Shortbread: Rab McNeil’s Scottish Icons

THERE’S more to shortbread than meets the mouth. Did you know, for example, that it’s a tax dodge? Stick with us as we delve into this mysterious world of butter and sugar, with a wee dollop of Mary, Queen of Scots, added for good measure.

Here’s a funny thing. Before embarking on several years of research for this article, I had never considered the significance of the word “short” in shortbread. Come to think of it, I’d never really noticed the word “bread” in it either. Bread? It’s not bread. Don’t let anyone tell you that. Except your accountant.

I don’t want to stir up unnecessary controversy, but shortbread is surely a biscuit. You wouldn’t put a slice of ham on it, would you? Oh, you would, madam? Yes, but you’re already on your third Malibu before lunchtime.

So, where does the bread bit come from? Well, bakers classified it as bread to avoid paying the tax on biscuits. There was – is? – a tax on biscuits? Holy moly. Apparently, shortbread has been taxable as a baked good rather than a common or garden biscuit. Technically, I think there’s some logic in this, but I’m not going to go into it any further as, like nearly everything, it’s above my pay grade.

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Meanwhile, like any good academic, we should spend a boring bit at the start defining our terms. What do we mean by “terms”? Only joking, let’s cut to the chase and define our subject. I’ve several excellent dictionaries on my bookshelves but, as I can’t be bothered reaching up for them, let’s go online.

Here’s Merriam-Webster: “a thick cookie made of flour, sugar, and a large amount of ‘shortening’”. A cookie? Unhand me, madam! This must be American. And what do they mean by “shortening”? As a noun, it’s apparently “an edible fat used to shorten baked goods”. So, without it, we’d have longbread?

The Cambridge Dictionary describes “a type of sweet biscuit that contains a lot of sugar”. Sweet Jesus, we knew that. Let’s go to Oxford and the renowned OED: “An article of food” – with you so far – “in the form of flat (usually round) cakes, the essential ingredients of which are flour, butter, sugar, mixed in such proportions as to make the cake ‘short’ when baked.”

Well, that about nails it, I guess. Wikipedia warns that it’s “not to be confused with shortcake or shortcrust pastry”. Hell, no. That’s a whole new ball game. One thing we can claim for sure: it’s unambiguously Scottish. For once, no one is trying to claim it for the Romans, Egyptians, English, Vikings or Chinese. Voice at the back: “Well, actually …” Shut up. This is ours. Something to be proud of. A fatty repast.

Accordingly, we refer to the English Tea Store website, which says shortbread may have been made in Scotland as early as the 12th century, before being finessed into something like its current form by that Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), possibly due to her old links with French pastry chefs.

Mary’s shortbread was flavoured with caraway seeds – caraway? Gerraway! – and shaped into triangles like women’s petticoats of the time. I’m no expert, but that sounds like pants. There’s some suggestion the “petticoat” appellation came from “petits cotés”, a pointed French biscuit eaten with wine, but I’m not going to get into all that etymological malarkey.

At any rate, nowadays, shortbread comes in several shapes, including the aforementioned triangles, but also circles, hearts and slabs cut into fingers. It’s said that, in the right old days, bakers cut into the edges of round-shaped shortbread to suggest the rays of the sun. Though the thesis lacks scientific verification, shortbread supposedly had magic powers over the sun during Hogmanay in Scotland. It’s not clear what they were meant to do with these powers. Make the sun boonce aboot?

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Hogmanay is when most shortbread is eaten in Scotland, so it might be an old tradition, right enough. Black bun is also eaten, but only under duress, being frequently binned when one’s host isn’t looking.

Another time shortbread comes into play, according to anthropologists, is in some parts of northern Scotland, where an appropriately decorated version is broken over a bride’s heid before she enters her new home. Aw, and she’s just had her hair done tae. Shortbread was also often given as a gift. Aye right, thanks.

An early written reference to shortbread can be found in 1597 when, according to James Paterson’s History of the Counties of Ayr and Wigtoun, it was enacted that “short-bread should not have less than half ane pund of butter to the peck”.

It’s also recorded in a book of words that a variety of shortbread using ginger was doled out to members of the old Scottish Parliament, probably to soak up the vast amounts of sherry consumed prior to making cookie legislation (Ye Monie Genderes Act, 1642).

In a surprise development, these biscuits were called “Parlies”, a name that was still around for them in the 19th century. They were reportedly sold as such in the grocer shop and tavern run by a woman known as Luckie Fykie in Bristo Street, Edinburgh. She’s thought to have been the inspiration for Mrs Flockhart, a landlady in Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, which are still read today by between two and three people.

This being Scottish, and also arguably food, it can’t be long before some smart-bottom pipes up: “Do you fry them then, Jock?” Not to my knowledge, Percy. But I hope I haven’t put ideas into anyone’s head. Indeed, checking on that Google, I find a reference to fried shortbread in yonder Rhineland, so take it up with the Germans, or wherever it is.

You won’t be surprised to learn that there’s a National Shortbread Day, celebrated worldwide by nobody, on 6 January, which sounds a bit too close to Hogmanay for second helpings.

That said, shortbread is rather moreish, with many gourmands liking nothing better than to dunk it in their tea. Yummy!

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992