English Jumbles

So this year Easter may have trumped the Bard’s Birthday as the greater and more moveable feast, but I did get time for a quick foray into the world of Elizabethan Jumbles in honour of Master Shakespeare. If you’re in any wise a biscuit-baker or couch-dweller you might be familiar with these intricately knotted creatures from their appearance on the Great British Bake-OffJumbles have been around since at least 1585 when the first recipe for them was printed in Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswife’s Jewell, which is the nearest thing I can find to a sixteenth-century Mrs Beeton. It may or may not be true that they were rushed out to the Field of Bosworth by order of Richard III, but Bosworth Jumbles (‘s’ shaped, apparently) are a traditional part of Leicestershire cuisine so perhaps the Yorkists had their own version. Here are two discussing it on the eve of battle…

IMG_0516 2In the end I followed Dawson’s recipe, encouraged by Sanne Berry’s baking blog and a glass of the wine left over from Easter Sunday lunch. I have to say it was really fun keeping company with Elizabethan bakers for a few hours and I soon became engrossed in the unfamiliar twists and turns of Tudor biscuit-making. Mixing and rolling the dough into ropes was easy, but it took me a while to get the hang of the knot-tying part. After several unsatisfactory attempts at a True Love Knot (sorry, Shakespeare!) I decided to keep things simple and Trefoil.

If the weaving of biscuits was new to me, the really novel experience was boiling them before baking them in the oven. Dawson recommends dropping them in ‘seething water’, which I did with some trepidation having never cooked anything resembling a biscuit by this method before. Thankfully the unbaked Jumbles did not disintegrate on a rolling boil but rose to the surface like Gnocchi after just a few minutes. I then popped them in the oven at 160 C and was rewarded with this rather nice-looking batch within half an hour:

IMG_0481The first thing you might notice about the finished biscuits is their unusually smooth and shiny surface, the boiling having given them the effect of a gentle glaze. They were tastiest straight out of the oven with a strong cup of tea (Yorkshire, naturally). Personally, I wouldn’t want to chew on more than one at a time given their formidable density, however from a practical angle it’s easy to see how the Jumbles’ toughness and protective glazing makes them more durable and portable than most modern biscuit types. These  specimens could easily last a week, preferably softened up with some tea-dipping after cooling overnight, and apart from being boiled within an inch of their lives their most distinctive characteristic is their knot design. 

IMG_0672.jpgConsidering how fond the Tudors were of rings, wreaths and knots in general, I couldn’t help but remember how it was the metaphorical tying of a knot by Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor that brought a symbolic end to the Wars of the Roses in 1486. Of course Shakespeare would draw on the histories of that war for some of his earliest dramatic material about a century later; his plays, too, explore the role of love and marriage in uniting communities, and even today it’s how many comedies end and loose plot-ends are tied. When Shakespeare’s Agrippa councils Caesar to marry his sister Octavia to Antony, he advocates it as a means of knitting both men’s hearts ‘with an unslipping knot’. Such bonds offered a way of turning strangers into fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters (in the true fiction of the law at least), supporting the wider ministry of reconciliation Christians are called to practice in the world at large.

‘Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love / The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above,’ as the old hymn puts it – but as heavenly as the fellowship or even marriage of true minds may be, it often seems like a lost Eden when each day brings painful evidence that we don’t all think alike. Yet even where agreement or fellowship isn’t possible, kindness and courtesy can be. Jesus wasn’t joking when he asked us to love our enemies and part of the reward for doing so may be to find that they are not quite the enemies we thought they were.

Further Delectation

Check out Sanne Berry’s wonderful Dollop of History, for your own Jumble-making and many other excellent recipes from times past.

Can there really be such a thing as a marriage of true minds? Have a listen to the lovely Patrick Stewart reading Sonnet 116 and decide for yourself with a glass of sack.

Bring your Jumbles to Shakespeare’s Globe for an afternoon of quality theatre. The main season is now open if you want to sneak a look at the programme.

Take a virtual flying trip through seventeenth-century London just a few years after Shakespeare quit it (as imagined by students of De Montford University using contemporary sources from before the Great Fire):

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The Hobnob

A plain hobnob at half moon

“Enjoy the oaty rough and tumble of the nation’s crunchiest companion.” To me, McVitie’s promotional tagline for the plain or ‘original’ hobnob describes the experience of this biscuit rather well. Opinions differ as to whether it really is the crunchiest on the market, but there can be few more satisfyingly homely, unpretentious accompaniments to a strong cup of cha. Granted it may be a little rough around the edges with a tendency to crumble at the slightest touch, but there’s just something very satisfying about the way it nonetheless conveys a sense of substance. An aura of wholesomeness, too, is a large part of the hobnob’s appeal. It must be something about the oats and the way they pack them…

Alfred, the Legend

While it may not score that highly on visual aesthetics, most consumers agree that this is a nice-tasting biscuit, despite looking like something King Alfred might have burned. Although its use isn’t recorded until the early seventeenth century, the word has at least one medieval association: in old Sarum (Salisbury for twenty-first-century readers) the hobnob was the name of the mischievous hobby-horse used to scatter the crowd before the giant in the Midsummer’s Day Procession. Contextually, to hobnob meant to give and take a blow in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, where the riotous Sir Toby uses it to describe the (imaginary) fights of the drunk and disorderly Sir Andrew. It isn’t until the next century it comes to mean socialising or chinking glasses with pals, perhaps because of its association with Shakespeare’s bon viveurs. 

