Speaking of pat answers, have you ever read an article on baking history that didn’t at some point say something like: (dessert X) was only for special occasions, since for most people butter, sugar and spices were rare and expensive and only eaten by the wealthy. It’s one of a handful of go-to phrases that food writers fall back on when they’re under deadline and need to fill space. Sure, in a lot of cases it’s true. However not in the case of shortbread, which has always been a poor person’s treat.
Shortbread is credited to the Scots, though certainly other herding societies came up with concoctions like it, since butter was such a regular part of their diets. The truth is that in the British Isles, northern Europe and Asia, butter was an extremely common thing — in the true sense of the word. And therein lay the rub when it came to the European nobility and butter. They detested it, for the simple reason that it was what those barbarous, smelly sheep, goat and a cow herding people ate. And they weren’t alone in their loathing of dairy-eating societies. The Chinese didn’t think too much of them, either.
This state of affairs persisted through the Middle Ages in Europe. In fact it wasn’t until Tudor times that butter began to acquire a bit of respectability, as an economic middle class began to develop and butter eaters began to move up in society. Still, no wonder shortbread was the province of the Scots for so long, those grubby, skirt-wearing savages of the North — they’ll eat anything! (Interestingly, as little as a hundred years ago, eastern elites in America thought the same thing about the Scots-Irish in Appalachia).
My, I’m self-referntial today. Anyway, it’s for these reasons that shortbread recipes don’t begin to occur in European cookery books until the Elizabethan era, though shortbread surely dates back much further. Oh, and if you were wondering, it was originally made with ground oats, not white flour, which would have been rarer, more expensive and eaten mostly by the wealthy.