The oldest variety of biscuit in Britain appears in the historical record just after the game start date.
The Aberffraw biscuit comes from Anglesey, that hothouse of Druidic magic, so what uses can it be put to in Ars Magica campaigns.
This biscuit was developed near the town which bears its name. In 1220, Aberffraw was the capital of one of the Welsh kingdoms. It is said that the queen was walking on the shore and found a scallop shell. The king ordered biscuits to be made that had the shape of the shell. That’s the simple version.
Let’s unpack that a little, though. The expert who was making these biscuits for the Great British Bake Off suggested that they are linked to the seashells bought home as souvenirs by pilgrims who followed the route to Compostella.
St James’s symbol is the scallop shell. Why this is the case is unclear. There are myths about him armouring a knight with scallop shells. The lines on the shell are said to represent the many paths taken by pilgrims to reach Compostella. Which edge of the shell represents Compostella is a matter of dispute.
There is a recipe for Abbrefraw biscuits which I’ve included, that was popularised by a cookbook. It’s not, according to the expert I watched, particularly close to the original recipe. I can believe that, because sugar was rare in medieval Wales. She also suggested that the original biscuits contained some semolina. This is coarse ground flour, which gave a grainy texture to remind the eater of beach sand. I’ve read an alternative which says it was coarse-ground wholemeal flour.
The Cassell recipe also doesn’t include pressing the dough into or against a scallop shell to make the final shape.
So, it’s a grainy shortbread biscuit shaped like a seashell. Let’s build some plot hooks.
Aberfrau Cakes.—Beat half a pound of butter to a cream with half a pound of granulated sugar ; mix in gradually half a pound of sifted flour ; turn the cake out on a floured pastry board, roll it to the thickness of quarter of an inch, cut it in rounds with a tin cutter, and score the tops in diamonds with a sharp knife ; put the cakes on a pan dusted with flour, and bake them fifteen minutes in a moderate oven.
– Casell’s Household Cookery (1909)
Despite the apparent similarity, madelines will not appear in Europe until the Eighteenth Century. There is a folkloric link, based around feeding pilgrims and the seashell shape.
There is a Welsh company that has started making these biscuits commercially. They watched the same TV show I did and decided to revive them.
They give a modern recipe at https://www.aberffrawbiscuits.com/aberffraw-biscuit-recipe
Note that it contains very fine flour (cornflour in the UK need not be made out of maize (American sweetcorn) which would make it even lighter than the Cassell version.
If you are hunting other recipes online, try calling them “Berffro” cakes. This is a local abbreviation for Aberffraw.
Some modern versions are a 321 shortbread (3 parts flour :2 part fat : 1 part sugar by weight). Mix, rest for 30 minutes, roll, cut, press in the design, bake for 8 -10 minutes. Cool slightly before you rack them. Finer sugar gives you less of a crunch: chunky sugar crystals could give you the sandy texture, either mixed in, or sprinkled on top.
I’ve seen some recopies that say you leave the biscuit in the shell while baking. I’d recommend you not do that.
So, to ramble for a minute: there used ot be this idea that Australian aborigines never fought wars with each other. That doesn’t seem likely, given the mention of battles in folklore ,and how good they were at guerrilla fighting once the Frontier Wars kicked off, but let that go. The reason given for this was that Aboriginal apirituality was tied to the land, and if you took another person’s country, you wouldn’t know the ways of honouring, appeasing, and avoiding the local spirits. Regardless of how true this was in Australia, it does present us with a mirrored issue in Anglesey.
When the Order rolls in and destroys the final holdout of Druids, or forces them to flee, the victors take over the druid lands. There must have been all kinds of weird rituals, and folk customs, where they weren’t sure what was important. These biscuits, for example. There’s a possibility that these are made to give the fertility of the land to the people of the sea, so that they don’t take it by force. There was an entire cantref in Cardiff Bay that was eaten by the sea. It’s be best of that not happen again.
As an alternative, the biscuits are kind of sacred to Saint James: they are even sometimes called “James cakes”. Might they be keeping something away, as a traditional ward?
Biscuits, as food for travellers, are a late invention. They only really take off, on a massive scale, when Britain gets railways, in part because the steam technology which drove the railway also drove the imperial expansion that allowed sugar to become cheap. That being noted, Redcaps aren’t idiots, and a muesli bar is just a cookie you eat outside. I can see the redcaps having specialist bakeries around the place, to guarantee resupply. When a baker go missing, a redcap needs help to work out what’s happened.