Penguin Biscuits

What with the cold and the gloom, I haven’t felt much like shopping for biscuits these last few weeks but I did p-p-p-pick up a penguin or eight from the local supermarket to see me through this wintery weather. It does the heart good to look in on the impromptu party they’re throwing in the writing room this week. The little fella with the hat and horn-blower is my favourite. (And before anyone asks, yes, they’re all from the same household.)

Penguins were a lunchbox staple of my childhood and I was happy to find they still come with jokes on their wrappers (‘How did the penguin pass his driving test?’ ‘He winged it.’). Judging from the plumage, these are probably kings or emperors. There’s no penguin design on the bar itself, a modest chocolate sandwich, but there’s something comfortingly solid about this species and they’ve certainly had their sincere and not so sincere imitators over the years from the dubious Puffin take-off to the high-flying Australian Tim Tam.

Penguins are not a feature of medieval bestiaries. The earliest possible sighting of any that Europeans were aware of may well have been the flightless ducks observed by the crew of the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama on his expedition to the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 (if so, the penguins surprised them by braying like donkeys). It’s a pity because bestiarists of all people would have appreciated this bird’s admirable qualities, its endearing clumsiness on shore and gracefulness in water for example, and still more its powers of endurance.

We’ve had need of that power these last few weeks. Collectively I suspect this has been the worst winter in recent memory in Britain and certainly within my lifetime. It’s been tough in ways few could have imagined a year or perhaps even half a year ago. And yet here we are. I understand better now why so many of the New Testament writers make such a virtue of endurance; it may not be the most appealing fruit of the spirit to try to cultivate, but how necessary it is for the long haul. ‘If we can winter this one out, we can summer anywhere,’ as Heaney put it, a quote that’s been circulating in lockdown for obvious reasons.

‘February’ in a 15th c. Book of Hours from Burgundy. (NY Public Library MS. Spencer 43, fol. 7r)

For the New Testament writers, the power of endurance promises us something more solid than simply wintering it out for the sake of survival, of gritting our teeth and rolling with the punches, although it’s definitely contained an element of that for me this month. St Paul tells us that it builds character and character hope, which begs the question of how we can find ways of enduring that allow us to emerge from this season in a stronger position spiritually than when we went into it?

When I look back to some of the toughest periods of my life before the pandemic I can see ways in which this strengthening process was already beginning. I haven’t doubted God’s presence with us throughout all this but I have come face to face with my own insufficiency to weather these new challenges without help, both from other people and from Him. There’s been a humbling and a levelling in that: a recognition that we’re all human, all vulnerable. But also new revelation that God’s grace has always been sufficient, his strength made more and more visible in our lives when we trust him with our weakness. So today my prayer for us all is that we might not only endure through this season but grow in hope and strength through it, inspired by the p-p-p-perseverance of the Penguin.

Further Delectation

What are the rival claims of the Penguin and the Tim Tam to biscuity greatness? Which Antarctic explorer was better at drawing penguins? How does a bird the same weight as a baby hippo get itself back out of the water? All your questions answered by the experts!

Enjoy a short but interesting read on medieval iconography for February from Princeton’s Index of Medieval Art site. Or if you’re impatient for the spring to come it may help to know it started on the 7th of February in the medieval calendar as the Clerk of Oxford explains in this lovely piece on early medieval celebrations of spring and its poetry.

No feathered friends where you are? Take a little time to tune in to some live penguin action from California. Recommended for a relaxing mini-break with a coffee and biscuit:

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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.

BL Oriental MS 5024 f. 19r

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.

BL Harley MS 4382 f.139

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:

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.

Macarons

To my mind, the Macaron (or French Macaroon if you want to be all English about it) is a bit like a Jaffa Cake in that opinions differ as to whether it’s a biscuit or not. You’ll be in no doubt this bestiary comes down firmly on the biscuit side of the argument from the existence of this entry, but on reflection it might be more strictly categorised as bakers’ confectionary (biscuit class). Previously I’d seen it as my calling to consume rather than concoct these lovely little creatures, but then around Easter I received the following kit from my sister grâce à the Honeywell Biscuit Company:

93818632_10158313733984859_6053972565121040384_oTruth be told I’ve had a bit of a thing for Macarons ever since a visit to one of Pierre Hermé‘s stores in Paris on a day that just turned out to be le jour du Macaron (a proof of providence if ever there was one). The high almond content made me hopeful this biscuit might be medieval in origin and legend has it that its first appearance was in the monasteries of medieval Venice, but the most exciting chapter in its history came when Catherine de Medici took the recipe to France, where it was eventually refined into the delicate sandwich form and produced in every colour and flavour the heart could desire. 

