Florentines

I’m writing this post on the rattling train from Kings Cross to Edinburgh. It’s the first time I’ve been out of London since September so I’m very much looking forward to Narnia and the North (or Northallerton, anyway). It’s also National Biscuit Day, which I’d forgotten about until this morning when this wonderful thread of biscuity homages to history reminded me. This week felt like we had the first day in a hundred years in which it was sunny enough to sit in the garden without a coat on for more than two minutes, and what better biscuit to celebrate that little glimpse of summer than one of these excellent dark chocolate Florentines my friend Katka gave me?

Although I don’t often get the opportunity to sample them these days, Florentines are one of my favourite biscuits so I was pleased to discover no less a personage than Delia Smith arguing that they’re the best biscuits in the world. I love Felicity Cloake’s description of them as ‘delicate webs of nut and candied fruit’. These specimens are particularly nice with coffee, although a bit sticky to eat because of the caramel. Like macarons, they’re notoriously difficult to make well – I had a go myself a few years ago and they came out looking like flapjacks that had lost their way.

From the name you might be forgiven for thinking the Florentine’s origin is Italian when in fact most experts agree it was likelier to have been cooked up in France by the chefs at Louis XII or Louis XIV’s court when the Medici family came to visit. To make things even more complicated, this particular recipe is an English tribute from Thomas Fudge’s bakery and has been in use for more than a hundred years in Dorset.

Perhaps this particular Florentine is the nearest thing you’ll get to fusion-cooking in the biscuit world. In the medieval world, it’s the nearest thing you’ll get to a florilegium, a collection of literary extracts selected like choice blooms for the reader (the word itself means a gathering of flowers, the same as an anthology). Both derive from the Latin florens with its connotations of blooming and flourishing. This makes it a good choice of biscuit for “the joly tyme of May,” as Chaucer’s narrator in the Legend of Good Women puts it, the favourite month of the medieval love poets.

“Look, the winter is past,
and the rains are over and gone.
The flowers are springing up,
the season of singing birds has come,
and the cooing of turtledoves fills the air.
The fig trees are forming young fruit,
and the fragrant grapevines are blossoming…”

That sounds a lot like a fourteenth-century dream vision, but in fact it’s straight from the pages of The Song of Songs: a love song, first and foremost, but the church fathers always liked to read it as a picture of Christ and the church or the individual soul. A poem about love and loss, waking and dreaming, finding and searching. Because the God of the bible is not some remote figure approached through set formulas, but a person we can seek and who seeks us in our own desert places and gardens. In finding him – or perhaps in allowing ourselves to be found – there’s a perennial invitation to bloom.

Further Delectation

Eat your Florentines with The Florentine, another great fusion of Anglo-Italian culture in Firenze.

School’s out, you say? (For the yes argument, see Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women; for no, this learned little essay on a thirteenth-century florilegium).

Enjoy this beautiful May miscellany from the Clerk of Oxford or this lovely illustration for Maying in late medieval France from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

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Sicilian Mystery Biscuits

My friend Samina went on holiday to Sicily earlier this September in what now feels like the golden window before the second wave broke upon us. On returning, she informed me she’d brought me some gluten-free biscuits she’d been given in the hotel. Here they are on location in another friend’s flat:

For a number of years I’ve been advertising an informal biscuit classification service but these samples have been tricky to identify. They’re presumably manufactured in Sicily or mainland Italy, but the Italian word Samina was given for them is a generic one. Taste-wise they’re not dissimilar to the cocoa-flavoured bourbon (which hails from Bermondsey as it happens!) but more crumbly and powdery. And perhaps because they don’t contain any wheat or dairy products, these are a lot less solid and quickly melt in the mouth…

The search for a name reminded me of how anonymity has been the lot of so many medieval writers, thanks to different approaches to authorship and manuscript transmission (no such thing as copyright!) as well as the inevitable obscuration of their histories over time. In a very literal sense, it’s by their works that we know geniuses like the Pearl poet or the Wakefield Master, which leaves these mystery biscuits in good company.

The expression ‘to make a name for yourself’ is first recorded in medieval English although the search for fame is ever-present in human history, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Great British Bake-off. In Chaucer’s hilarious, philosophical dream vision The House of Fame, we see the capricious workings of Fame first hand when the narrator– a bumbling bibliophile called Geoffrey — is kidnapped by a talkative eagle and taken to Fame’s Palace. Most of the people he sees there come begging to be remembered for their good works and some for their bad ones. A few pathetic souls want fame without doing anything to deserve it, and a few, a very few, come asking for their names to be forgotten, giving ‘not a leek’ for fame nor renown because their good works were only done for the love of God.

From BL Royal MS 2 D.13

Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things, wrote C.S. Lewis in his dream vision, The Great Divorce. Chaucer too would have agreed that God’s value system has always been radically different from that of the world’s. In Jesus we have a saviour who chose not to be born in a palace but a stable, to live a life of obscurity for most of his time on earth, and who said that many who were first on the world’s stage — the big names and influencers as we tend to view them — would be last in the kingdom of heaven.

As Archbishop Justin reminds us, this Armistice day is also the centenary of the burial of the unknown warrior at Westminster, a modern Everyman who represents the sacrifice of many whose names and histories have been lost. Contra the fickle gods of earthly fame, it’s a relief to think that the real arbiter of eternal worth is the eternal God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden. Who knows all the names that are written in heaven long after they’re forgotten on Earth.

Further Delectation

‘Let your works be dead…’ A beautiful piece on the House of Fame by the British Library’s Kate Thomas.

‘I don’t give a leek’, ‘Go pipe in an ivy leaf’ etc. Brush up on your medieval expressions.

Research Sicilian Almond Cookies, which look delicious and are also gluten-free (and dairy-free). May have to have a shot at making some during lockdown!

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

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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… 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 perhaps 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.

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The first thing to note about this biscuit is its curiously homespun quality: its well-known emboss design of grazing cows resembles a cave painting more than the industrial precision of the Oreo and for that very reason there’s something charmingly unselfconscious about it. I find such comfortable rusticity reminiscent of a lost Eden, a place where cows (or sheep?) may safely graze and biscuits be consumed in peace and quiet.

‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ asked 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 a spiritual condition within the reach of each of us. 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…

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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. 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 the reversal of human fortunes through the sacrifice of Jesus 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 on the smaller canvases of our individual lives, turning even our Valleys of Weeping into places of refreshing.

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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.)

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