Today, the idea of hobnobbing carries faintly disparaging allusions of social-climbing (‘hobnobbing with the top brass’), a shift of meaning that seems peculiar given the hobnob’s obvious lack of pretension. You might expect this sort of behaviour from a Ferrero Rocher, but a hobnob? It’s hard to imagine a biscuit less snobbish. Which brings me to the moral… St Paul in his letter to the Romans warns his church against this kind of elitism. This isn’t about bad versus good company per se, but all the other (spurious) ways in which we mentally divide people by class or culture or profession or social standing. The conclusion? ‘Do not be proud but be willing to associate with people of low position.’ If you don’t have any friends in ‘low’ places, you might just be hobnobbing with the wrong people.

Further Delectation

Try smuggling a hobnob into the Ambassador’s Reception, or maybe just enjoy one at home with Builders’ tea and Francis Bryan’s Dispraise of the Life of a Courtier if you’re sick of all this hobnobbing.

Impressed by Alfred’s cooking skills? Learn more about his legacy at the British Library’s Anglo Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (on till February 2019). Later medieval readers may wish to read more about hobnob and the Salisbury Giant.

Take in a view of hundreds of paper doves at Salisbury Cathedral, an installation by Michael Pendry to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the end of the First World War (photo credit: Howard Darvil). When the news of the Armistice reached the trenches many British soldiers reported they were ‘too far gone, too exhausted’ to enjoy it. One summed up the mood rather tellingly in remarking ‘There was nothing with which we could celebrate, except cookies.’


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The Rich Tea

The ‘richness’ of the Rich Tea Biscuit remains a mystery, howbeit great sages have  explained it thus: first, that it originates from the county of Yorkshire which is richly famed for its teas; second, it was associated with the wealthy, having been contrived as something for the upper crust to peck at between meals; third, the late lamented Sir Terence Wogan did once describe it as the Lord of Biscuits. Still, overall it does seem a tad… bland.

Nowadays the Rich Tea is less associated with the life of Riley and more with the life of, well, anybody who’s spent any time in Britain. Over the years I’d got into the habit of thinking of it as a standard, inoffensive, community filler of the biscuit world – the patron biscuit of mass catering on a budget – but having made myself eat three or four in succession to get the shot below I was surprised to find the experience pleasanter than anticipated (although I still can’t say I’m a major fan).

IMG_0146 (2)

Both its friends and foes agree that the Rich Tea is more palatable when dipped in a cup of cha and that there’s definitely an art to the dipping process; the Rich Tea is not a biscuit for amateur dunkers as there’s a high chance you’ll lose it if you dip it too long. There are parallels with the sacrament of baptism, but this species is pretty Anglican when it comes to full immersion (an honour reserved for non-conformists and ginger nuts).

And the moral of this biscuit? Just as the goodness of the Rich Tea is most apparent when you hold its feet in hot water, so there are some qualities in the spiritual armoury that only appear under pressure. Love can exist without hatred, but courage can’t exist without some degree of risk (‘grace under fire’, Hemingway called it). Forgiveness is perhaps the best and hardest of these, but endurance also counts for something. The silence of the medieval commentators is telling but I suspect it may well have been the Rich Tea Shakespeare’s Henry V was talking about when he said: ‘We would not seek this biscuit as we are, / Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it.’

Further Delectation

I’ve included a few pictures of the Rich Tea in its natural habitat (the one on the top left is from Alamby). If you don’t have access to a Country Pile combine your McVitie’s Rich Tea with even richer tea from Yorkshire and a mental romp through Blandings Castle.

Which of the following best describes your feelings towards the Rich Tea biscuit:

(1) ‘Rich Tea? Ooh, I don’t mind if I do…’ Try this master class on the art of dunking.

(2) ‘I’d rather eat my own eyeballs.’ This article will confirm your prejudices (although you might want to look away if you’re a fan of (i) Malted Milks; (ii) Britishness; (iii) Bristol).

(3) ‘Faute de mieux, dear hearts.’  Work up a stomach to the fight with Tom Hiddleston.

(4) ‘Eh?’ Have a look at these epic battles between knights and snails:


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