Dark Chocolate Gingers

In last Sunday’s evening service we were invited to try a short session of contemplative prayer with the help of an icon or a passage from the bible. Imagine my delight when the gentleman next to me rose to his feet and announced that he was moving to the back of the church to meditate on the biscuits. Which just goes to show you never know when a stranger might appear with a word from the Lord…

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Message (and messenger) by catapult. From the BNF MS of Jean de Wavrin’s histories of Britain.

For a while now I’ve been eager to meditate on Dark Chocolate Gingers. Border Biscuits make some particularly fine ones and as they’d previously always been available in my local supermarket it never crossed my mind that they might disappear from the shelves without notice. Having hunted and failed to find them elsewhere, I was all set to do a post on the Dark Chocolate Ginger Night of the Soul when my friend Cath found me a new brand from Sainsbury’s. Honesty compels me to admit these are Not-Quite-As-Dark Chocolate Gingers but the lower cocoa content is more than made up for by the thickness of the chocolate coating, not to mention its jaunty stripes.

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Sainsbury’s Dark Chocolate Gingers on a Roof Terrace in Peckham.

I’ve known biscuit lovers who dislike ginger, but I’ve always loved its pep and fieriness. The hospitable warmth of gingerbread is one of the great joys of Christmas and the McVities ginger nut (less fashionable than it used to be) gloriously dunkable with tea. Another brilliant ginger creation, Marks and Spencer’s stem ginger cookies, belongs in my mind to that stratosphere of gustatory pleasures in which you might enjoy a choice marmalade after a leisurely breakfast. The Dark Chocolate Ginger strikes me as more of a late morning luxury or happy after-thought to an evening meal. Ginger could be expensive in the Middle Ages and while not as sought after as pepper, it was valued for its medicinal benefits more than its culinary ones. A strong dose of ginger can be a shock to the system, but as a winter spice it can also be deliciously warming, healing and cleansing – like truth itself when it’s let loose on the world.

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August Bank Holiday cornfield near Tudeley-cum-Capel.

If ginger stands for truth, then chocolate and ginger together make a good advert for speaking the truth in love. Our ability to receive truth increases when we sense the truth-teller is not out to score points for themselves or condemnation for others but genuinely trying to find a path towards collective healing and freedom. This can be a hard path to follow when you’re feeling hurt and angry (or timid or selfish) but anything less is neither truthful nor loving in the long run.

Further Delectation

Spice up your life (or spruce up your knowledge) with this short survey of winter spices in the Middle Ages.

Enjoy George Herbert’s beautiful meditation on The Way, the Truth and the Life, the equally wonderful music of Vaughan Williams, and a singing monk lost in Grand Central Station:

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Grisbi Extreme Chocolate Cookies

Biscuits can be a lot like buses – after a dearth of specimens to sample I suddenly got three through at once. The first is from a new friend of mine called Dāvis, a fan of the bestiary in Latvia. I posted him some biscuits a few months ago to help him through his medical exams and he kindly returned the favour with these Grisbi Extreme Chocolate cookies from Matilde Vicenzi. These chunky flat Italian creations certainly live up to their name as they really are very chocolatey. The weather was so hot when I opened the packet I opted to try them out on the terrace with tea and ice cream…

IMG_0951While I don’t like ranking biscuits any more than people, I have to say this is chocolate of a high order and so rich it makes for the perfect dessert biscuit (more on that elusive genre at a later date). The gooeyness of the centre was an unexpected surprise, especially for an Italian biscuit as these tend to be dryer than the British sort. Anyone eyeing it from the outside could be forgiven for imagining it was the same texture all the way through and I must say I’m intrigued by the combination of outer crumbliness and inner creaminess its makers have managed to pull off.

IMG_0956For the moral I couldn’t help but think of the prophet Samuel’s words when choosing a new king for Israel: ‘People judge by outward appearances but the Lord looks at the heart.’ Leaving aside the fact that the Lord’s choice, David, was apparently good-looking as well as goodhearted (some kings get all the luck), Samuel’s words are a sober reminder that what impresses on the surface does not necessarily make the best criteria for judging an individual’s worthiness or fitness for office.

I expect it’s almost as rare for a people to find a true leader as it is for God to find a man after his own heart, yet that is the astonishing epithet applied to David in the Bible. And as far as we can tell the forging of this extraordinary heart came about long before anyone but God knew who David was, in the long conversations they had together with no-one but the sheep to overhear them. We can eavesdrop a little on some of those conversations in the Book of Psalms, many of which are believed to have been written by the king over the course of his lifetime. Here’s an image of him in the throes of composition from an early 15th century Italian manuscript:

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Image from New York’s Met Museum

What’s refreshing about the David of the Psalms is his no-holds-barred abandon in expressing himself to God: every joy and confidence, every doubt and fear and angry thought let out into the wild and starry open. ‘Slap all my enemies in the face!’ he prays in Psalm 3, something we don’t sing in churches very much. We can admire a great soul like Gandhi for his commitment to non-violence, but David’s radical honesty about the state of his soul shows us something of what it means to have a great heart. Despite all his faults and failures, it’s hard not to love the David who mourned and the David who danced, the David who argued and pleaded and repented without caring what anybody thought of him. The David, above all, whose heart God saw and loved, and the David to whom he gave an everlasting kingdom.

Further Delectation

A lovely setting of one of David’s Psalms by John Michael Talbot.

