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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Czech Poppy Seed Biscuits

My amazing Czech friend has been baking again, although these excellent specimens aren’t a traditionally Bohemian biscuit but a recent recipe from a Czech magazine. Makovky can be translated as little poppy seed biscuits and these come with a nice sticky centre of lemon curd. Crushed poppy seeds are a common ingredient of Czech baking and give the biscuit dough its marble-like appearance here. Maybe it’s all the scalloped edging, but to me there’s something baroque about their elegance such that they wouldn’t seem out of place on the dressing table of an eighteenth-century belle (or indeed the coffee table of a twenty-first-century one!)

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It took me a while to think of an appropriate sentence for the Makovky but their flower-like appearance reminded me of that passage on combating worry in the Sermon on the Mount: Consider the lilies of the field. In medieval Europe the lily flower or fleur-de-lis was the heraldic emblem of the French crown as well as having more general associations with the purity of the Virgin Mary, which is why images of the annunciation often include a lily or background of lilies.

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Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are…

Jesus uses the illustration of the lilies rather differently in his sermon. Knowing how prone we humans are to fret about the many things we can’t control, he asks his hearers to stop, look and listen to all the signs of life humming around them, to consider the flowers of the field (or scattered about the hard shoulder of the motorway or pushing their tiny heads through the urban concrete sprawl) and what their brief lives tell us about the one who made them.

…and if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

It’s a good question. Sometimes I feel our peace of mind is continually being sabotaged by the pace of modern life, our own worries for the future and the anxieties that fuel the news — but the more our thought-lives centre on these fears, the more power they have to rob us of our joy and equilibrium. Faith can feel like an impossible ask when worries intrude, which is why taking time out to fill our minds with healthier, happier things is vital. And as we do, we find that faith is less something we have to work up than a trust we’re invited to relax into. Consider the lilies of the field

Further Delectation

Consider more lilies (and medieval reading culture) in these medieval annunciation scenes or read up on the history of the fleur-de-lis and its role in heraldry.

It’s the perfect time of year for creative biscuit making and the BBC Good Food site has a wealth of easy creative recipes.

Consider the rich and vibrant colour-scapes of this medieval annunciation from the Netherlands (from the met museum) notable for its careful observation of plant life:

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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