We are all familiar with shortbread… it is eaten all over the world. It’s a simple good-natured foodstuff.
Made from butter, sugar and flour it doesn’t even mind how it is mixed. The butter and flour can be delicately rubbed together with fingers before the sugar is added, it can be rudely food processed or the butter and sugar can be beaten together and the flour added to the creamed mixture. All those methods will make a solid lump to knead, press and mould into a baking pan before baking in a medium oven for about 12 minutes. They should be cooked but not at all brown.
So far so easy but what about it’s mystery name? We know a biscuit is baked, flat, crisp and usually sweet not short or bread-like. What is short about shortbread and why is it nothing like bread? It makes no sense.
‘Ah ha’ we might say to each other, ‘Isn’t it in language that we find out things about our history? Yes, because language has a long memory. Maybe if we travel back in time together we could work out why short bread came to be given such a strange name.
Lets go. Swoooooosh.
It is around seven hundred years ago. We are in a kitchen by a hearth. There are two children watching their mother baking. It is smoky and there isn’t a table. She has been making bread in a clay bowl balanced on her knees. You can smell baking. She has some of the mix left over and seeing her children’s hungry little faces she rolls it in some crushed hazlenuts some caraway seeds and adds some honey. When the loaves come out she puts it in the oven and it’s left until the embers die down. We wait an hour… (time travel is hard work sometimes). When it is taken out of the oven we can see it has become a crisp rusk like snack… Dunked into milk her children love it.
This is how the first biscuits came to be and they became known as Biscuit bread, from the French word bis-quite meaning twice baked or the latin bis coctus meaning twice cooked. (You may be more familiar with the term Cookie from the German word Kuchen meaning cake…. Can you hear the cooking word there again?)
Various versions of this cookie/biscuit/snack were eaten all around England and Scotland.
If we move on a few generations we can see the biscuit part of the name travelling across the world to America with the early settlers. Well it didn’t exactly travel with them but in their memories of home, in their hearts and in their recipe books. It stayed there in the southern states as a scone type of bread to be eaten with gravy or stew. Biscuit also went off to adventure with the British Navy where it was baked into hard tack and fed to the ships crew as ships biscuit. Back in Scotland butter was being added to the biscuit bread recipe. Butter in baking is called ‘shortening’ because it makes bread and pastry crumbly, less able to stretch. This twice-baked sweet bread with butter became known as short biscuit bread. That was a bit of a mouthfull, so it was shortened to short bread.
This version is the one we know today, one part sugar, two parts butter and three parts flour. It was making itself very much at home in Scotland by the 16th century. We know Mary Queen of Scots was fond of it in the fifteen hundreds. At that time it was baked into triangle shapes called petticoat tails referring to the shape of the patterns used to make the hooped under skirts of the ladies at the court of Queen Mary.
You might be surprised to learn that short bread was a rich persons food. Although Scotland grew oats for flour and there were dairy cows there most people couldn’t afford butter and sugar with fine flour all the time. It was saved for special occasions like weddings and New Year. When foods are used in celebrations they can start to work their way into the active part of the occasion. For instance in the Shetland Islands shortbread was broken over the heads of a newly married couple. If the shortbread broke into pieces it meant good luck. In Scotland a bride might break a piece of shortbread when she crossed the threshold of her marital home for the first time.
Culture is built around food, celebrations, language and stories. When people take part in familiar rituals they feel an increased sense of identity and belonging. If we feel we belong somewhere, to someone then we know we are at the a warm cultural hearth at the heart of something.
Believe it or not those two words: hearth and heart are linked. The Greek work for hearth is cardia which means heart. While you are digesting that let’s travel back to today to the Kalamazoo supermarket. How many different types of biscuits or cookies can you see? Dried fruit, chocolate, lemon and orange flavours and ginger iced or sandwiched with sugary cream. Hundreds. The shortbread is nothing special is it? It’s just three ingredients, sugar, butter and flour in the proportions of one two three.
Somehow though it has retained its significance.
The Walkers shortbread company is still exporting countless tons of it around the world. Perhaps for the 34 countries in the Scottish diaspora it is a reminder of home. Some of us still send it at Christmas time as a present. Tourists who visit Scotland still buy pretty tins of shortbread as a reminder of their time there. You could say it has moved from being a snack to becoming part of the Scottish culture and transforming into to becoming a commodity. With highland cows and a mountain on the front and a tartan ribbon it has all the romantic associations that say ‘Hey, I was in this strange place called Scotland’, and doesn’t that take the biscuit… or here in America you would say it takes the cake.