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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Cookies of Joy

It has come to my attention that today is National Biscuit Day and while I sympathise with the sentiments of those who argue that esteem for this excellent creature should not be restricted to a single 24 hours, it does beg the question of which saint ought to preside over this august feast. Is there such a thing as a patron saint of biscuits?

macaroon-1680701__340I did a little googling to find out, but the results were singularly disappointing. St. Macarius of Alexandria seemed a likely candidate at first: a hermit who became a recluse after a career as a vendor of sweetmeats and is thought to have some connection with macaroons. But alas, the more I read about his unusual life the more I perceived a marked trend towards the renunciation of biscuits: a doctrine I find most unpalatable. (Wouldn’t you?)

Next on the list was St. Lucy, who wins gratitude for inspiring many delicious-looking specimens. However on closer inspection I was a little concerned by the stories put about on the tins. Apparently the poor girl had her peepers gauged out — or, in some accounts, removed them herself — in the fourth century, and while I’m pretty sure all the biscuits made in honour of this grisly affair don’t contain real eye-balls, the thought of wolfing down a plate of Occhi di Santa Lucia suddenly became less appealing…

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Hildegard and friends

Thank God for Hildegard of Bingen. My last ditch attempt to find a biscuit-loving patron was rewarded with a saint who enjoyed a good biscuit so much she actually designed her own recipe. A pioneering thinker in a range of fields, Hildegard would have been an exceptional woman whichever age she lived in, but it’s particularly wonderful to find her tucked away in the twelfth century making biscuits (and lovely music as well). There are a number of versions of Hildegard’s ‘cookies of joy’ recipe online, but all agree that they should contain spelt flour and some combination of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg for the spice part. Here’s the recipe and commentary in her own (translated) words:

“The nutmeg has a greath warmth and a good mixture in its powers. When a human being eats nutmeg it opens his heart, and his sense is pure, and it puts him in a good state of mind. Take nutmeg and (in the same amount) cinnamon and some cloves and grind them up. And then, from this powder and some water, make flour – and roll out some little tarts. Eat these often and it will lower the bitterness of your heart and your mind and open your heart and your numbed senses. It will make your spirit happy, purify and cleanse your mind, lower all bad fluids in you, give your blood a good tonic, and make you strong.”

(Physica, I, 21)

With a press like that, how could I not have a go at making such doctors of grace myself? (Confession: this is the first time I have made biscuits to a medieval recipe and though I followed it to the letter, I may have baked them a teensy bit too long). Despite their dense appearance, the taste and texture feels light. You can taste the spice, but it’s a lot fainter than gingerbread spices – still warm, but not overpowering – leaving you with a gentle, happy, subtly piquant kind of biscuit. A very welcome treat on a dismal day like this. And the moral? I find it comforting to reflect that a woman as phenomenally intelligent and creative as Hildegard knew that there would be times when we simply feel bitter, or numb, or sad. And in those times, treating yourself as well as you can manage (the body included) is a necessary kindness. Medicine for the soul comes in many forms, and may even include the odd biscuit…

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Further Delectation

You can find some online versions of Hildegard’s recipe (with suggested quantities  of ingredients) here or here.

Proof that John Donne found St. Lucy’s Day a trial as well.

A fun, scholarly post from a linguist at Stanford which makes a helpful distinction between macaroons, macarons, macaroni (and the Macarena).

Happy National Biscuit Day, everyone!

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