Some beautiful medieval Psalters from the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

In need of a vaguely medieval laugh this week? Nothing to do with kings or biscuits, but here’s my favourite post from The Toast‘s Two Monks series on medieval bestiaries

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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:

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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.

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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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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…

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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.

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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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Doris Tryffeli

I was indeed blessed to start this year of our Lord with a great backlog of biscuits, a number of generous patrons having sent me new specimens over the last few weeks. Special mention must be made of the hand-iced ‘bee’ biscuit procured by my sister from an artisanal baker and some home-baked mint chocolate chip cookies courtesy of my friend Dana in the Golden State. Our biscuit today comes from even further North as a gift from my friend Gareth in Latvia. These Doris Tryffeli (Doris Truffles) hail from Finland and are popular there and in the surrounding countries of the Baltic region. Described by its manufacturer, Fazer, as ‘the classic biscuit at feasts’, Doris promises to ‘win your heart over with its soft truffle flavoured filling and delicious cocoa on the sides’, so it seemed a good choice to mark the Feast of St Valentine…

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There’s no denying that little Doris is a bit of a show-stopper, from its decorative base of gently cocoa-flavoured biscuit to the exciting icing centre which somehow manages to appear perfectly set on the outside and perfectly gooey when you bite into it. The random speckling gives it a naturalistic look and the ornate chocolatey edging an elegance I can only describe as Rococoa. To be honest I’ve never seen or sampled a biscuit like it; the tartlet casing is reminiscent of a Chocolate Bourbon, but the filling could be straight out of a Mr Kipling’s Festive Bakewell.

Whether or not it has the capacity to win hearts, Doris has certainly won the admiration of the friends I’ve introduced it to so far and is a rather intriguing emissary from a country I know very little about. I know still less about Finland’s medieval history, but the way Finns mark this red letter day is rather wonderful: Ystävänpäivä, as they call it, means Friends’ Day in Finnish and is marked by celebrating one’s friends with little cards and gifts. Forget the Romantic Valentine’s Day or even Galentine’s Day, Ystävänpäivä is a feast for everyone who has ever been a friend to anyone, and how better to celebrate it than with a Doris?

But shouldn’t this be a feast for lovers, you say? Isn’t the whole concept of True Love medieval? Well, yes and no… Of course we have Master Chaucer to thank for the association of romantic pairing with this feast and many fine (and foolish) traditions associated with it, but Valentine’s Day itself was celebrated long before Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls in commemoration of a Roman martyr. An elusive figure historically, we don’t know much about Valentine except that he died helping others to live, which leads us back to Finland, biscuits and the sacred offices of friendship as, as Jesus himself put it, ‘Greater love hath no-one than that he lay down his life for his friends.’

Further Delectation

Learn more about the different ways Valentine’s Day is celebrated across Scandinavia.

Despite his Roman origins, Valentine has some interesting links with medieval England and North Europe. Read more about the medieval Valentine’s Day – or mine some poetry to help you celebrate with your sweetheart – courtesy of the Clerk of Oxford.

Bored with all this talk of courtly love? Read Master Aristotle on friendship.

Feast your friends in the manner of Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264:

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The Chocolate Hobnob

If I had a favourite commercially mass-produced biscuit it might just be the chocolate hobnob. Not that there’s anything wrong with an unvarnished hobnob per se, but the only way to improve on a biscuit this satisfying is to enrobe it in a reservoir of chocolate. Despite McVitie’s controversial assertion that true cognoscenti will serve a chocolate hobnob oat-side up, most people I’ve spoken to prefer to keep the chocolate uppermost. Here’s a rare glimpse of an uneaten specimen warming itself in the late autumn sun:

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Unsurprisingly, the upgraded hobnob performs well in the biscuit leagues, regularly beating the bourbon and vying with the chocolate digestive for the top spot in the UK charts. Taste is key when it’s down to the wire and this biscuit is so moreish it’s quite possible to eat three in one sitting without discomfort.

The plain hobnob we looked at in the previous entry; in pondering the deeper meaning of the chocolate hobnob the first question is what, if anything, is the spiritual significance of the chocolate part? Chocolate isn’t mentioned in any of the bestiaries I’ve come across, but from a consumer’s perspective I feel confident in suggesting it can only signify love as the richest, most magically transformative and generally satisfying ingredient in the cupboard. Chocolate makes everything taste better and covers over a multitude of errors in the oven. And while it would be a sin to call a plain hobnob an error there’s no doubt that without the chocolate it would be a lot rougher and scratchier round the edges. It’s the chocolate that smooths all that over – like love. 

To extend the parallel further, it’s usually when we come into contact with others for any significant amount of time that we also come into contact with our own ‘scratchy’ places: hidden resentments, irritations and lack of love. It’s where the difference between real and imaginary love becomes painfully apparent: how we treat the actual, flawed specimens of humanity we’re forced to hobnob with in everyday life is so often the real measure of the heart. There’s a reason it’s easier to be kind to people at a distance, where kindness doesn’t have to be sustained for as long and doesn’t cost as much. Want to check your love? Have a hobnob. 

Further Delectation

Hold your breath, make a wish… If you don’t have a ticket to see McVities’ reservoir of chocolate, you can at least get a glimpse of Willy Wonka’s:

And for medievalists especially, a splendidly colourful patchwork of bestiary-like images from Amiens MS 399, courtesy of Damien Kempf

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