Frumenty is a sort of porridge usually made from cracked wheat. I first came across it in Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, where the future mayor sells his wife and child while intoxicated from eating frumenty mixed with rum at a country fair.
The Many Varieties of Frumenty
Frumenty (also spelt fermenty or furmity) is known from medieval times as a peasant staple eaten morning and night and mixed with vegetables (if you were lucky). But it was also served at banquets for the nobility as a plain dish to divide one course from another. Or with meat, typically venison.
It could also be served as a more luxurious dish for special occasions, with currants, almonds, sugar, spices, saffron, eggs and orange flower water. Here it might be a festival dish on the Christian twelfth night (5 January), or served on Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent when servants were given time off to visit their mothers. During the period of Lent, when the faithful replicated the 40 days spent in the desert by Jesus Christ, luxuries like cows milk in frumenty might be swapped for almond milk, and on no-meat days, porpoise or beaver tail substituted (as they were considered fish).
Frumenty in New Zealand
I have yet to come across an eatery that serves frumenty, so I have no reviews. However, it seems that it was served in New Zealand in the eighteenth century! In a journal entry of 23 September 1769 about the food on board James Cook’s Endeavour, Joseph Banks wrote this review:
Wheat was allowed to the ships company which has been boild for their breakfasts 2 or 3 times a week in the same manner as firmity is made: this has I believe been a very usefull refreshment to them as well as an agreeable food, which myself and most of the officers have constantly breakfasted upon in the cold weather.
Here is an often quoted recipe in The Forme of Cury by the chief cooks to King Richard II, c.1390:
To make frumente. Tak clene whete & braye yt wel in a morter tyl the holes gon of; seethe it til it breste in water. Nym it up & lat it cole. Tak good broth & swete mylk of kyn or of almand & tempere it therwith. Nym yelkes of eyren rawe & saffroun & cast therto; salt it: lat it naught boyle after the etren ben cast therinne. Messe it forth.
kyn: cow; braye: grind; eyren: eggs; messe: serve
Typical recipes include parboiling or soaking the grains in water first and then draining and boiling again with milk or almond milk to thicken them up. An egg yolk might be added, as well as the currants, spices (cinnamon, saffron or mace) and almonds mentioned above. Bulgur wheat, barley or cracked rye can be used instead of wheat. Indeed, one authority suggests that wheat only became available in rural areas, especially in the north, in the nineteenth century.
Ale can be used to boil the grain instead of milk. Cream is another possible addition to make it richer, as is any sort of dried fruit. And rum, brandy or sherry are very optional extras. Or you can soak the dried fruit in these prior.
Because eateries rarely serve the dish you’ll have make your own. Here is my recipe that doesn’t stray too far from at least one of the early versions:
For two servings, take 6 heaped dessert spoonfuls of cracked wheat. Place in a pot and add one and a quarter cups of almond milk. Bring to the boil, then let stand for a few hours or overnight. This enables the next cooking phase to be relatively short. Add two heaped dessert spoonfuls of dried currants or other dried fruit and boil the mixture for 15 mins or so on a low heat, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Add vanilla essence or paste at some stage. I don’t think egg yolk adds much, but if you do want to drop one in make sure the mix is no longer boiling and don’t boil it further.
Serve with a sprinkling of almond flakes on top and optionally a drizzle of cream and/or spirits (try crème de cassis). Another option is cinnamon mixed in while boiling. Sunflower seeds could be an idea too, though I haven’t tried this. How much almond milk you add depends on how liquid you want your frumenty. Eat it hot or cold.