Nowadays the Macarons’ perfect roundness, evenness and sheer melt-in-the-mouth gorgeousness make them a pleasure of the highest order and what a feast of colour they provide for the eyes! I’m particularly in awe of those master bakers who excel at making them as they’re difficult to get right. I might not have plucked up the courage to try the kit at all were it not for a friend dropping some of her experiments round. Ellie has been perfecting the art of macaron-making during lockdown:

IMG_1610My kit from the Biscuit Company included a couple of icing tubes to pipe chick faces onto the Macarons after assembling them, but I decided not to make things too complicated for myself on my first try. I got off to a good start with the filling (butter icing and homemade lemon curd) but a rookie error in placing one tray of Macarons on the wrong side of the baking sheet which cost me in presentation later. Dropping the tray on the floor was the best bit – apparently it helps with eliminating air pockets – but the macarons still emerged from the oven a little cracked. What they lacked in texture they made up for in taste, however. The ‘shell’ was just a few millimetres thick, the ‘white’ beautifully light and tender, and the ‘yoke’ even softer and richer with that lemony burst at its heart.

IMG_1673The Macaron is a biscuit of great taste and beauty, but it’s also incredibly delicate – a delicacy in every sense of the word. Thinking about its fragility, I’m moved to reflect on the way the unwelcome intrusion of the pandemic into our everyday lives has ushered in a season in which we’ve become acutely aware of our own vulnerabilities and not just to the virus. For some it might be the ability to earn a living, preserve a peaceful home or stave off loneliness with face-to-face contact; the challenge of having too much time on your hands or paradoxically not enough. For many the membrane between our work and home lives has become a lot thinner now colleagues Zoom us from their kitchens and public figures speak to us from their at-home studies, often with family members drifting in and out. It can be hilarious but also homely and humbling to have this glimpse into each other’s domestic lives. A daily reminder that we’re all human with or without our public faces on.

These thoughts could easily lead into a meditation on the instability of life as depicted in the great wisdom literature of the bible, but many of us have already been wrestling with these lessons over the last few weeks and months. Instead I’m drawn to the comforting words about Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, quoting from the prophet Isaiah:

He will not crush a bruised reed or put out a flickering candle…

Tenderness towards the bruised and struggling has always been part of God’s mission and character. One positive outcome of the present time would be if as a society we learnt to be more compassionate and protective of the vulnerable, fragile places in ourselves and others.

Further Delectation

These days before Ascension Day are rogation days in the Church’s old calendar and you can read about them in the Clerk of Oxford’s blog here. It’s a time to bless the land, which seems peculiarly apt this year when in the quiet of lockdown nature has been such a blessing to those who are able to get outside to appreciate it.

May always feels such a medieval month and here’s another interesting piece by Michael Warren on medieval birds and birdsong. If you’re into medieval literature, you might like to pair it up with a reading of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls.

For anyone living alone or feeling alone right now, you might enjoy this beautiful recording of Sheppard’s Libera Nos (Deliver Us) by The Sixteen, which must be one of the loveliest things to come out of lockdown. Lots of love.

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The Oreo

Consider the Oreo… As many New Worlders celebrate their independence today, I thought it high time we profiled their National Biscuit on the Bestiary and for the convenience of speakers of American English I shall be referring to it here as a cookie. It’s a measure of how popular Oreos have become in Britain now that you can even find them in the wilds of Yorkshire. Here are four sitting pretty on some old Blue Willow china, no doubt waiting for a glass of milk to accompany them…

IMG_0932Left to my own devices, I might have assigned the Oreo’s genesis to the ’50s but in fact it first appeared in 1912 around the same time as equivalent sandwich styles premiered in Britain (c.f. the Bourbon and Custard Cream). Even today America’s Oreos are still produced by the successors of the wonderfully named National Biscuit Company, created back in the era when Old and New World biscuits were largely the same thing.

