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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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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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

Zuccherini al Caffe

IMG_5172These little ‘Zuccherini’ biscuits hail from Romagna and are another donation from my friend Olivia who went on holiday to Ravenna a few weeks back. The makers, Modigliantica, have a rather nice selection of biscuits in their product range, and – tidings of great joy for the lactose-intolerant – they all seem to be dairy-free. Like most Italian biscuits I’ve had the pleasure of sampling, these are drier than their British counterparts but sweet and subtly flavoured and an excellent accompaniment to your morning coffee. In fact these biscuits are partly made of coffee (the decorative ‘eye’ on top is a coffee bean and the specks in the mixture coffee grounds). Altogether a lovely little biscuit then.

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Octopus marginalia, 15th-c Italy

The name ‘Zuccherini’ suggests sugary treats rather than the usual Italian word ‘biscotti’. (Incidentally, a lot of coffee chains in Britain use the plural ‘biscotti’ as singular, causing amusement to Italian speakers across the board.) I particularly loved the fact that no two of the Zuccherini look exactly the same in the packet, some of their ‘arms’ are evenly shaped and some aren’t but together they fill the gaps on the plate ingeniously, as you can see in the photo above. The biscuits themselves look a little like starfish or even octopuses given their vaguely octangular structure. And this in turn reminded me of Ave, Maris Stella, the popular medieval invocation to Mary as the Star of the Sea: an invocation which feels touchingly poetic, even if it may originally have come about through scribal error.

Still a keystone of Catholic prayers today, the Hail Mary is the opening of the angel’s greeting to the mother of Jesus in Luke’s gospel so I think it appropriate to borrow those words as the moral sentence for this biscuit. In this lovely post on the medieval poetry and imagery of the Annunciation, one of today’s clerks of Oxford reminds us how such art ‘tends to emphasise the quiet, private, gentle nature of this encounter’ and that the stillness of such images is a good antidote to the noisy chatter of the internet. Mary’s trusting response also reminds me of the wisdom of Isaiah, who provides another whisper of Christmas in Advent’s Waiting Room: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.’

Further Delectation

Reclaim a bit of calm in the Christmas rush with Monteverdi’s Ave Maris Stella, ideally with coffee and biscuits…

Feast your eyes on the vibrant stillness of one of Fra Angelico’s beautiful Annunciations:

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Fed up of all this Christmas nonsense? Find yourself a solid Parliamentarian paper for all the latest on England’s Civil War (warning: contains early modernism and politics.)

Increase your capacity for wonder by befriending an Octopus. 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