Before calling up the information from the world’s largest corpus, I had no idea how many flavours of Pocky existed or how popular they were in Japan. Apparently they’re a particular hit with the youth, and perhaps my knowledge of this had some bearing on my decision to take them down to the park (or the nearest thing to a park) at the Library yesterday: the little oasis of green in St James’ Square. In my defence Pocky have a good claim to being the ultimate biscuit for on-the-go consumption, as both their shape and packaging makes them enviably slim and portable. Still, they do look more than a bit like Joss sticks to me and not everyone I offered them to was brave enough to try one…

IMG_0403 I wasn’t sure whether the green tea element would prove anything but a curiosity at first, but after sampling the first Pocky I was convinced or at least intrigued enough to reach for another, and another, and another, until a quarter of the packet had gone. It might be the calming properties of the Matcha, but to me the coating tastes more like yoghurt than chocolate. The influence of the green tea can certainly be felt, taking me back in memory to the green-tea ice-cream I’d once eaten at a Japanese restaurant in California – very calm and sweet and cool on the tip of the tongue.

photo-1528164344705-47542687000d.jpegWith the cigarette-style packaging in mind I had originally intended to riff a bit on St James’ warnings about the wild fire of the tongue for this biscuit’s moral, but the Pocky’s unusual appearance and combination of ingredients gave me pause for thought, reminding me again of incense for burning. Incense in the Bible is often used as a metaphor for prayer: David in the Psalms asks that his prayer would be set before the Lord ‘like incense’ and for the lifting of his hands to be ‘like the evening sacrifice’, and in the Book of Revelation the prayers of the saints are imagined as golden bowls of incense rising before the throne of God. In times of great trial and turbulence – in the times that we are going through now – it is a comfort to think that behind the scenes, in churches, homes and wherever people of faith gather, that incense carries on rising.

Further Delectation

Celebrate National Tea Day this year by making your own Green Tea Pocky or visiting the London FesTeaVal.

Learn more about the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony and medieval Japan.

The season of pilgrimage is upon us! The British Pilgrimage Trust have some excellent resources if you fancy a little peregrination, but if you can’t go yourself you can at least enjoy the inspired ramblings of that other noble Geoffrey or the adventures of our Mann on the Camino Trail.


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These three-cornered Hamantaschen cookies are eaten every year around this time for Purim: a festival celebrating the deliverance of the Jews in the ancient Persian empire from the plot of their enemy Haman, a high-ranking official at the palace in Susa who succeeded in persuading King Xerxes to authorise their massacre on a certain day by royal decree. Popularly known as Haman’s pockets (or sometimes his ears or hat) these sweet pastry biscuits developed centuries later as a treat associated with the festival. You could say the biscuits themselves are a nice illustration of the venahafoch hu motif in the idea of the villain out to make mincemeat of others symbolically made mincemeat himself. If not quite medieval in origin, they probably date from 1500s Italy (as Oznei Haman) or the 1700s when the name Hamantaschen (‘Haman’s Pockets’) began to be used in Jewish communities in Germany and Eastern Europe.

IMG_0354These biscuits are made from a dairy-free pastry recipe infused with a hint of orange and filled with light spoonfuls of apricot and blackcurrant jam. It took me a while to get the hang of the folding process but the results aren’t bad for a first attempt. If you haven’t tried them before it’s fair to say they look and taste a lot like novelty jam tarts, but with a sweeter flavour.

For the moral we must look more deeply at the story that inspired them: a story not first and foremost about Haman and his wickedness but the bravery of a young Jewish girl called Esther. Essentially as a result of winning the fifth century equivalent of a national beauty pageant, Esther is elevated to the rank of queen and proves herself to have courage and wisdom as well as beauty in pitting her prayers and wits against Haman’s. In the end she manages to change the story by interceding for her people, a risky thing to do in an age when even approaching a king without permission could cost you your life. One of the tensest moments in the book occurs when she walks into the inner courtyard, a lone figure in her royal robes, hoping against hope that the king will receive her.

6a017ee66ba427970d01b7c8dee014970b.pngThe words of Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, are often quoted as a crucial part this story, intended as they are to prompt her into speaking out despite the danger: ‘if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?‘ There are wonderful stories in the Jewish Bible of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies fighting for his people, but here their deliverance is brought about in a very different way through the workings of human history and human choices.