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New York, New York and Nabisco (image from Chelsea Market and The Smithsonian)

Intriguingly, this compact and demure little cookie manages to attracts more controversy than the Knights Templar, viz. ‘What does the name really mean?’, ‘What does the Cross on the top signify?’ and, most crucially, ‘What is the most righteous way to eat it?’ The more you delve into the question of the Oreo’s spiritual significance the more you’ll find a dazzling – and frankly gnostic – range of exegeses on the market. Far too many to come down on one side or the other in a hasty fashion.

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Photo credit: Olivia Brambill

While it’s not the first time we’ve profiled embossed cookies on the Bestiary, the intricacy and regularity of the Oreo’s design bears closer examination. In America at least, it’s as distinctive as a coin face and almost as widely recognised. This excellent article from Edible Geography on the unsung heroes of biscuit embossing and the history of the Oreo in particular is well worth a perusal (I had no idea that the current design only dates to 1952, or that the Oreo has a very Greek-sounding rival, the Hydrox, with an even more venerable history).

The nearest thing I can find to a commentary on the art of embossing in the bible comes in Paul’s statements in Romans about Christians being conformed to the image of Christ and not being conformed to the world’s pattern. If we’re honest, such language of conformity rarely sits well with children of the revolution for whom freedom is ‘a breakfast food’ (as one brilliant New World poet put it). Perhaps it plays too much on our fears that faith means towing a line or adopting a sort of cookie-cut saintliness that leaves no room for individuality or self-expression. For the New Testament writers, however, being conformed to Christ’s image is less about being boxed in than being let out and finding freedom from the power of sin and death to become the people we’ve always wanted to be. ‘I run in the path of your commands for you have set my heart free’ the Psalmist writes. It’s on this path to freedom that he’s our template and trailblazer.

Further Delectation

A masterclass on the art of Oreo-eating from Jess and her Dad (but if all this seems very complicated, just experiment with your own inimitable style – whatever that is!)

Give the humble Hydrox some love – or at least a read of its history in the Atlas Obscura.

Don’t have any Oreos in the house to celebrate your independence with? Have a consolatory read of e e cummings’ loveliest medieval-themed poem.

If you’ve landed here straight from the High Middle Ages and find yourself a bit flummoxed by all these bizarre references to a New World, you can catch up with Amerigo Vespucci‘s correspondence on the subject or these more recent Letters from America and newfangled experiments in Netherlandish cartography:

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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

 

Stroopwafels

Beautiful, isn’t it? And to think it’s been only a few weeks since I discovered the Stroopwafel was a biscuit! (If you don’t believe me, visit Holland’s leading tourism site which describes it as a ‘combination of two cookies with a caramel centre’). With its rounded shape and syrupy goodness, it’s the closest thing I can think of to a pancake in biscuit form so this seems like a good day to catalogue it here…

img_0234.jpgI’ve been a dedicated consumer of Stroopwafels for years now and they’re about the only food I might be tempted to stockpile in the event of a no-deal Brexit. You can find them in coffee shops, but for my money the best – and best value – ones are made by the Dutch company Daelmans and available to buy in supermarkets in larger packs. The recommended way to eat them is to balance them on a mug of hot tea or coffee for a minute until the outer waffle warms through and the caramel becomes soft and gooey. Alas, these delightful creatures are pretty much spun from sugar, but arguably this makes them the perfect indulgence for Pancake Day.

Shrove Tuesday is known as Vastenavond in the Netherlands, and, as the name suggests, marks the final evening before Lent’s 40-day fast. As in many other parts of Europe, Lent was preceded by three days of Carnival in medieval Holland: a season of license and celebration where music, entertainment and civic processions – and even uproar in the streets on occasion – was the order of the day (and night). In the medieval imagination, Lent and Carnival were often depicted as slugging it out in an imaginary battle, as in this famous painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in which you can see King Carnival (with a pie on his head) brandishing a spit of meat at Lady Lent (in a habit and bee-hive):

Pieter_Bruegel_d._Ä._066.jpgI’m afraid any honied waffles in the vicinity would almost certainly be rooting for King Carnival as it’s hard to imagine many biscuits being eaten on Ash Wednesday except charcoal ones. For medieval Christians, Carnival probably represented a welcome letting off of steam before the fast began, or, more philosophically, a counterbalance to Lent’s mood of contrition and renunciation. Both the Dutch Vastenavond and the English word Shrove carry the suggestion of preparation for Lent more than Mardi Gras, although Shrovetide in England was also a season of license. As the final day before the long fast, Shrove Tuesday combined elements of both as Christians prepared by being shriven (making confession) and celebrating with treats that were meat-less.

