The Curious Cook

Ancient cravings

Digestive biscuits made with spelt flour. Served with local raspberry and pink peppercorn cream cheese from Fairview. Photo: Justus Wagener

Can you remember what was in Little Red Riding Hood’s basket? Well, most of us are just as distracted as she was by the flowers she stopped to pick along the way. And what with the looming presence of the Big Bad Wolf, who can blame us? But you may recall that Grandmother was ailing so her granddaughter was bringing her the perfect fortifying food – wine and cake.

Because this is a fairy tale everything is stripped down to its essentials. So I never imagine a cake with pink icing or a full-bodied shiraz. More like the essence of wine and cake – moist, brown and satisfactorily plain. The wine would be a sweet, fortified version, the alcoholic content forgotten. This is wine and cake that children can (and probably did) eat.

In the version of Hansel and Gretel I read as a child, after gorging themselves on the gingerbread house, the wicked witch invites then in for pancakes, milk and apples. This comforting combination always seemed to me rather welcome after the overindulgence of heavily spiced cake, rich chocolate and windowpanes of hard, clear sugar. This primal connection to food is underscored in the stories we read as children: the household tales (from the German hausmärchen) are a direct extension of our nursery fare, as timeless as the picnic the Famous Five enjoy with their bottled lemonade.

Yet the fairy tale I most associate with food is Rapunzel. A lonely couple long for a child. They live next door to a walled garden belonging to an evil witch named Dame Gothel. Unbeknown to them, she is also longing for a child but is long past childbearing age. The expectant mother has deep, irrational cravings and notices some rapunzel (believed to be nutrient-rich rampion), growing in the garden and longs for it. She refuses to eat and starts to waste away.

One interpretation is that she actually wishes to get rid of the child, with the connection to the witch being that of midwife. Fearing for her life, her husband breaks into the garden at night and picks some of the delicious greenery (which I always imagined tasted like pungent watercress).

Rapunzel’s mother makes a salad from it and devours it, her longing for life, and the life of her baby, restored. It tastes so good that she longs for more. And thus begins a tale of the perils of the obsessive mother figure and how the love of a partner can heal these wounds.

So what cakes would I make for Little Red Cap and her Grandmamma? I would choose an ancient grain such as spelt. Indeed, it does go way back as spelt is referred to in Dante’s Divine Comedy and in the Bible. But it was first mentioned in Satire (written by Horace around 30 years B.C). The epic text ends with a simple allegory: the tale of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. The country mouse eats a little meal of spelt grains for dinner while serving his city guest all the rich and finer foods. It is this simplicity that is in keeping with the food of fairy tales.

Once you have baked with spelt, you will get what I’m on about. In this recipe for digestive biscuits, adapted from The River Cottage Cook Book, spelt is used instead of wheat to create an especially moreish, comfortingly sandy texture.  Enriched with butter and just the right amount of sweetness, it’s a cross between a sweet cookie and an oat-cake. You can even serve it with cheese. And some wine… of course!

Moreish wholemeal spelt biscuits. On a Johnson Bros “Cherry Trees” plate dating from the 1950s. Photo: Justus Wagener


River Cottage digestive biscuits

400g wholemeal spelt flour

200g medium oats

25g unsalted butter, softened

75-120g soft brown sugar (depending on how sweet you like them)

2 tsp fine salt

2 tsp baking powder

1 T milk

Pulse the flour and butter together in a food processor until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs/ Alternatively, rub the butter and flour together with your fingertips in a large bowl. Add the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder and mix together with your hands, adding a little milk a few drops at a time until everything comes together into a slightly sticky dough.

Dust with more flour, then press into a disc about 25cm in diameter. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes, to rest and firm up a bit. The dough will keep well in the fridge for a few days. Remove it from the fridge approximately an hour before you want to roll it out, as it will become very hard.

Dust the dough with flour and roll it out carefully, dusting regularly with more flour to stop it sticking, until it is about 3 to 4mm thick. As it is quite sticky and brittle, you may find it easier to roll between two sheets of greaseproof paper or cling film, also dusted with flour.

Cut out the biscuits with a round cookie cutter and use a spatula to transfer them to non-stick baking sheets or ordinary baking sheets lined with baking parchment. Place in an oven preheated to 180°C and bake for 5-10 minutes, checking regularly after the first 5 minutes. They should be golden brown around the edges and lightly coloured on top.

Remove from the oven and leave the biscuits to cool and firm up on the baking sheet for a few minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.

2 thoughts on “Ancient cravings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s