Tuesday, November 22, 2005

In Brechin, Where The Berries Were Plump And The Budgerigars Were Supersonic, Pleasure Was A Warm Heckly Biscuit

Several concerned readers, on digesting my "blogger profile", have written to ask about heckly biscuits. It is, I think, a sad fact of modern life that, though our High Streets are filled with restaurants from China, from Thailand, and from India, local delicacies are dying out. As a devotee of the Aberdonian buttery (a flat Frisbee made of pastry and lard) I find it baffling that our supermarkets are full, instead, of croissants, a breakfast roll from Turkey via France.
But at least it is still possible to find a buttery in Aberdeen. The heckly, a presbyterian treat (and thus a contradiction in terms) has all but disappeared. Several times last summer I took the Dormobile on safari into the North East - the natural habitat of the heckly - and returned empty-handed.
What, then, is a heckly? Well, A Heckly is the author of Epidural Hematoma as a Complication of Endoscopic Biopsy and Shunt Placement in a Patient Harboring a Third Ventricle, a paper in the bestselling journal Pediatric Neurosurgery. But that is not particularly helpful unless you are having trouble with your ventricles, which I am not, now that I have started wearing Wonderpants.
You will, recall, I'm sure, that M. Proust once wrote of a winter visit to see his mother. He was out of sorts, and was offered tea. Reluctantly, he accepted. His mother produced a "petite madeleine", a "plump little cake" which looked as if it had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell.
"And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal."
M. Proust over-writes a little, but the general thrust of his prose is good. A heckly is a reminder of my childhood trips to Angus, where the berries were fat, the jam was sweet, and nothing ever happened for a whole summer.
Before they colonised Peebles, the Elders lived in Brechin and Montrose, towns in which the depressing morrow was greeted like a bank holiday. They were kind, sweet-toothed folk, but suspicious of pleasure. They rode bicycles and raced budgerigars for sport. They were happy.
And when they were happiest, my grandmother, Mrs Elder (or Grandma'am), would make tea in the stewing kettle and fetch into her pinnie for hecklies, warmed from the hot cotton of her voluminous combinations.
I ate of lot of hecklies in Angus, and a great many Simmer's Butter Biscuits, and the thought of them makes me hopeful in a way that little else does.
I have teased long enough. A heckly is made of flour and the tears of the baker. It is a melancholy biscuit, a treat almost without pleasure. It is flaky, and slightly sour, tasting faintly of salt. You can eat it with butter, but to do so is to dabble with decadence. The true heckly eater takes it plain, with milky tea (stewed and boiled for no less than 45 minutes).
The name of the biscuit is something of a mystery, though I have heard suggestions that it is derived from the pattern of holes indented on the top of the biscuit with a "hackle", similar to the comb used in the manufacture of jute. It is possible to buy something called a "sweet heckly", but not advisable, unless one is licensed for public dancing.


dearieme said...

The Aberdeen buttery is one of the greatest native British comestibles.Beyond debate.

Tom Morton said...

....and Aitkens rowies are the best in the city. Despite each containing, allegedly, as much fat as a fish supper...

Anonymous said...

An odd post, though strangely compelling. The more traditional of the ancient Romans used to complain similarly that their foodstuff had become suspiciously foreign, and then their empire collapsed, if it is any consolation.

Learson said...

Much of the Roman Empire's collapse was due to the fact that there were not sufficient numbers of Romans. There was of course a large number of foreigners - a situation not dissimilar to that of contemporary London.

The Pedant-General said...

An over-abundance of foreigners is not an affliction likely to trouble the great Cathedral city of Brechin any time soon.


Anonymous said...

What is the difference between a rowie and a buttery? The lingo of bakers in Aberdeen is quite baffling. I once asked for six rolls and was asked if I meant softies? I assumed it was an insult, and almost challenged the baker to a duel.