Greek Olive Oil Biskota

A few weeks ago I went to see the new Alexander the Great exhibition at the British Library with my friend Malcolm, a very knowledgeable commentator on the Macedonian king (you can listen to his potted history of him here). As readers may know, he was celebrated in medieval Europe as one of the Nine Worthies – sort of the medieval equivalent of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – and apocryphal stories about him during this period were popular. In fact, the landing page of the Bestiary features a scene from a high-end manuscript of The Alexander Romance in the BL, an adventure story in which Alexander and his cat explore the bottom of the ocean…

Detail from BL Royal MS 20 B XX

Worthy as the Alexander exhibition was, I was even more interested to find these Greek Olive Oil biscuits in the gift shop. As you’ll see from the packaging, the transliteration of the Greek word for biscuits is biskota: a fact I expect to come in useful if I visit Greece again, as I hope I will. This recipe developed by Thessalonian company Petits Grecs hails from Crete and incorporates Arabic influences in the Tahini. For anyone on a dairy free diet they’re also dairy free.

The relationship of Hellenic to Hebraic Culture could be antagonistic when it threatened the survival of Jewish beliefs, but it was also the Greek language and literary culture – widely disseminated in the ancient world as a result of Alexander’s conquests – which became the vehicle for introducing the Bible to a wider readership before Christ’s birth and the language used to write the earliest accounts of his life. We know St Paul visited Athens, debating with the philosophers there and quoting a Cretan poet’s words that in God we all live, and move, and have our being. Like many other educated Jews of his day he was well-versed in Greek literature and philosophy, and wanted to show that there could be some common ground between Jews and Gentiles in their quest for truth about heavenly things.

So you’ll forgive me if I got a little excited about these Greek biscuits, and still more by their association with olive oil (or liquid gold as the Greeks still call it). A key resource in the ancient world, you’ll find it referenced again and again in the bible where it is used for cooking and lighting and cleaning wounds. When mixed with a special combination of spices it was also used to anoint the kings and priests of Israel as a sign of their being set apart for God. The Bible and apocrypha both contain stories in which oil is miraculously provided: it never runs out for Elijah’s widow in a season of famine and it stretches for an extra seven days to keep the Menorah in the temple burning in the Maccabees’ time.

I was expecting these biscuits to be a little greasy given the oil component but in fact they’re a pleasing combination of dry and chewy. There’s also a palpable hit of orange which is a good Christmassy flavour – even if it is Advent, it’s open season on mince pies. I must admit to a little disappointment on finding there were just five biscuits in the box however, making them even more expensive than Fortnum and Mason’s Chocolate Pearls of Great Price

On reflection I wondered whether Petits Grecs hadn’t served me this biscuit’s moral on a plate though. Given the five biscuits and the olive oil, wasn’t it the perfect set-up for Jesus’s Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, a story commonly told in Advent to encourage his followers to watch and wait for his return? Oil plays a crucial part in this story because it is only the five wise bridesmaids who have laid up a good stock of it who are ready to join the bridegroom – an allegory here for Jesus himself – when he returns to fetch them for the wedding feast while the five who have to go and buy some are left outside. (You can read the full story here if you like.)

Detail from the 6th century Rossano gospels

Meditation is one of the disciplines of the spiritual life and Jesus’s stories especially invite meditation. I’m convinced one of the reasons that he used them so much is because it provoked his listeners to take an active approach to mining meaning, allowing it to travel from the head to the heart. Meditating on this story this Advent leaves me with more questions than answers: what does it mean to know the bridegroom and what does this oil signify, if it’s so vital to keep a supply of it ready all the time?

Further Delectation

Read a little more on Alexander’s Mythical Adventures from the British Library blog.

Read a little more on the ancient history of Olive Oil.

One of many beautiful Anglo-Saxon meditations on Advent from the Clerk of Oxford – this one focuses on the Trinity, appropriate for the Greek Orthodox church as well who have a special focus on it.

British Orthodox composer John Tavener’s stunning choral piece The Bridegroom seems particularly fitting for this Advent post. Here it is juxtaposed with some rather haunting images from YouTuber Marcin Markowicz:

If you would like to keep this bestiary free from ads and see more entries more regularly you are welcome to contribute to the Biscuit Jar.

The Humble Digestive

1930s McVitie’s advert

Sweet, wholesome, and amiable, the digestive is nothing if not well-rounded in character. Durable too with its Scottish roots, it’s successfully transitioned from a poster boy of the industrial revolution to tea-time staple. These days you rarely see digestives thrust into the limelight yet in a time of crisis few sights are more reassuring. It’s one of the first things you offer anyone in a state of shock, being right up there with other life essentials like tea, blood and oxygen.

As with most heroes of the bestiary, the digestive is renowned for its medicinal qualities and folk legends abound with tales of sudden miraculous recoveries attributed to its invigorating powers. In medieval tradition, a special place is reserved for St Timothy’s Biscuit. After St Paul advised the younger man to drink a little wine for his stomach trouble, it was only a hop, skip and jump to luxury cheese. This seems to be the explanation for the otherwise puzzling reference in Chaucer’s The Camembert’s Tale: ‘some bisquite take yow, by St Timothee / For shame yt is such cheses should go fre’.


Of late the free-flow of digestives through these isles has led some to assert that this is the most popular biscuit in our history: a claim that is the less astonishing when you consider the role of the digestive as the natural companion of cheese and chocolate. Like a  faithful friend, this modest soul is never happier than when promoting the excellence of others. If it has any lesson to teach us it’s that humility has its pleasures and one of them may be making opportunities for others to shine.

Further Delectation

Read this charming post on the digestive’s history or watch this digest of Victorian biscuit mania first screened on The Great British Bake Off.

Try these ingenious recipes including passionfruit meringue and other biscuity trifles.

Been redirected here from the fourteenth century? You may wish to pair your cheese and wafers with some spiced Ypocras.

Has a digestive saved your life? Send a message of thanks to McVitie’s as they need cheering up right now.

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