Gingerbread Stars

It’s a bit of a tradition for me now to make Gingerbread Stars for Christmas. It’s an inexpensive, easy homemade gift for the holiday season and much appreciated by the recipients. The recipe is my Mother’s and produces more than enough to give to different sets of friends, a tin or two for the workplace and leftovers for house guests. My only addition to the recipe is a little freshly grated ginger as well as the dry ground but it can be made just as well without.

IMG_3139 2Each year I’ve meant to write about the great gingerbread making and each year time has overtaken me. And so each year I’ve taken photos with great optimism — these, from 2016, interposed in my phone’s camera reel with a trip to see the RSC’s King Lear at the Barbican — all ready for a bestiary entry which never gets done…

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This year of course will be different. Instead of a busy, relatively carefree Christmas in company with much of the UK I’ll be having a careful, relative-free one. I know this whole year has been an exercise in letting things go, and I count myself lucky I have a Christmas bubble (bauble?) with nice people in it and that my losses have been extremely mild compared to those of many others, but I did have a little cry on Sunday adjusting to the fact I definitely wouldn’t be travelling up North. It’s been a long year, hasn’t it? And while there will be many challenges to navigate in the new one so many of us wanted to be able to take a break from it all for a few days and escape into something a bit more like the Christmases of the past.

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Gingerbread itself offers a tangible link to Christmases much longer ago. It’s been a treat in Europe since at least the eleventh century, when it was given as a gift by monastic houses or baked as a delicacy in royal kitchens or (later) sold at Gingerbread Fairs. The taste of ginger — like the cinnamon and nutmeg which can also be added — helps convey something of the flavour of those older Christmases. Early modern recipes tend to be lighter and sweeter, but eating and exchanging gingerbread is still a Christmas tradition and still permissible in the time of Covid — a way in which we touch hands, however lightly, with that medieval world.

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If the gingerbread-making evokes the warmth of past Christmases, the stars make me think of the hope of the Christmas story too — one accessible not just to the rich and mighty, but the poor and powerless. Especially for them in fact as we learn in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of wonder at God’s mercy. And in the midst of everything else that’s going on — or not going on — right now, is one astronomical event that will make this particular Christmas memorable for another reason: the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter on the evening of Monday the 21st of December will be a bright spot on the horizon if the weather is good enough for us to view it and you can find more details on what and how to look for here. It’s the first time a planetary ‘star’ this spectacular has occurred for hundreds of years, which naturally brings to mind the story of the wise men (in Latin, magi) journeying to Bethlehem because of the unusual star that appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth, which modern astronomers think likely to have been a conjunction or near conjunction of planets between 7 and 2 BC. Fittingly enough, its appearance this year coincides with both the Winter Solstice and the day appointed for the Antiphon, O Oriens (O Light), echoing Zechariah’s prophecy of a saviour appearing like a star

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death

As the Clerk of Oxford reminds us, these Advent Antiphons are traditionally sung at Vespers “in the early dusk of a midwinter evening, [as] ancient songs of longing and desire in the darkest time of the year” and in Christ we have a saviour who entered the world just when he was most longed for and needed, and who in the end provides a deeper comfort and more lasting hope than any breakthrough vaccines or changes of politics.

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These songs of hope and longing have a special resonance for me this year. It’s easy to romanticise the medieval celebration of Christmas because of our distance from it, but like Zechariah before us, medieval revellers knew what it was to celebrate in darkness and the shadow of death — aware, as we too are more keenly aware, of the instability of life and its brevity and fragility. Many of our most hauntingly beautiful Carols have come to us from this medieval past as well, with their message of hope and joy even in times of great turmoil and sadness. One written in fifteenth-century England that I know is going to be ringing in my head this week is “This Endris Night I saw a sight, / A star as bright as day…” Thinking of all celebrating this year in less than ideal circumstances, and the hope that shines out brighter than a star in the darkness.

Further Delectation

Make your own gingerbread — so many recipes to choose from! – or explore this fascinating history of the gift-giving of gingerbread in monastic houses.

Listen to this evocative setting of This Endris Night by Ralph Vaughan Williams, or a whole service of medieval carols at Great St Barts (the oldest church in London), or perhaps this lovely rendition of the Magnificat and Wexford Carol if you prefer something a little more early modern.