IMG_0191 But what has all this to do with Stroopwafels, you may ask? Particularly when the point of Lent – and of fasting in general – is to focus on things that are more important than material satisfactions, since people cannot live on bread (or even biscuits) alone? As a season of renunciation and reflection, Lent offers us a sober but ultimately healing space to sift our goals and priorities, to humble ourselves where we need humbling, and soften our hearts where they are stiff and cold.

And this is where the example of the Stroopwafel comes in, for just as the caramel needs to be softened by the warmth of the tea below it, so our hearts can’t be changed except by the work of the holy spirit in our lives. ‘I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart,’ says the famous passage in Ezekiel – a promise I’ve grown to treasure as I’ve watched it working in my own life, little by little, in ways I never thought it could.

Further Delectation

Show the Bake-off contestants how it’s done and make your own Stroopwafels for Shrove Tuesday.

Celebrate the last night of Carnival with a dance from medieval Gelderland (or something) with bonus glowering from Rufus Sewell:

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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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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

 

The Maple Cream Cookie

It’s autumn again and far too long since my last biscuit. This month I’m going to be blogging on the all-absorbing subject of the Maple Cream Cookie, a present from my friend Olivia who brought some back for me from a holiday to Canada in May. (Disclaimer: when I started this bestiary, it was my modest ambition to catalogue the 30 or so species of biscuit most plentiful to the British Isles, but somehow word has got around and I now have a whole shelf of offerings from America, Canada, South Korea and the Czech Republic so hold on to your hat-boxes, dear readers, we’re going to be travelling a lot further than planned).

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It would be hard to find a biscuit more Canadian-looking than this one, shaped to resemble a maple leaf albeit a little less delicately than the real McCoy. These have survived the voyage across the pond magnificently with only one hairline crack to show for it. The packaging also gets a thumbs up from this Brit: focused as I was on the comestibles, it was only when I went to photograph it that I noticed the picture of the Niagara Falls.

As this is the first ‘sandwich’ this bestiary has featured, it’s worth saying a bit about this special branch of the biscuit family (a branch big enough to embrace both the Oreo and the Custard Cream). The obvious advantage is that you get TWICE the biscuit in one mouthful, plus a delicious filling used as a kind of confectionary mortar to cement them together (although really the whole product is less like a sandwich than a heavy-weight macaroon).

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Even after five months on the shelf in our kitchen these still smelt strongly of maple syrup which is another plus point in my book, maple syrup being some ambrosia of the gods. Unlike the gods of the Greek Pantheon, however, these cookies had softened with age, so although they were still comfortably within their use-by-date it would be best to eat these straightaway for maximum pleasure.

I don’t have to look too far from the tree for a moral for this biscuit. Sic gloria transit mundi: like the leaves of autumn and the Maple Cream Cookie, thus passes the glory of this world. A medieval rejoinder can be found in the Book of Isaiah (a prophet and a poet): exsiccatum est faenum cecidit flos verbum autem Dei nostri stabit in aeternum/ ‘the grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands for ever.’ To my mind, the awareness of autumn’s decay and winter’s mortality has the tendency to alter almost every perspective on life as we’re living it in the present: sometimes for the sadder and sometimes for the better, but always for the wiser in the end.

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Further Delectation

What, it’s not enough that you get a slide-show of biscuits and flowers? How about a few exciting things to do with Maple Syrup then…

A glimpse of a summer beyond the grief of winter (music from the Medieval Baebes and lyrics from the Middle English Pearl, with various images from YouTuber Arthur Foster).

Is that the time? If you don’t have any cookies to hand, you can still feast your eyes on this month’s illumination from the Middle Age’s most famous book of hours (grâce à iBiblio.org).

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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