It is a sad and shameful fact that the majority of the early Church fathers from Iraneus to Augustine were deeply anti-semitic, a legacy of medieval Christianity which must be recognised and repented of today if we are really to honour the roots of our faith going forward. And even in our own age it has become depressingly clear that religious and ethnic persecution of all kinds is still ongoing and in some cases increasing. We may all have our own choices to make in such a time as this. Let us pray we make them well and wisely.

Further Reflection

Have a go at making your own Hamantaschen with pastry recipes (and a helpful tutorial) from Tori Avey.

It’s traditional to read the Book of Esther again when celebrating Purim. Here’s a lovely joyous take on her story from the Maccabeats and a thoughtful exploration of the meaning of it by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.


Beautiful, isn’t it? And to think it’s been only a few weeks since I discovered the Stroopwafel was a biscuit! (If you don’t believe me, visit Holland’s leading tourism site which describes it as a ‘combination of two cookies with a caramel centre’). With its rounded shape and syrupy goodness, it’s the closest thing I can think of to a pancake in biscuit form so this seems like a good day to catalogue it here…

img_0234.jpgI’ve been a dedicated consumer of Stroopwafels for years now and they’re about the only food I might be tempted to stockpile in the event of a no-deal Brexit. You can find them in coffee shops, but for my money the best – and best value – ones are made by the Dutch company Daelmans and available to buy in supermarkets in larger packs. The recommended way to eat them is to balance them on a mug of hot tea or coffee for a minute until the outer waffle warms through and the caramel becomes soft and gooey. Alas, these delightful creatures are pretty much spun from sugar, but arguably this makes them the perfect indulgence for Pancake Day.

Shrove Tuesday is known as Vastenavond in the Netherlands, and, as the name suggests, marks the final evening before Lent’s 40-day fast. As in many other parts of Europe, Lent was preceded by three days of Carnival in medieval Holland: a season of license and celebration where music, entertainment and civic processions – and even uproar in the streets on occasion – was the order of the day (and night). In the medieval imagination, Lent and Carnival were often depicted as slugging it out in an imaginary battle, as in this famous painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in which you can see King Carnival (with a pie on his head) brandishing a spit of meat at Lady Lent (in a habit and bee-hive):

Pieter_Bruegel_d._Ä._066.jpgI’m afraid any honied waffles in the vicinity would almost certainly be rooting for King Carnival as it’s hard to imagine many biscuits being eaten on Ash Wednesday except charcoal ones. For medieval Christians, Carnival probably represented a welcome letting off of steam before the fast began, or, more philosophically, a counterbalance to Lent’s mood of contrition and renunciation. Both the Dutch Vastenavond and the English word Shrove carry the suggestion of preparation for Lent more than Mardi Gras, although Shrovetide in England was also a season of license. As the final day before the long fast, Shrove Tuesday combined elements of both as Christians prepared by being shriven (making confession) and using up any sweet food in the cupboard.

IMG_0191 But what has all this to do with Stroopwafels, you may ask? Particularly when the point of Lent – and of fasting in general – is to focus on things that are more important than material satisfactions, since people cannot live on bread (or even biscuits) alone? As a season of renunciation and reflection, Lent offers us a sober but ultimately healing space to sift our goals and priorities, to humble ourselves where we need humbling, and soften our hearts where they are stiff and cold.

And this is where the example of the Stroopwafel comes in, for just as the caramel needs to be softened by the warmth of the tea below it, so our hearts can’t be changed except by the work of the holy spirit in our lives. ‘I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart,’ says the famous passage in Ezekiel – a promise I’ve grown to treasure as I’ve watched it working in my own life, little by little, in ways I never thought it could.

Further Delectation

Show the Bake-off contestants how it’s done and make your own Stroopwafels for Shrove Tuesday.

Celebrate the last night of Carnival with a dance from medieval Gelderland (or something) with bonus glowering from Rufus Sewell:

If you would like to see more entries more regularly and help keep this bestiary free of ads, you are welcome to contribute to the Biscuit Jar