Feast your eyes on this beautiful fifteenth-century nativity detail from the Missal of Eberhard von Greiffenklau (Walters MS W.174, fol. 17v) with the starlight lancing through the thatch of the stable roof as in so many medieval nativity scenes:

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Jammie Dodgers

Way back at the beginning of the second lockdown I found myself craving Jammie Dodgers. As luck would have it they were on special at the local supermarket, but it had been so long since I’d bought them I was surprised to find their appearance and branding had undergone a bold cosmetic change. You can still see the old swirl-top pattern I remember in this recent article by Rachel Cooke, which confirms my view that many are turning to comfort biscuits in these trying times. In sympathy with the zeitgeist, the design now resembles a spillage at a jam factory. Still, these ones look very pleased with themselves sat on a plate in my new digs:

The company who make Jammie Dodgers, Burton’s, have been producing them in one form or another since the late 1940s. One — possibly apocryphal — story links them with Roger the Dodger of the long-running Beano comic. When I researched them further however, I found that the same biscuits have been in the news this year for distinctly un-comical reasons and we may find them in even greater demand this festive season if the Delivery Workers Guild goes ahead with its strike. So even comfort biscuits haven’t managed to dodge the shadow of 2020, it seems…

We listen to the evening news with its usual recital of shabbiness and horror, and God if we believe in him at all, seems remote and powerless, writes Frederick Buechner. But there are other times – often the most unexpected, unlikely times – when strong as life itself comes the sense that there is a holiness deeper than [the] shabbiness and horror and at the very heart of darkness a light unutterable.’ The apostle John might have agreed with him: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, he writes in the prologue to his gospel, written in the glow of the extraordinary life of his friend Jesus of Nazareth.

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Light overcoming the darkness is also the message of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which begins this evening with the lighting of the first candle of the Menorah. Another apocryphal story tells how the Jews took back their temple after the Greek King Antiochus IV captured it in around 164 BC, desecrated the holy places, and made every effort to stop them practising their religion. At the re-dedication of the temple they only had enough of the consecrated oil to last for one day but the supplies miraculously stretched for seven until the new oil could be ready for burning. John gives us a glimpse of Jesus celebrating the festival in winter walking in Solomon’s Colonnade, a long pillared walkway not unlike a medieval cloister.

‘What if God became a human and lived with us?’ is the question John sets out to answer and you can read his gospel and the other gospel accounts of Jesus’ life or watch this recent TV adaptation if you want to know more of what happened along the way. I’ll admit I’m more than a little biscuit-obsessed these days, but to me the heart in the centre of the Dodger’s new splat speaks of the wonder of the Incarnation: of God looking on us with compassion in all our pain and confusion, horror and shabbiness, and sending himself as a human right into the heart of the mess.

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Further Delectation

Have a read of the Beano’s biscuit jokes (straight out of the Christmas Cracker school of humour) or have a go at making your own festive Jammie Dodgers.

Help support essential workers this Christmas. Let delivery companies like DHL know you’d like them to look after their drivers better. Ask your MP to support a pay-rise for NHS staff. Or consider whether you could help those on the frontlines of the food poverty crisis.

Prepare for Christmas with this medieval homily and meditation from the Clerk of Oxford’s modern counterpart. Listen to a beautiful twenty-first-century rendition of one of the oldest, loveliest hymns on the incarnation:

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Bredele

This week’s star biscuit is from the Alsace region of France and a present from my sister and brother-in-law who were holidaying in Colmar. The name, Bredele, means something like ‘little breadies’ in English and sounds more Germanic than Gallic in origin which makes sense given how close Alsace is to the border. The smooth, slightly convex topping looks a bit like a macaron to the casual observer but the consistency is tougher and the biscuit itself very dry and sweet and light. These anisbredele are particularly noticeable for their strong hit of aniseed (green aniseed according to my French colleague). Here they are perched on a windowsill in the office next to their elegant gift bag:

IMG_1184Bredele are treat biscuits enjoyed as Christmas cookies or petits four in France. The earliest recipes date back to fourteenth-century Strasbourg so they come with an excellent medieval pedigree also, but I have to admit I’ve only had one or two so far as liquorice is one of the few flavours I genuinely can’t abide. (This is an eccentricity of my own though and I’m pleased to say they’ve been popular with office mates who don’t share my prejudices!)

fullsizeoutput_8bfIn settling on a medieval-style sentence for the bredele, I couldn’t help remembering the famous line in the Lord’s Prayer: give us this day our daily bread. I doubt the most free-wheeling translator has ever stretched this into daily bredele, but the idea leads to an interesting question: is it OK to ask God for the little things as well as the big?

