Saturday, August 3, 2013

Fun Fact Saturday: The History of Scottish Shortbread

Saturdays are for fun and random facts that I've uncovered through my research. Today I'm throwing the spotlight on the history of Scottish shortbread.


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At teatime, you may well find no better match for your brew than the appealingly plain, sweet, buttery cookie known as shortbread—a confection with simple charms but a rich history. Since medieval times the term short has been used to describe all things crisp and crumbly, but it wasn't applied to cake and bread until the 1600's, when it came to refer to baked good that contained a lot of butter or shortening. 

Scottish cookery has always differed from culinary endeavors south of the Border. The Romans influenced English cooking but they did not venture far into Scotland, historically Scottish cuisine developed slowly. Scottish cooking methods advanced through the influence of the French at the court of Mary, Queen of Scots and later through the elaborate dishes served to English lords with Scottish estates. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert acquired Balmoral in the 19th century and whilst they brought with them the rich food of the English court, they also liked to serve traditional Scottish dishes to important visitors. Queen Victoria liked her shortbread seasoned with salt.

The story of shortbread begins with the medieval biscuit bread. Any leftover dough from bread making was dried out in a low oven until it hardened into a type of rusk: the word biscuit means twice cooked. Gradually the yeast in the bread was replaced by butter, and biscuit bread developed into shortbread.

Shortbread was an expensive luxury and for ordinary people, shortbread was a special treat reserved just for special occasions such as weddings, Christmas and Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year's Eve. In Shetland it was traditional to break a decorated shortbread cake over the head of a new bride on the threshold of her new home. The custom of eating shortbread at Hogmanay has its origins in the ancient pagan Yule cakes which symbolized the sun. In Scotland it is still traditionally offered to first footers at Hogmanay.

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Shortbread has been attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots, who in the mid-16th century was said to be very fond of Petticoat Tails, a thin, crisp, buttery shortbread originally flavored with caraway seeds. There are two theories regarding the name of these biscuits. It has been suggested that the name Petticoat Tail may be a corruption of the French petites gatelles (little cakes). However these traditional Scottish shortbread biscuits may in fact date back beyond the 12th century. The triangles fit together into a circle and echo the shape of the pieces of fabric used to make a full-gored petticoat during the reign of Elizabeth I. The theory here is that the name may have come from the word for a pattern which was tally, and so the biscuits became known as Petticoat Tallis

Shortbread is traditionally formed into one of three shapes: one large circle divided into segments (Petticoat Tails); individual round biscuits (Shortbread Rounds); or a thick rectangular slab cut into fingers.Today shortbread is a popular souvenir from Scotland. As well as plain shortbread, shortbread containing fruit, nuts and chocolate is now available, beautifully gift-wrapped in tartan boxes.

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