The very generous Dr Davis has been foraging for biscuits again and this month we have two exciting new specimens from the Baltic States, both of which resemble mushrooms. On opening this parcel I did wonder if he had picked them straight from the forest but the great clerks of the internet helped me identify them as Beciņas ar šokolādes micītē (mushrooms with chocolate caps).
The sponginess of the stalks and firmness of the caps reminded me of Jaffa Cakes although they look a bit different. The root of the stalk is dipped in chocolate and poppy seeds and they really are delicious with coffee. If you’re wondering how they get their distinctive shape, they’re baked in special pans with mushroom-shaped moulds. I was excited to discover the Beciņas are a Latvian specialty and a work colleague tells me they have something very similar in Lithuania, albeit with white instead of dark chocolate.
With half of the country covered in woodland, walking and foraging in the forest is a popular Latvian past-time. The official mushroom picking season lasts from August to October although happily these specimens can be found all year long. For a whole week in July I looked forward to my mornings with coffee and Beciņas and foraging for a moral for this biscuit got me thinking about everything wild spaces have to offer us.
This lovely painting of a forest glade is by German artist Ernst Ferdinand Oehme. Such scenes are called Waldinerres in German, which sounds a little like the Middle English Wyldrenesse or wilderness. Like the forests of medieval romance, the wilderness can be a place of refuge but also disorientation. A place where our old props and certainties are taken from us. This may feel bewildering (‘to be lost in pathless places, to be confounded for want of a road’) but as a friend of mine from the Wirral says it’s in the wilderness that God speaks.
In one of the great medieval adventure poems of the fourteenth century, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain embarks upon a journey he never expected, accepting the deathly challenge of a mysterious green knight and riding deep into the ‘wyldrenesse of Wyrale’. I won’t give too much of the plot away — the whole story is worth reading and it’s marvellous — but it’s fair to say that what Gawain finds in the forest is not victory or defeat (or mushrooms) but a powerful dose of self-knowledge. In the process he also discovers that the knight waiting for him at the Green Chapel is not the dread opponent he thought but something far kinder and wiser and harder to fathom.
This month saw the arrival of a parcel of biscuits from Latvia courtesy of my friend Gareth, whose name will be added to the Fig Roll of Honour in due course. I suspect the Latvians are bigger coffee than tea drinkers but as it was National Tea Day when I first tried these Selga biscuits, I thought it best to put them through their paces with an afternoon brew. Taste-wise, they could be first cousins to the Malted Milk, although they’re slightly thinner and crumblier. Escher might have admired their squareness – I’ve never known any biscuit tesselate so beautifully on a plate.
I can see why travel is supposed to broaden the mind. It was the squareness of the Selga that first alerted me to the fact that all the biscuits I’ve seen in the UK have been round or oblong or uneven. Not only do square biscuits not exist here it seems, but worryingly for the geometricians whosoever googles ‘square British biscuits’ finds nothing but images of Nice and Custard Creams.
Gareth kindly sent me two different varieties of Selga for comparison. So far I think I prefer the slightly mellower condensed milk to the plain/classic version, but could see myself hoovering up either in large quantities given a fair wind and a good writing day. All of the biscuits he sent me are made by Laima, a chocolate manufacturer that celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. (I have two smaller chocolatey-looking specimens to try as well, but as these look like a different species I have reserved them for a separate entry!)
“Laima is also the name of one of ‘God’s’ daughters. The pagan God. But the word for God is the same in Christianity or Latvian paganism,” Gareth told me. Isidore of Seville would have approved of this attention to names. If the Latvian word for God casts light on that culture’s transition to Christianity, the meanings that emerged when I typed ‘Selga’ into the online Latvian-English translators were still more unexpected. As far as I can tell, it’s a Latvian noun that has variously been translated as ‘deep-sea’, ‘seaway’ or ‘offing’ in the sense of casting off into the deep.
It’s hard to imagine Captain Ahab wolfing these sedate little biscuits on the Pequod but the idea of launching out upon the seaway reminded me of early medieval poetry in Old English where the sea is described as the sail-road or the whale-way (or is that too great a semantic leap?). Pending Dan Isidore’s approval, I’m going to take the opening of Psalm 130 for the Selga’s moral sentence.De profundis clamavi (‘Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord’). It’s one of the most moving cries of the Psalter, rendered powerfully here by another great gift from the Baltics: Arvo Pärt.
The late, great and sadly missed Victoria Wood chats to Dr Who’s Matt Smith about the British obsession with tea and tea-time.