While it’s possible to under-think prayer maybe the greater danger comes from over-thinking it and in our efforts not to be childish in our prayer requests we can forget to be childlike as Jesus taught. In the gospels he tells his disciples to bring their needs to God as simply and directly as little children to their father and to trust that he is better than the best of human parents and intimately concerned with the smallest details of our lives. This may come as a surprise to those more used to relating to God as Our Emergency Service that Art in Heaven, but it invites us to a conversation about our evolving needs and yearnings with a father who loves to give us good things when we ask.

Further Delectation

Here for the bredele? You can find an aniseed-flavoured bredele recipe here or a  general recipe here for those less fond of aniseed. The clerks and historians can also read about all things bredele-y at bredele.fr

Be a source of delight to others: if you’re lucky enough to be able to bake or buy your own biscuits, you might consider giving some to food banks this autumn. It can make a child’s day when you donate biscuits as well as the usual staples (a good way to be an answer to someone else’s prayers!)

Check out these medieval bakers in a French breviary from the early 1500s. This illustration is for the month of December so perhaps they’re busy making Christmas biscuits (following the astrological calendar, it also sports a fantastical goat in a shell…)

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Linecké Cukroví

In the Fourth Week of Advent my Czech friend gave to me… six beautiful handmade biscuits. At first glance they appear to be a daintier kind of Jammy Dodger – a delicate little jam and shortbread sandwich that would look quite at home in Alice’s Wonderland – but a little research reveals that they are in fact a special type of biscuit called Linecké Cukroví traditionally eaten in the Czech Republic at Christmas time. Katka assures me that the ones her mother makes are better, but I think these are perfect and very yummy indeed with a cup of coffee.

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The vivid colour and translucency of the jam reminded me of stained glass, and glass-making too belongs to a tradition of Czech craftsmanship dating back to at least the thirteenth century when it was part of the Kingdom of Bohemia.  It’s also the home of a medieval king long distinguished for his charity at Christmas: Good King Wenceslas, or Vaclav the Good as he is known in Central Europe. The English carol about him taking food to peasants is very new-fangled, but like Britain’s King Arthur it is said that if the Republic is ever in peril his statue in Wenceslaus Square will come to life and lead an army to victory with a legendary sword, bringing peace to the land.

With this in mind, it didn’t take me long to find a spiritual significance for the Linecké Cukroví. In one of the most famous passages of the New Testament St Paul talks about life in this world as an existence in which we only ever apprehend the real nature of things dimly, as if through a glass. ‘For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known…’ This note of longing to know more fully and see better than we do at present is also a guiding theme of the ‘O’ Antiphons which the Catholic and Anglican church pray during this last week of Advent. Today’s Antiphon ‘O Oriens’ speaks of the longing of those walking in darkness looking for the light to come, and tomorrow’s ‘O Rex Gentium’ of the longing for the coming of the king of all nations and the peace he brings: a good sentence for the closing of Advent and these lovely Christmas gifts.

Further Delectation

Take a virtual tour of the stained glass in St Vitus Cathedral, where Wenceslas I is buried.

Have a go at whipping up your own Feast of Stephen with this Linecke Cukrovi recipe or some more Christmas biscuit recipes from around the world.

Enjoy these Advent Antiphon poems by Malcolm Guite or listen to Will Todd’s The Call of Wisdom a particularly beautiful album for Advent recorded by Tenebrae choir.

Music-making was a large part of Christmas celebrations in the Middle Ages. This beautiful Bohemian nativity scene is tucked away in a Cistercian book of liturgical music (image via Switzerland’s Central Library in Lucerne).

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