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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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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Franska Vafflor

It’s been a long, long time since our last biscuit. Five weeks to be exact but the good news is that the fast is soon to be followed by a feast of new entries from the continent. First, these wonderful Franska Vafflor from Olivia, a Danish-made biscuit whose name translates as French Waffles. As I haven’t been able to find an equivalent biscuit in France I’m wondering whether these waffles stand to France as English muffins to England. These ones are sandwiched with vanilla cream and are the closest thing to a doughnut I’ve ever had in biscuit form. The outer layers have the texture of crisp fried pastry and while they taste very nice indeed I recommend you stop after three to avoid a sugar rush.

IMG_1160.JPGThe abundant richness and sweetness of the Vafflor feels especially appropriate for this day in the Anglican Church’s Calendar, in which we celebrate a man who is perhaps the sweetest of all seventeenth-century writers, Thomas Traherne. I first met him through his Centuries of Meditations, which are full of passages like this one:

“You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world. Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all Ages as with your walk and table: till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made: till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world…”

Reading the meditations feels like escaping from the smog of the big city into the open country on a clear autumn night. Almost at once you’re breathing easier and seeing further, instead of crowded trains or cramped ceilings the roof above you is a net of stars. And you feel again what a strange and wonderful thing it is to be alive and to have a little seat as a sentient spectator in the theatre of this vast, sprawling, mind-dazzling universe (you see, it’s catching…) Traherne’s writings are suffused with his awareness of a ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory’, to quote the apostle Peter. Centuries on, his attempts to speak of that glory can still move us now.

While the Centuries itself was never published in his lifetime, its theme of revelling in the joy of existence is the more remarkable when you consider its author’s upbringing amid all the dread, anxiety and upheaval of a Civil War. ‘A Christian is an oak flourishing in winter,’ Traherne writes, echoing the opening of the Psalter with its declaration that those who delight in God’s law are like trees planted by a river. You may have to dig deep for it, but the joy is still there waiting to be found.

Further Delectation

I can’t think of much more delectable than the Centuries themselves. You can read them for free here.

While I couldn’t find a recipe for Franska Vafflor these ones were made by Karen Volf.     (This Danish vanilla butter cookie recipe looks jolly nice too!)

And not forgetting the middle ages, here’s a little image of Bartholomew Anglicus contemplating the beauty of the world in BL MS Royal 17 E III:

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That’s all for this week, folks… Stay tuned for more biscuits in future.

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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:

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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.

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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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Navettes

May I present the Navette? A goodly gentle biscuit from France. The ones shown here came from Nice via some Californian friends and are a version of the classic fleur d’oranger recipe. The notes on the packet describe it as a type of shortbread, but if it is it doesn’t taste as dense or buttery as the Scottish kind. I particularly loved its softness and subtle orange notes. To me, this is the biscuit equivalent of a Lady Grey tea.

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Ship-shaped and Marseille fashion?

Navettes are traditionally associated with Candlemas, the feast in honour of Christ’s presentation in the temple. I’m not sure what that has to do with candles exactly but the vaster the church it’s celebrated in, the more amazing it looks converted into a sea of lights. These biscuits are also eaten to commemorate the legend of the three Marys‘ journey to Provence (or, in some versions of the story, Mary, Martha and Lazarus). As their name suggests, they are designed to look like ships, although the ones I’m eating now look more like flatboats…

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Scenes from The Life of St Cuthbert, Durham.

That great clerk Plato likened the state to a ship in Book 6 of Republic, where Socrates argues that true captains keep their eyes on the stars instead of squabbling for control of the wheel. It’s a metaphor that has come up rather frequently in the post-Brexit debate, and whatever you think of its dramatic change of course, there’s no doubt that Britain’s little ship of state is in bad repair right now. Some of the cracks had been there for a long time, of course, and it simply took a storm to expose them, but for many there’s real grief in the consciousness of so many newly-fractured relationships within and beyond our borders. Let those who watch and pray pray for leaders who will put aside their differences and steer us according to the best possible lights. And let’s be kind to one another, even those we may think deserve it least. We’re going to need a lot more tea and biscuits before we’re done…

Further delectation

Celebrate the Feast of St Benedict by making your own Navettes and following this rather lovely blog by one of his modern disciples.

Looking to get in touch with your Burgundian roots? You might be eligible for a Passport to Pimlico, the Ealing Comedy that’s suddenly become a lot more topical.

Via Damien Kempf, in homage to the news of late, one flying pig:

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