A Tin of Biscuits: Petit Beurres in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929)

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England has been swept by a real heat wave in the last couple of weeks; today, it seems like autumn is finally settling in – the sky has taken grey tinges, the trees are putting up their best colours, and one feels the need of putting an extra layer of clothes on, and using the oven. Today’s recipe comes from France, but is somehow linked to an Irish novel and an Irish author who has recently re-gained her popularity after a period of neglection: Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973).

Over the summer, I (Nico) have been re-thinking my Irish culinary experiences as one of my students asked for my advice on how to best render ‘Kimberley biscuits’ mentioned in an Irish short story for an Italian audience. We soon started discussing the context where the reference to the biscuits was to be found. Were those biscuits essential to the story? In other words, would a non-Irish audience need to realize what kind of biscuits they are, or they could be effectively any kind of biscuits and the story would work anyway? When it comes to food and translating literature, I am always somehow reticent to let the reference go in the target text; especially as, after a quick Google search, it turns out that Kimberley biscuits are a typically Irish biscuit, produced by Jacob’s, comprising two variants, one with two gingery layers enclosing a marshmallow centre and a chocolate-covered one. I was surprised to hear that, as having lived in Ireland (and being a huge biscuit lover – I may say no to chocolate cake but I would never say no to a good biscuit) I had never come across those before, and so I have never tried them. Inevitably, we decided that the reference to those biscuits had to stay, as it appeared to pertain specifically to Irish culture and cooking.

Going back nearly a hundred years, I was intrigued to find a reference to French biscuits in Bowen’s The Last September (1929). As if using a magnifying lens, the novel looks in detail at the decline of a “big house” in early 1920s South of Ireland, something which Bowen would have known herself as she belonged to an upper-class Anglo-Irish family from co. Cork: the idiosyncrasies of the English visiting Ireland for the Irish themselves; the uncertain times before Irish independence; the social pretences and snobberies of the Irish upper class; finally, the story of Lois, a young Irish woman coming of age and making (or, in fact, letting other make) important decisions regarding her future and her love life. Lois, half-engaged with Gerald, a union which is strongly opposed by her family, ultimately turns him down under her aunt’s pressure, with surprisingly (at least, for me) little resentment. The expectation of her family is that she should educate herself, rather than marry so early (and someone of an inferior social class), go to an art school, and learn foreign languages. She is all affectation and confusion: Gerald, throughout the novel, is unable to really understand her feelings for him, something which often stirs Lois’ irritation.

Towards the end of the novel, just before we learn of Gerald’s death, two lady friends of his pay a visit to Lois and her family after their “break-up”. Lois seems not to want to engage with these ladies, and so finds excuses not to let them into the house. Ultimately, though, so as not to result too inhospitable, she goes in and fetches a tin of biscuits:

 

‘It’s locked and I’ve lost the key. I feel quite an outcast. That’s what has been the matter the whole morning. Do have something to eat – have some biscuits?’

‘Unless we just come into the drawing-room for one moment?’

‘I always think drawing-rooms in the morning are so depressing.’

Denise said she did not see how the same room could be much different, but it was no good; Lois seemed determined to keep them out. From the way she shifted her feet and stared round, you would have said she was expecting bad news momentarily: she talked so much that they hadn’t a chance to express themselves. She went in for a tin of petit beurres and offered it with an odd air, rather propitiatory. Lady Naylor called from an upstairs window that this was too bad, that she was so much distressed, she would be down immediately. ‘She spends whole mornings with the cook,’ said Lois. ‘I cannot think what they do. I believe they fence verbally. More biscuits?’

‘No, we shall spoil our din-dins. Denise, we must come. […] Any messages in Clonmore, Lois? Any message to Gerald?’  (p. 197)

 

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For some reason, I find this scene rather odd: the two ladies visiting unexpectedly (a very bad manner typical of the English in Ireland, apparently), Lois refusing to even let them into the drawing room as it is too “depressing”, the general sense of the end of summer (they are not sure when they’ll play tennis anymore, and English tourists and visitors are returning to England), and the tin of biscuits – which have to be petit beurres – and not butter biscuits or shortbread. Petit beurres are French butter biscuits still produced today and with a long baking history, as they were first produced by Jean-Romain Lefèvre and his wife Pauline-Isabelle Utile in their patisserie called “biscuit factory” (“La fabrique de biscuits”) in Nantes in 1846, which would later become the famous French industry LU (from the two initials of their surnames). The biscuits were supposed to represent, with their rectangular yet curvy shape, the 4 seasons (with their 4 sides), the 52 weeks of the year (with their 52 dents), and the 24 hours in a day (with their 24 holes). The petit beurres then gained steady popularity by the end of the nineteenth century and are still very popular today. In 1897, famous actress of the time Sarah Bernhardt is said to have declared: “What is better than one Petit Beurre LU? Two Petit Beurres LU”. These words sounded already almost as a modern advertisement for the biscuits, and somehow testify their incredible popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, up to today. Their appearance in the Irish big house of the Naylors should perhaps be no wonder, as French biscuits would have been considered as the heights of sophistication (unlike current Kimberley biscuits today perhaps). The big house may be in decline in its failed hospitality and reception of guests, but the standard of the biscuits provided is far from crumbling.

 

Reference

Elizabeth Bowen. The Last September. London: Vintage Books, 2008.

‘LU: la grande histoire du petit beurre’, Le Parisien http://www.leparisien.fr/economie/business/en-images-lu-la-grande-histoire-du-petit-beurre-22-02-2016-5566485.php .

 

Recipe

 

Ingredients

80gr unsalted butter

200gr plain, white flour (or a mixture of plain and strong white flour)

80gr white sugar

2gr baking powder

50ml whole milk

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Directions

  1. Place the butter, milk, and sugar in a saucepan and melt slowly on a low heat stirring with a wooden spoon until all melted and smooth.
  2. Let the melted butter, milk, and sugar cool.
  3. Sieve flour and baking powder in a bowl, and add the melted batter to the dry ingredients. Stir until you get a smooth and homogeneous dough.
  4. Take the dough out of your bowl and place on a surface dusted with flour. Knead quickly and shape into a ball.
  5. Cover your dough with cling film and place it in the fridge to set for at least four hours. Because the dough is (as you’ll see) is rather soft, it needs some time to set in the fridge.
  6. Take the dough out of the fridge, knead and lay out on a dusted surface and roll it out so that it is roughly 3-4 millimetres high. Ideally, you would have a typical petit beurre rectangular cutter to cut your biscuits with, but any other shape is also fine. (I didn’t have that either, so I went for an oval-shaped cutter)
  7. Move your cut-out dough onto a baking tray previously lined with paper and put them again back in the fridge – this time for one hour only.
  8. The biscuits are now ready to go in the oven, at 160°C for 12 minutes (or fan 140°C for 6-8 minutes). Be careful they don’t get too brown on the outside – only the borders should become golden.
  9. Once baked, let the biscuits cool down and they are ready to eat! You can keep them in a tin for up to 5 days.
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